The Beginnings of a Legend
The front door of the Wyndomham unit blew open, shattering the peace of Edward’s lazy afternoon. In strode Her Royal Highness Annabel Herrington, crushing the pieces to dust underfoot.
“Anna! Where have you been? I was, er-” Edward faltered as the awkwardness following his outburst caught up to him.
“I’m just here to pick up my stuff.” Anna said, breezing by and vanishing into her room.
“To what? You’re- no!” Edward sprang to his feet and dashed into Anna’s room, where she was already clearing out her wardrobe into a fresh garbage bag. It belatedly occurred to him that Anna owned three sets of coveralls and a tracksuit, and no dresses. “Was it about yesterday? I’m sorry! Please don’t go?”
Anna didn’t look up. “It’s not really about that.” This did nothing to dispel Edward’s sinking dread that yes, actually, it had everything to do with it and she was effectively divorcing him. Noticing Edward was still in her room, Anna turned to look him in the eye. “I just have something I need to do. That requires me to move out.”
There it was again, that faraway look, the aura of somebody who inhabited a different world. Edward knew that he was defeated by a far higher power, and so, shoulders slumping, he retired to the living room.
Four minutes later, Anna, carrying her life in two garbage bags, staggered past. She paused for a moment in front of Edward’s chair. Edward studiously looked away, but ended up watching as Anna wrote something down.
“Here. This is my new number,” she said, sliding the paper towards him. From rock bottom, Edward’s heart dared to soar again, and his gaze lifted.
“Call me if you get any good scoops, ok?” And with that, she was out the door and back on her mission with a roar and squealing tyres.
The days melded into weeks. Every living breathing spare moment was spent in that garage, absorbing the ideas and the knowledge. Anna’s mother would occasionally drift into the room, reminisce about the old times, inwardly beaming to see her prodigal daughter return, in a manner of of speaking.
The Evo RC Group B prototype was a marvel. The suspension was all independent, the chassis a monocoque steel but the panels an aluminium for lightness (besides, if they got banged up, they just needed to be banged back). The AWD system with the trick auto-locking differential would have made for some lairy driving characteristics, all actively encouraged by the super short throw gearbox that echoed every time she shifted the cogs, and the giant lever that was the handbrake that adorned the spartan, stripped interior. Definitely a rally car through and through. And one that should be announced to the world.
There was a new whiteboard in the garage, Anna’s own. On it, was her rudimentary but growing plan. At the bottom, was getting the car to a track day. Just up from that, she had drawn a bunch of stick figures: the fans. In the middle, she had the covers of Sport Compact Car and Turbo stuck to it. Above that, she wrote ??? and beyond that, in ironic fancy letters, PROFIT. She wasn’t sure what to do with the ??? yet, but that was for later. For now, after dozens of hours of many kinds of grease from elbow to engine, it was time to pour in the moonshine, flip some switches and hope it didn’t explode. Fire extinguisher, check. Garage door open (but the gate closed), check. Motor primed, oil pressure, check, fuel pressure, check. Clutch in, and with a deep breath, punch the ignition. The tipo 308 coughed over and over, then barked and buzzed to life, sputtering then roaring and whining as Anna prodded the throttle, before settling into a lopey idle that shook her in her seat. She prodded the throttle again, listening for any tell-tale tick tick tick. There was none.
“It’s working!” she yelled, “IT’S WORKING!”
The door opened and in burst her mother, hearing the straight piped, straight cut racket, staring in amazement that the car was actually in running condition, let alone her little girl had figured it out, then cupping her hands over her ears as Anna floored it, the engine hesitating while the turbos spooled, then with a whine it went ballistic, bouncing off the limiter with a VRAAAAAPSUTUTUTUTUTUTU, and then a PSSSSSSHT when she lifted the throttle. And then she was up and out and dancing and bouncing off the walls because hooray, all she needed to do now was change the tyres and chop the springs and replace the brakes and it was track day, which meant getting her mother to come with her to Snetterton, just a few miles distant, on a Sunday with the car on a trailer (at her mother’s behest) they’d sneakily borrowed from the factory.
