Juno Books

An Excerpt From Beyond the Hedge

By Roby James

[ Information on Beyond the Hedge ]

The hedge was not supposed to be there. Jennifer stopped the Mercedes and sat staring at it, stretching tall and thick where just a few minutes earlier she'd been sure there was a sweeping valley. If it hadn't been early afternoon, she might have thought, Well, this is the end of a perfect day! Actually, quite a few perfect days.

It had all begun a month ago, on what would have been Thanksgiving had she been home in the United States; here in Britain, the holiday passed unrecognized, which was somewhat appropriate, when she thought about it. For the last month, she had not had a lot to be thankful for.

The company she had worked for these last six years, Glidden Industries, had moved her boss, a man she deeply respected, who clearly valued and mentored her both before and after her transfer to London, to its Barcelona office. He had been replaced by an ambitious snake of a man she had previously been able to observe from her secure position, pitying the people who had to report to him. Now, suddenly, she was one of them. In her secret thoughts, she called him "the Cobra," and as her boss, he quickly lived down to her expectations.

He piled overwhelming amounts of work on her in a transparent effort to make her unhappy enough to quit, to fail, or to request a transfer back to Boston. She concluded that he needed his cronies around him, but what Aunt Cecilia always called "your sheer stubbornness" made her persist in trying to prove she was up to the challenge. Jennifer Paul was not going to be anyone's patsy, not even someone who clearly had nothing but contempt for career women and for Americans -- and, she added to herself, for anyone who doesn't make kissing his ass the high point of their day.

After four weeks of putting in 12- to 14-hour days, she was exhausted, not seeing clearly, and very pleased to be taking her two-days' holiday leave from Glidden and the Cobra. Other employees might take Christmas week off, but Jennifer would be back at the office on Boxing Day, December 26th, to prove her worth, or die trying. As she had done every other leave since arriving in London two years earlier, she was driving to Anglesey, in northwestern Wales, to spend the time with her only remaining family, Aunt Cecilia, who had been ill with leukemia for several years.

Before the accident that claimed the lives of her parents and her brother, they had all been close, even though Aunt Cecilia was only her mother's distant cousin. After the accident, Aunt Cecilia had moved away from Boston, away from America, and Jennifer had taken the first opportunity to transfer nearer to her. Jennifer's mother always used to say to Jennifer, "You're just like my cousin Cecilia -- you got all her genes."

Jennifer couldn't see it herself. Aunt Cecilia was in her late 80s now, her face wreathed in a network of wrinkles, like a permanent reminder of her habit of smiling at everything. Her pure white hair was thinning, and the eyes that looked so dark in all the earlier photos had paled. She gave an impression of delicacy and fragility that belied the iron in her character. In the last year, Aunt Cecilia had begun looking somehow transparent to Jennifer, the solidity of her life slipping away, as if into a mist. And yet Cecilia was so sharp, so perceptive, that Jennifer often thought she could see whatever was troubling Jennifer, just as she always had, no matter how much Jennifer tried to spare her.

Jennifer thought she was nothing like Cecilia, with the possible exception of the iron. She was tall and could be imposing when dominance was required. Unlike many other women in business, she did not need the trappings of success from Cartier, Prada, or Ferragamo in order to be seen as fit for the executive role, but she did use them, with some pleasure, to make an even more emphatic statement. Her complexion was creamy and unlined, her dark blue eyes surrounded by naturally thick black lashes that she hadn't enhanced with mascara since her senior prom. She kept her dark hair cut into a short, shining cap that demanded none of her time to care for, and she dressed elegantly to minimize a generous figure. She would never be accused of getting ahead by using feminine wiles; she had none to speak of. She was direct and could be salty, and she had long since rejected the frills and softness of overt femininity.

As a result of her decision to emphasize her career, rather than her personal life, she was, at 29, the most senior woman in Glidden's European operation -- just not senior enough to avoid the Cobra.

When she called to tell Aunt Cecilia to expect her by dinnertime on Christmas Eve, even though she could only stay a day, the older woman asked, "Why do you always drag yourself and Dragon up here to my little cottage? You should be going to Paris or Amsterdam to have some fun."

