Harminda looked at her watch and then at the traffic outside. The airport was 10 kilometres away and it was already 5.15 p.m.
'Isn't there a quicker way to get to the airport? My plane leaves in less than two hours,' she asked the taxi driver.
'Are you going home for Christmas?' he smiled. The taxi was full of decorations; there was green tinsel on the steering wheel and mistletoe under the mirror.
'Yes...' said Harminda. But there was no Christmas spirit in her voice.
Harminda looked out of the window, trying not to cry. She remembered the phone call from her Mum earlier that day. She missed her parents so much.
Their argument, four years ago, seemed stupid now. Thirty minutes later, they arrived at Galway airport.
'How much is it?' she asked.
'Fifteen euros for you, sweetheart,' said the taxi driver with a smile.
Harminda gave him a twenty-euro note and got quickly out of the taxi.
'Don't forget your change...' shouted the taxi driver, with a five-euro note in his hand, but Harminda was already inside the airport terminal.
There were a lot of people, and Harminda pushed through the crowd to look at the screens for her flight...
'Cancelled? Stay calm and read it again, slowly. You've read it wrong, that's all,' she thought.
'Flight ZXY 247… destination, London Stansted… cancelled!'
All flights from Galway were cancelled because of bad weather.
'I'm sorry, but tomorrow's flight to London is fully booked. Christmas is a busy time of year,' said the man at the ticket office when Harminda tried to find another flight.
'What about another airport? Dublin perhaps?'
'You don't understand,' said Harminda, 'I have to get to London as soon as possible. My Dad's ill.'
'I really am very sorry...' the man said sympathetically. 'You could hire a car. It's a long journey, but if you need to get there quickly...'
As Harminda ran towards car hire, she saw that there were only two women waiting and she started to feel hopeful.
'I'm sorry, but this is the last car,' she heard the assistant say.
'But I was here first!' shouted a tall, blonde woman.
'Only because you pushed in front of me! I'm getting married in three days. I have to get to London,' shouted an Irish girl in her late twenties.
'And I've got a very important audition!' said the blonde woman.
'Excuse me,' interrupted Harminda. 'Did you say that there's only one car?'
'Yes, and it's mine!' said the blonde arrogantly.
'No it's not!' The argument continued.
Harminda wanted to cry. But then she had an idea.
'If you two are going to London, we can share the car! What do you think? We can share the driving and the cost.'
The two women looked at her in silence.
'They probably think I'm mad,' thought Harminda. But that didn't worry her. The only thing that worried her was getting to London to see her family.
'Well, if you want to get to your audition,' Harminda said to the blonde, 'and if you want to get married,' she said to the other woman, 'well… you've got no choice!'
Harminda was speaking angrily, and after a moment, the two women reluctantly agreed.
'Mr O'Flaherty will be pleased,' thought Chrissie, the car hire assistant, as she showed the women their car.
'Chrissie! Chrissie!' a man shouted, running towards them. It was very cold, but he was sweating, and his face was red and angry.
'Oh, that's my boss. Merry Christmas!' she smiled, and closed the door.
'Stop them, Chrissie!'
'What...? It's OK, Mr O'Flaherty. They've paid,' she smiled, waving at the car as it left.
'That car was reserved, you stupid girl!' he shouted.
Chrissie's face turned red. She didn't see the three businessmen as she ran into the airport, crying.
'Where is my car, Mr O'Flaherty?' asked one. His voice was calm, but his grey eyes were dangerous.
Colin O'Flaherty turned around nervously to talk to the three men. And he knew that he was in trouble. Big trouble.
Galway to Dublin
'Don't worry… I'll be there… I love you, too,' said Shauna, the Irish girl. She was on the phone.
'Was that your fiance?' asked Harminda when Shauna finished speaking.
'Yes,' she replied with a smile.
'And you're getting married on Christmas Eve. That's so romantic!'
'I know. Graeme is romantic,' she said. She took a photo from her purse and gave it to Harminda. It was obvious that she loved him very much. 'He even proposed on Valentine's Day'.