A mild fourteen degrees with a light breeze and the usual swathes of grey clouds greeted the mother-daughter duo at the track. Even for ideal track weather, the venue wasn’t particularly crowded, which suited Anna just fine: the Talon may have been a tricky car but this was certified Group B levels of insane, with in excess of 600Nm from the moment the turbos spooled in a car that weighed the same, and this, in a car that would have been quite porky by Group B standards, to accommodate for its displacement. It went without saying that it was going to take some getting used to.
Rollcage inspected, helmet on, a word of encouragement (or really caution) from her mother, and the engine roared to life with raw, deafening intensity. In an instant all eyes were on the rally beast, brows raised, mouths agape, people not sure whether to believe what they saw, as the car lurched into gear and out of the pits. Anna felt a squirming knot in her guts, certainly not the breakfast bran. Was it her natural instinct of fearing the car? Or was it the audience, ready to disbelieve and judge? As much as she tried to ignore it, never more than now was Anna conscious of her chromosomes. First impressions would count for everything. Go time; she took a breath, adjusted her grip on the wheel, and floored it.
After a moment’s hesitation, the car slammed into action and shot off down the straight. Every part of Anna was simultaneously assaulted with sledgehammers, pounding her eardrums, crushing her into the seat, the pebbles striking the undertray rattling her brain. It wasn’t until the engine was bouncing off the limiter that she remembered how to breathe and change gears, and then back to being crushed. Within seconds the scenery was blurring by and she almost forgot the fast right hander was upon her, on shit. Hauling on the wheel and hanging on, and the front-heavy Evo turned into a rally missile, fighting horrendous understeer at a hundred miles an hour. Feathering the brakes, losing the line, cursing all the while, wobbling down the next straight until hard on the brakes again and Anna felt the car go a bit light in the rear and start to slide out just in time for the much tighter right. In the Talon that would have called for countersteer but Anna remembered the lessons from Grandpa’s notes: point the wheels in the right direction and keep it pinned. Her heart in her mouth and her mouth screaming silent prayers she did just that, and the Evo pulled through, front wheels pulling it straight on the exit to the other long straight.
This time Anna was ready for the crushing grip of acceleration, and kept her torso braced while her right foot never faltered. Banging through the gears was grimly satisfying, until suddenly the Evo was maxing out at one forty. Hard on the brakes and drifting left, feeling the back step out again, but it was the Esses, with the sharp right kink! Sawing the wheel right and lifting off the brakes, the Evo flicked into a four wheel skid, then on cue, hard on the throttle, kick the clutch and the tyres lit up and she was off again! Then on the series of fast right handers, this time feeling how the nose pitched in when she lifted off, blow-off valves whistling and anti-lag system backfiring with a spack-spack, then turbo spinning up again when she feathered the throttle. It was only when she realised she was starting to get a feel for the different dynamics that it occurred to Anna she could have tried not absolutely wringing the car to start. Actually, that was rubbish, go hard or don’t bother. So she sunk the boot in again.
It was Russell bend that did her in. After managing the understeer disguised as oversteer on the long right hander, she tried forcing the nose to the apex of the sharp left kink onto the pit straight, but the Evo suddenly found the limits of its weight transfer and snapped, pitching the arse end frontwards and Anna found herself hurtling down the straight backwards, in front of everybody hanging on the wall having a gawk. Figures. In a flush of anger and embarrassment, Anna jammed the brakes, then dumped the clutch at the limiter, sending the Evo into four wheel donuts, throwing up a smoke screen to cover her shame.
When the smoke cleared, the track marshall was seen to be attempting to fight his way through the growing throng swarming to inspect this loud, fast, mad, and definitely not-street-legal machine. No doubt the marshall was there to tell her off and kick her out, but that was quickly quashed by first the buzz from seeing the car, then second, the guffaws and whistling after realising a girl had been driving it at full chat, then third, the penny dropping that she was not just a girl, but from the Armada family and therefore the car was something special.