"You know I want to spend time with you," Jennifer said, adding, "And for me, it is fun."

"I am certain that you do it because you think I'm about to die," Aunt Cecilia said in a voice that sounded only partly jesting. "I assure you I am about to do no such thing."

Jennifer decided to ignore that. "You're my only family now," she said. "No arguments. I'll leave London after breakfast and see you around dinnertime. I'm bringing a big basket from Fortnum's, so you won't have to lift a finger."

"I look forward to every opportunity of lifting my fingers," said Cecilia matter-of-factly. "Very well, I shall allow you to spoil me one more time, if you allow me to persuade you that the Left Bank has at least as much to offer as my parlor."

"You can try," Jennifer said with a smile. "I'm sure Dragon will be happy to listen."

Dragon was Jennifer's greyhound. She had bought him as a puppy when she arrived in London, needing to come home to something alive, something which would be devoted to her. Dragon had proven to be a good companion, and she enjoyed her time with him, regarding him as more noble than most of the men she worked with, certainly more so than the Cobra, who more fully than the dog merited the sobriquet "son of a bitch."

So when she left London to drive the familiar roads northwest toward Wales, in addition to a boot full of presents and a backseat stuffed with her suitcase, her laptop, and her purse, her car also contained her dog, looking out the windscreen. He stayed awake while they were still in the city, because he could see other dogs on the streets and wanted to let them know the Mercedes and its driver were under his special protection. Once they were past Heathrow and on their way to more open country, he lay down on the seat and went to sleep.

Jennifer envied him, because she was tired from the weeks of battle against the Cobra, but traffic was light, and the relief of not being at the office was only slightly lessened by the apprehension that her cellphone might ring at any moment. She couldn't help thinking about Glidden, and for several hours as she drove through the countryside, then negotiated the Birmingham roundabout, she debated strategies for solving a particularly thorny problem concerning a Hong Kong investment. The EU might offer more potential, but the Cobra didn't want her dealing with anyone that close to London, which he considered the province of several of his cronies.

As she turned the Mercedes onto the A58, Dragon awoke suddenly and gave one sharp bark, peered around as if to reassure himself that no threat to his vigilance had occurred while he dozed, then lowered his head again.

Jennifer stroked his shoulder. "Don't worry, D-dog," she said. "You're such a good boy that right after the holidays I'll take you to Barking." It was one of her ongoing jokes with Dragon that the English town of Barking just had to be dog-nirvana. She indulged herself with the fancy that Dragon enjoyed the joke as much as she did. Sometimes she even played his role in the conversation as well, but at the moment she was too fatigued for that part of the game.

Beyond Shrewsbury, when she'd been driving for about four hours, she realized she was very tired, but she had driven this route many times before, and she was confident she could reach Anglesey without incident.

Less than an hour later, she brought the car to an abrupt stop. Dragon awoke and sat upright, yawning. They had reached an unexpected dead-end, which meant that she had taken a wrong turn that she simply could not remember. She shook her head to clear it. "How did I do that?" she asked Dragon. "And what's that hedge doing there?"

It wasn't an idle question. This was Wales, where the land was not nearly as gentle or congenial as that of England. Wales was dramatic, while England was welcoming. Jennifer thought that the Welsh hadn't the love that the English did for flowers and topiary, that their land was harsh enough so that they thought little of decorating it. It was dramatic, especially in winter. Its long sweeps of land were interrupted occasionally by woods, but the trees were usually dwarfed by the hills themselves, and by rights she should now be in Snowdonia, because the mountain that was the center of the national park had already been looming on the horizon before the hedge intervened in the view as well as the route.

The hedge was completely out of place. For one thing, it was immense, easily four meters tall, and in the midst of winter, the hedge was heavy with bright green foliage, the sort of color she associated with late spring or early summer. It stretched as far as Jennifer could see in either direction, which was also very unusual, because she would not have expected the land to be flat when it had been rolling only moments before.

She shrugged, resolving to contact the Auto Club about it after the holidays. It did not seem right, somehow, to call and ask about a strange hedge on Christmas Eve. She shifted into reverse. But then Dragon touched her hand with his nose. That was the unmistakable signal for a necessary stop. In this case, it clearly meant, "I've been in this car for more hours than I'd like, and I've been good, but nature calls."