'Original,' said Vanessa sarcastically.
'What is your problem?' replied Shauna, angry at the blonde woman's sarcastic reply.
'I'm not the one with the problem. I'm not the one getting married… thank God! We left Galway two hours ago and the only thing you've talked about is Gavin, and how wonderful he is.'
'His name's Graeme.'
'Graeme — Gavin — whatever. So he's romantic? After six months of marriage it won't be romantic, when you have to wash his dirty clothes every week!'
'Vanessa, that's a horrible thing to say!' said Harminda. 'Have you never been in love?'
For a moment, Vanessa's eyes went dark. 'Love is for idiots,' she said in a low voice.
Shauna touched the small diamond engagement ring on her left hand and looked out of the window; trying not to cry. She loved Graeme and he loved her, and on Christmas Eve she was going to marry him.
'Don't listen to her, Shauna!' said Harminda.
Shauna liked Harminda. She only looked about 22, but she seemed a lot older.
'At last!' thought Shauna when she saw a sign for Dublin Port.
But Harminda didn't slow down. She was arguing with Vanessa and she didn't see it.
'Harminda… the port… you've just-missed the exit!' said Shauna.
'What? Are you sure?'
'Brilliant! This is all your fault!' I shouted Vanessa at Shauna.
'My fault! Why is it my fault?'
'Oh don't start all that again! I'll turn off at the next exit and we'll come back,' said Harminda.
But then the cars in front began to slow down and stop.
'That's all we need… a traffic jam!' said Vanessa. 'We'll never get there in time now!'
When they eventually arrived at the ferry terminal, it was late. There were no cars or passengers waiting, only a security guard.
'Where do we go to get the ferry for Holyhead?' Shauna asked him.
The security guard pointed behind him at the ferry, which was already sailing away from the port.
'No...' they said at the same time.
'The next ferry is tomorrow morning, at ten to seven,' said the guard.
'This is all your fault!' shouted Vanessa.
'Oh, shut up!' Shauna and Harminda shouted back.
Luckily, they found a small hotel. They started to relax as they began to take their bags out of the car in the hotel garage.
'Don't forget your briefcase,' Harminda said to Vanessa. She was pointing at a dark brown, expensive leather briefcase.
'It's not mine,' Vanessa said, pulling it from the car. It was quite heavy. 'Shauna, is it yours?'
'And it's not mine,' said Harminda. 'So, it was already in the car when we left the airport. Somebody has obviously forgotten it.'
'What do you think is inside?' said Vanessa, and for the first time that day she smiled.
A Sleepless Night
'I want to open it!' said Vanessa.
'But it's not ours,' said Harminda. It was one o'clock in the morning and she was in bed, trying to sleep. 'We've got to be up in less than four hours if we want to get the first ferry. So please… Go to sleep!' Vanessa turned away from the briefcase and pulled the blanket over her head.
'We couldn't open it anyway. It's locked,' said Shauna, getting into bed. But then she noticed Vanessa's smile. 'What? Why are you smiling?'
Vanessa took a clip from her hair and held it between her fingers.
'That'll never work,' laughed Shauna.
'It always works in films.'
'Go on then!' said Shauna, 'Do it!'
Harminda pulled the blankets over her head.
Vanessa worked on one of the locks, using her clip as a key.
'I knew it,' said Shauna after a few minutes, 'I didn't think it was going to work...' but before she could finish her sentence there was a click and the lock opened.
Harminda sat up in bed. This didn't seem the right thing to do. But now it was open, she wanted to know what was inside.
Vanessa soon opened the other lock… Slowly she opened the briefcase. Her eyes became big and round when she saw what was inside.
Harminda watched their shocked faces, 'What's in it? Show me!'
Vanessa turned the case towards her.
The briefcase was full of money.
After a few moments, Harminda said, 'There are hundreds of thousands of euros here!' She laughed nervously, 'I've never seen so much money! There's only one thing we can do now.'
'What are you doing?' Vanessa said when she saw Harminda with her mobile phone in her hand.