It didn’t take too long for the news to spread after that. Between popping the hood so everybody could pore over the heavy-duty turbo pipes, taking it for another spin and blowying past everybody else and their riced up Escorts and Hoondas on the track, whether it was on the straights or in the corners, explaining the history of Armada’s aborted Group B campaign, Anna started to recognise some of the faces turning up. Local journalist types, armed with proper cameras. Would she like the car featured in their periodical? Could she pose in the car? Did she have plans for it? Maybe do some rolling shots? Drifts? Burnouts? Christine resisted Anna’s attempts to cajole her into joining in the session: her hair wasn’t done, she didn’t have her make-up on. Anna dragged her in anyway: the power of two Armada family women was far more representative than her alone, and the Evo Group B was very much a family affair.
Bathed in sunlight, Christine and Anna shared a moment in the relative tranquility of the truck cabin as they towed the Evo back along the A11. Under the shaking hands and the ringing ears, and a body that felt like it had been thoroughly beaten, Anna felt a warm glow in the pit of her stomach. This was good. The legend was beginning. And she was sort-of able to handle the car. Emphasis on sort-of, really. There was a lot of work to do to be worthy of it.
The garage was evolving again, under Anna’s touch. The Evo Group B still held prime real estate, but curiously, in one corner, there was now a bench, a barbell and a stack of iron plates. The whiteboard was now divided into several sections, with the main plan having several items ticked off, but new items proliferating, including a parts plan and a fitness plan.
Christine stood in the doorway, her mouth crinkled into a permanently bemused smile as she watched Anna marching up and down the yard flipping a tyre end over end, sweat pouring down her brow and plastering her tracksuit to her frame. Between bringing Anna water and a towel and listening to Anna ruminate on how to tweak the suspension geometry to achieve a more stable turn-in, Christine realised more than ever that in Arthur’s instructions was a prediction for a transformation beyond her own imagination.
Meanwhile, Anna’s brow was the picture of concentration, half from the effort of clutching the dumbbells as she transformed her forearms into knotted steel ropes, but the other half from the conundrum of the Evo’s powerplant issue. Arthur’s notes clearly indicated that the engine was selected on the grounds of being available at the right displacement for the regulations. Which meant that it came carburetted, which then had to be completely changed in order to apply forced induction to B-rally spec. It was the same issue that faced the Talon: forced induction ruins carbs in short order, especially at boost pressures approaching 4 bar and power figures three times that of the Talon at that. It was, no doubt about it, an engine of compromises, and she felt it doubly keenly to see her suspicions confirmed, that for such a robust car, the weakest link was the borrowed engine. How unlike Armada.
The bigger problem still was durability. Rally cars were built to take a beating. But they also failed a lot, and Group B teams in particular had millions thrown at them so they could be rebuilt and had a line of special spares. Armada’s Group B project never took off, so what she had in that garage was everything she had-
The sudden intrusion of a male voice in the hallowed garage almost shocked Anna out of her chair. She snapped her head up and saw Ed standing in the doorway, gazing bewildered in equal parts at her, and at the Group B Evo.
“What are you doing here Ed?” Anna barked, resisting the temptation to slam the door in his face. “I thought I said call, not stalk my mother’s house and turn up unannounced.”
Ed looked hurt. “I tried calling. Your mother picked up and said I should just come over because it’d be impossible to contact you otherwise.”
And just what did you concoct for her to tell you that– No, that would be typical Ma. Anna rolled her eyes. “Alright, fair. What did you come here for?”
Ed took that as invitation enough, and stepped into the garage, oogling the sky-blue Group B from every angle… then using his partially concealed vantage point to stare at Anna’s toned arms when he thought she wasn’t looking. “The rumour’s going around that you tracked the original Group B Prototype at Snetterton a couple of weeks ago. Which, if I’m not mistaken, is this car right here.”
“Yeah, and?” Anna went back to curling her wrists.