She took the hint and turned off the engine, thinking that the cold air would help to wake her enough so that she could find her way back to the main road -- though she was uncertain how she'd gotten off it in the first place. Dragon got to his feet, stretched, and shook a little as she fished in the glove box for his leash.

Dragon was a typical greyhound. Given the chance, despite his obedience training, he would be off down the road at top speed and across the border back to England before he realized that he'd left her far behind. So he was used to being put on the leash when he was not in the area outside the mews flat in Kensington that she'd bought the year before. She clipped the leash onto his collar, opened the door into the crisp winter air, and stepped out onto the gravelly shoulder in front of the hedge. There had been some snow several days earlier, but it must have been sparse, because very little lay on the ground, and the roads were clear.

Dragon waited calmly on the passenger seat until she called him, and then he leaped from the car, nose to the ground. Jennifer reached out to finger the foliage of the hedge, which looked even larger and more imposing now that she was standing directly beside it. And it seemed even more out of place, as well. In the chill sunlight that lay upon the land, bright though it was in the afternoon, the hedge was somehow giving the impression of springtime. Jennifer listened for any sound other than the soft murmur of the wind through the leaves -- other traffic perhaps, even birdsong -- but she heard nothing except for Dragon's snuffling. He seemed fascinated by the new smells.

Jennifer had never been the kind of person who got premonitions. If she had been, she would have stopped her parents and brother from getting into the car the day they died, or she would have been certain to be with them. As usual, when that subject intruded, she put it out of her mind. If she had gotten premonitions, she would have chosen to transfer to Barcelona with her old boss and stayed out of the Cobra's clutches. She had felt nothing amiss at either of those times.

She felt something amiss now, in the extreme quiet of this bright day in what should have been open, rolling country. It was not a sense of danger so much as a slight disorientation, as if her balance was somehow compromised. Jennifer clicked her tongue in self-disapproval and was about to ask Dragon if he had finished his business when his head came up, ears raised, on alert, staring at the hedge behind her.

"What?" Jennifer asked, turning to look for whatever he had seen. For a moment, she could identify nothing in the solid-seeming green wall that towered above her and continued endlessly into the distance on either side.

Dragon growled, an unusual rumble deep in his throat.

Jennifer frowned, wondering what he'd scented, but then, remembering that he was a sight hound, she looked harder at the area on which he was concentrating. Two yellow spots separated themselves from the leaves around them and blinked, resolving themselves into eyes about a meter off the ground. A moment later, the eyes presented themselves as belonging to the face of a large gray cat, whiskers brushing forward as the animal's head emerged from the thick vegetation.

The cat was big, perhaps twenty pounds or more. It dropped lightly to the gravel shoulder of the road and darted off toward the rear of the car.

Dragon gave one sharp bark and sprang in pursuit. Jennifer grabbed harder on her end of the leash, calling, "No!" and preparing to dig in her feet to hold the dog back.

The leash snapped.

Jennifer stumbled back against the car, astonished. It was not a new leash, but it had in no way seemed worn, and now she was confronted by the sight of a rapidly shrinking dog who could run 35 miles an hour. Without thinking, she tossed her part of the leash aside and started after him, calling his name.

Because the land was flat and treeless, except for the sudden upthrust of the hedge, she could see the cat darting ahead of the pale hindquarters of her pursuing greyhound. She saw the cat turn sharply to the left and vanish into the wall of foliage beside it. Then Dragon did the same. She expected to hear crashing sounds, but there was still only the unusual silence she'd noticed before.

She kept running and shouting for Dragon until she reached the spot where cat and dog had disappeared. Here, the hedge was not the solid wall it had appeared to be. A noticeable path opened, leading into the green.

She might have hesitated, but Jennifer could think only of not letting Dragon get away. He was her companion, the living creature who shared her home and to whom she confided her triumphs and tragedies at Glidden. She could not leave him to fend for himself in this desolate section of Wales any more than she would have let him run loose on the streets of London. Determined to retrieve him, she plunged into the green tunnel that led, twisting, into the hedge.

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copyright ©2007 Roby James, All Rights Reserved

Juno Books
copyright ©2007