'I'm going to phone the police.'
'You can't do that! Do you realise what a difference this money could make to my… to our lives!'
'But it's not ours!'
'We don't know whose it is. There's no label, no name… Tell her, Shauna!'
'Shauna… you know we have to go to the police, don't you?' said Harminda.
'I don't know… my fiance and I really want a honeymoon. We could go anywhere in the world with this money: the Maldives, the Caribbean, New York, San Francisco… anywhere. At the moment we're going to stay in my parents' caravan.' Shauna looked into Harminda's eyes. 'We've never had a holiday together… I'm sorry, Harminda.'
Vanessa held Harminda's hands. Her voice was soft and kind and Harminda remembered that she was an actress. 'You said your Dad's ill. Think about it. With this money, you could pay for the best doctors...'
Harminda's phone started to ring. Slowly Harminda picked it up and answered. 'Hello… oh, hello Mum. How's Dad?'
When the phone call finished ten minutes later, her cheeks were wet with tears.
'What is it Harminda?' asked Shauna.
'My Dad… He's got worse. They're not sure if he will survive...'
Vanessa closed the briefcase. 'Well then, you need to get there quickly. If we go to the police now, they'll ask us questions for hours...'
'OK,' said Harminda quietly.
'Maybe not until tomorrow,' continued Vanessa.
'I said OK! We won't go to the police now, but when we get to London, after I've seen my Dad, then we'll go. Do you all agree?'
Shauna nodded reluctantly, but Vanessa only said, 'Let's get a few hours' sleep now. We don't want to miss the next ferry.'
This time they arrived early and waited in the car. It wasn't snowing, but it was cold and everything looked very dark.
When they started to drive onto the ferry, Harminda saw the face of the driver of the car behind her. 'That's strange,' she thought. 'It's still dark outside but he's wearing sunglasses.'
'Are you OK?' asked Shauna.
'I'm… cold… that's all.' Harminda answered. But she didn't seem sure of what she was saying.
On the Ferry
It was dawn and Shauna and Harminda looked at the red and orange sky over Dublin as the ferry slowly left the port.
'When was the last time you saw your parents?' Shauna asked Harminda.
'Four years ago… At my eighteenth birthday party,' she answered sadly.
'Wow… That's a long time.'
'They wanted me to marry someone else… Somebody they chose.'
'An arranged marriage?'
'Yes,' said Harminda.
They stood in silence for a while.
'In Indian tradition, a marriage is more than just a woman and a man being together. It's a marriage of two families. I've always known that it was very important to my family. But then I met Declan. I was only 17, but I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. We saw each other in secret for months. I was too frightened to tell my family about it, because they believe in arranged marriages. But then my parents told me the big news: at my eighteenth birthday party they wanted to introduce me to my future husband, an Indian boy. I knew that I had to tell them the truth. I'm the only daughter — I've just got one brother — and my father was very angry. I had to choose, he told me… And I chose Declan.'
'Are you still together?'
'Yes,' said Harminda, and she touched her stomach.
'Are you pregnant?' Shauna asked with a smile.
'Yes, I only got the news last week.' She laughed, 'You're the only other person that knows. I haven't told Declan yet!'
'I'm sure that when your Dad knows he'll be happy too!'
Three hours later, they were in England.
Harminda drove fast; they had to drive for another six hours before they arrived in London.
After a few miles, Harminda noticed that Vanessa was looking over her shoulder.
'What's wrong, Vanessa?'
'I… Nothing...' she said. 'Can't you drive faster?'
'I'm already driving over the speed limit. Why?'
'No reason, it's only… I don't want to frighten anyone… but I think somebody is following us. There's a dark blue car behind us. It's been there since we got on the ferry at Dublin.'
Harminda looked in the mirror. Her heart began to beat faster when she saw the sunglasses.
Suddenly, they heard a horn. Harminda looked back at the road and saw that an enormous lorry was coming directly towards them.
She turned the steering wheel to the right and pushed her foot down hard on the brake. But the lorry was getting nearer.
The car seemed out of control. Someone screamed.
But then the lorry passed by them. The car slowed down and Harminda's body relaxed.
Suddenly there was a loud noise. The three women all turned around.
They saw the lorry crashing into the car that was following them.
The Road to London
They drove the rest of the journey in silence.
Three hours later, when they stopped to get petrol, they were still nervous.
'I need to get some air,' Vanessa said, getting out of the car. 'Are you coming, too, Shauna?'
Shauna shook her head.
Vanessa didn't want to go anywhere by herself. She turned to Harminda.
'What about you?' she asked.
'I want to leave as soon as I've filled the car up with petrol,' said Harminda.
Vanessa felt stupid for being so nervous, but she couldn't stop herself.
In the toilets she looked at herself in the mirror and laughed. She looked terrible. Without make-up she looked older than thirty-five.
But she was alive.
When Ben left her for her best friend, she was only twenty-five with the lead role in a musical that was going to take her all over the world. But she gave it all up because she loved him and she didn't want to be away from him.
In the end, he left her anyway.
There were other boyfriends, but for the last ten years she never really loved anyone else because she never wanted to be hurt again. She was never afraid of anything, because there was nothing left to lose… until today.
Now, after the crash, things were different. Vanessa wanted to live. She wanted to change.
Why didn't she listen to Harminda? Why didn't they go to the police before? Now it was too late. Why did she never listen?
She went inside and ordered a cup of coffee.
The person behind the bar was reading a newspaper. Vanessa saw the date: 22 December. They only left Galway yesterday. It seemed a lot longer.
There was a small television on the wall over the bar. The news was on.
A body was found in the car park of Galway Airport, Ireland, in the early hours of this morning. Thirty-three-year-old Colin O'Flaherty, manager of a car hire at Galway Airport, was shot in the chest. The police believe the killing was related to drug trafficking...'
'It's terrible, isn't it?' said the barman, passing Vanessa her glass of water. Vanessa realised that she was staring at the television. Her face was white, her mouth open. 'It's in the newspapers… look...' He passed her the newspaper.
'FAMILY MAN KILLED IN DRUGS SHOOTING' said the headline. In the centre of the page there was a photo of Colin O'Flaherty on holiday with his three-year-old son. They were obviously on a boat and Colin was holding a very big fish. They looked so happy.
Vanessa felt sick.
She looked back at the television; a young woman was crying. At the bottom of the screen, Vanessa read, 'Mrs Moira O'Flaherty, Mr O'Flaherty's wife.'
'If anyone knows anything, anything at all… please — for my little boy — please contact the police.' Her voice sounded more and more desperate. Vanessa felt like the woman was talking directly to her.
'Anything at all… please...'
Vanessa couldn't hear any more. She ran from the bar, still holding the newspaper in her left hand.
At the hospital
'Go on. We'll wait here for you,' said Shauna.
'But what if they come back?'
'You saw that accident. We'll be alright for a couple of hours,' insisted Vanessa.
Harminda looked nervously at the hospital. She took a deep breath and got out of the car. 'I'll be as quick as I can, but this is my mobile number, if you need me.'
She quickly wrote it down and gave it to Shauna.
Inside the hospital, Harminda took the lift to the ninth floor.
When the doors opened, her little brother was waiting for her. But he wasn't so little any more. The last time she saw him he was nine years old, a child. Now he was thirteen and he was a lot taller than Harminda. There were so many things she wanted to ask him, but she could only say his name: 'Parindra?'
'What is she doing here?' her father's voice interrupted them. He was seriously ill but his voice was still strong.
'Meena? Did you ask her to come here?'
Meena, Harminda's mother, looked elegant in a red silk sari. When she saw her daughter there were tears of happiness in her eyes.
'Dad? Oh Dad, I've missed you so much!' Harminda ran towards him. His face was grey, his hair was thinner than she remembered, and he looked old and weak. But his eyes were angry. Just like they were four years ago.
'I don't want you here. You made your decision. Please leave!'
Harminda touched his hand but he closed his eyes and turned away from her.
'But I've come from Ireland! Dad, please listen to me… Dad!' she shouted as they took him into the operating room on a trolley, Meena and Parindra next to him.
'I love you, Dad,' she said, but he was gone.
She was alone in the long, white corridor.
She sat down, put her head in her hands and cried. All her hopes of a happy reunion were gone.
It was not going to be easy for him to meet her again — Harminda knew that. But she didn't think it was going to be this difficult.
Why didn't he understand that she never wanted to choose? Why couldn't he see that she was still his daughter, still his little girl? Why couldn't he see that she still needed her Dad? Even if she loved Declan.
When she couldn't cry any more, she stood up and decided to go with Shauna and Vanessa to the police station.
'Later on, I'll come back. And I won't leave until he understands,' she thought as she went outside.
When she got to the car park the car was there, but there was no Shauna and Vanessa… And there was no briefcase full of money.
Shauna and Vanessa were in the back of the car. Their hands were tied. They were very frightened as they tried to listen to the conversation of the two men in front of them.
'What are you going to do with your ten per cent of the money, Steve?'
'I'd like to go on a nice holiday, somewhere hot. What about you?'
Vanessa looked at the two men. She had to concentrate, she had to think of a plan. And she needed to think quickly. But she could only think of one thing: Colin O'Flaherty's three-year-old son.
While they were waiting for Harminda outside the hospital, these two men came up to them. They were smiling and seemed nice when they asked for directions to King's Cross station. But when Shauna was pointing the best way to them, the two men pushed them both into their car.
They wanted the briefcase.
'Did you see that crash between the lorry and the car with the plain-clothes police?' laughed Steve.
He saw the way Vanessa and Shauna looked at each other, suddenly realising the truth.
'Did you think that was us?' laughed the driver. 'They thought that was us in that accident!' and they laughed even louder.
Just then their telephone rang. The driver answered the call, 'Yes, boss… OK… the old building in East London… of course we've got the money; we're not stupid… and the two ladies… no there were only two… what do you mean, there's another one? You'll have to go and get her!'
Vanessa knew then what she had to do.
Carefully, she pulled her mobile phone from her coat pocket and started to write a text message:
U R IN DANGER. MEN TAKING US 2 BUILDING IN EAST LONDON. B CAREFUL. MAN COMING 4 U. GO 2 POLICE. S&V
It seemed to take forever to write the short message. She took out the piece of paper with Harminda's number on it and typed: 354 781 2330.
Now, she only needed to press 'SEND' and then Harminda could get help.
'Hey! What are you doing! Give me that...!' Steve turned around and tried to grab the phone.
Vanessa tried to press 'SEND', but he was pulling the phone out of her hand.
'Leave her alone!' shouted Shauna, pulling on his arm, trying to free Vanessa.
The driver was looking at them, and couldn't control the car any more.
Steve got out his gun but Shauna pushed him and he dropped it.
'You stupid woman!' he shouted as he looked desperately around his feet for it.
Just then, a police siren sounded in the distance. Steve looked up and saw that a police car was blocking the road in front of them. Its blue light was bright in the dark evening. The driver pushed his foot down hard on the brake. Shauna realised with horror that they were going straight for it… too fast!
The car began to move from side to side, dangerously out of control.
Shauna held her breath, ready for the crash. She closed her eyes, waiting. Her body went quickly forwards, and then back. But there was no crash.
When she was sure that the car wasn't moving any more, she slowly opened her eyes.
The car was just a few centimetres from a police car. Suddenly, a lot of policemen were all around the car and Shauna could finally breathe. Their nightmare was over.
'I'm sure they think I'm really stupid,' thought Harminda. 'And I am, because I believed them. «Spend time with your Dad before his operation,» they said. They weren't worried about me spending time with Dad! The only thing they wanted was enough time to escape with the money!'
Vanessa didn't want to go to the police: she said that very clearly.
Shauna was different. At least, Harminda thought Shauna was different. She thought that after all this was over, they could be friends. But now she didn't know what to think any more.
'Maybe they've gone to get a drink or something to eat,' thought Harminda.
But she knew the truth.
Without Harminda there to stop her, Vanessa probably talked to Shauna about all the places Shauna could go on her honeymoon.
They could share the money. Half each. Fifty-fifty. That was enough to go on honeymoon for over three months! Harminda could hear Vanessa. It was so easy to believe her. She was the perfect actress.
'Excuse me,' said a gentle voice, making Harminda jump. 'Sorry, I didn't want to frighten you.'
Harminda turned around and saw a young men. He was smiling kindly and when Harminda saw that his arm was in a plaster, she started to relax.
'No, I'm sorry. How can I help?'
'Can you tell me the way to King's Cross station? I came here in an ambulance, but I don't know this part of London and I'm not sure how to get back home from here.'
'I don't know, but I've got a map in the car,' said Harminda. She was about to put the key in the door when her mobile phone beeped. She had a new message. She took the phone out of her pocket and began to read: U R IN DANGER...
'No… this can't be happening… these things happen in films, not to people like me!' she thought, reading the message a second time.
She looked up slowly at the reflection of the man in the car window.
For a moment she couldn't believe what she saw. She was too frightened to breathe.
He was taking off the plaster! It was fake! He didn't have a broken arm.
He was taking something out of his jacket… Then Harminda realised what it was. He was pulling out a gun.
'Just a minute,' said Harminda. She looked around, careful not to alarm the gunman.
But the car park was dark and empty. There was nobody to ask for help.
In the glass of the car window she saw him raise the gun. Without thinking, she turned around and surprised him with a powerful kick.
The man fell back, the gun dropped to the floor and went under the car. His head hit the side of the car and he fell to the ground.
Harminda didn't wait for him to wake up. She quickly dialled the number of the emergency services: 999.
Every second seemed like a year as she listened to the ringing, then a woman's voice answered, 'Emergency Services. Which service do you require: police, ambulance or fire?' and Harminda started to cry.
'Police please… hello? Police? There's a man with a gun. He wants to shoot me! I'm outside the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in London...'
But before she could finish telling the operator everything there was a loud bang… pain… and then, for Harminda, everything went black.
Harminda could see lights. Bright, white lights and her first thought was that she was dead. But then she felt someone touch her hand and her mother's sweet voice said her name.
Slowly, Harminda opened her eyes and her mother's face became clear.
'It's alright, my darling...'
'What happened? Where am I?'
'You were shot, but you're going to be fine. You're in hospital.'
'What about my baby?' Harminda started to feel frightened.
'Your baby's fine,' Harminda saw that there were tears in her mother's eyes. But they were tears of happiness. 'I'm going to be a grandmother.'
Harminda looked around the room. Parindra was there. Even Shauna and Vanessa were there. Everyone except her Dad and Declan. Where were they?
'What day is it?' asked Harminda.
'It's Christmas Eve.'
'You're getting married! And what about your audition, Vanessa?'
'I got the part, of course! It's a thriller about some dangerous criminals. We're starting filming next week in France.'
'And I'm getting married in...' Shauna looked excitedly at the clock, 'about three hours from now… I really must go now — my mum is waiting for me with my dress — but I just wanted to see you before.'
'We wanted to know that you were OK,' smiled Vanessa.
There was only one more thing Harminda wanted to know, but she was also afraid of hearing the answer.
'Mum, how did Dad's operation go?' Harminda asked. But before Meena could answer, the door to Harminda's room opened.
'I hope this young man drives his car better than he does a wheelchair!' said Harminda's father. Declan pushed him into the room and next to Harminda's bed.
'I love you,' Declan whispered and kissed her gently on the lips.
Then Harminda's father took her hand, 'Harminda… I… when I heard you were shot, and in danger of dying, I thought about all those years. I realised that what is important is that you're happy. And if it is Declan,' he reached up for Declan's hand, 'that makes you happy, then I am happy.'
Seeing her tears, he looked suddenly worried. 'You are happy, aren't you?'
'Yes,' she said quietly. 'I am now… now that my family is back together.'