“You’re really serious about becoming a racer aren’t you.”
Anna stared at Ed for a long moment, noticing for the first time the curious bags under his eyes, his untidy boy stubble and general haggardness. “Yes. Yes I am.”
Ed sighed and dithered, before reaching into his jacket pocket and pulling out an envelope, muttering something about half-regrets. "Well, first off I can tell you that the road to becoming a race driver the usual way involves license tests and joining up in clubs and driving cars with less pep than your Talon. And since Armada isn’t currently sponsoring anybody other than the BTCC team, you’ll have a long time of filling in odd jobs and driver deals and you probably wouldn’t even get a second look most of the time. For every reason it’s not you.
“But,” and at this, Ed opened the envelope and fanned out several sheets of paper and photos onto the desk. “If you’re interested in creating a legend around this car, then this may be more your speed.”
“Oh?” Now Ed had Anna’s undivided attention. “What’s this?”
“A Gumball Rally. High Stakes. Very secret, in an unofficial underground everybody knows about it but nobody will ever admit to it way. It’s codenamed the Grand Automation Rally. It spans across Europe, thirty five hundred miles. Probably mostly public roads.”
“I can’t legally drive the Group B on a public road.”
“In case you didn’t already notice, this race isn’t,” Ed fidgeted, “Exactly legal.”
Anna frowned, the gears in her head grinding away. Illegal in something like twelve countries. A chance to see what the Evo could really do. Probably very dangerous. The highest stakes, purest kind of racing. Not officially recognised. The stuff of legends.
“Why are you telling me about this?” Anna finally blurted.
“Because I l-” Ed coughed and tried again. “Because I know how much this means to you. I think this is madness. It wasn’t because you’re a girl… it’s because I was worried and I, uh, I care about you! But I’d be lying if I didn’t think there was something great about it and if there was somebody who could pull off something as insane as this around here it might be you. So… I respect that, so this is the least I can do to support it.”
While Anna gaped at him, Ed took a moment to recompose himself. “Anyway. Those are the dossiers of all the other drivers. Some of those people are really shifty so that’s why there’s not that much info in some of the briefs. Some of those machines have had some serious work done to them so you may want to have a look. The race starts in Malaga, in three weeks. You have only what you can take with you and the rest is what you can afford and can fix along the way. And…” Ed took another breath, “The prize is five million quid, but only for first, and only if you make it.”
Suddenly Anna was out of her chair and was crushing Ed with her arms. Stunned, it took Ed three seconds to realise Anna was hugging him, and he felt a flushing in his face, a flutter in his chest and a glowing in his loins.
“Thank you Ed, you’re a good friend.”
Friend. An icy lance shot through Ed’s heart. He had manned up all the way to this point, and standing at the threshold to Anna’s heart of hearts, he knew what he had to do.
“Anna, go out with me.”
Anna blinked. “What?”
Ed stuck his jaw out. “I- I want to take you to dinner. Somewhere nice.”
“Ed, Ed, Ed.” Anna rapidly released Ed and took a step back. “Look, I appreciate what you’ve done for me here. And you’re a, uh…” Anna had a brief horrifying flashback to her mother’s words, “A good guy. But I already told you, there are things I have to do, and it’s far bigger than just what’s happening now. I just can’t think about these things right now.”
Ed’s shoulders sagged, his punctured soul deflating with each word. Even after everything he had done, no girl as badass as Anna ever went out with a ‘good guy’. But he had come this far, and the yearning desperation that raged inside him demanded he not leave empty handed.
“Well, in that case, at least let me buy you coffee when you get back.”
Anna cocked her head, sizing up the young man before her. If she thought about him, strained all her senses, the turbulence of his inner torment was a tangible force… and one that seemed too complicated to navigate. Worse than being downright rude to Ed, let alone stringing him along for fear of rudeness, was plunging into the current of hormones and infatuations of which had suddenly thrust itself into her consciousness.
“Ok, sure. But tell you what, if I win that five million quid, I’ll buy you the coffee.”
The dossier made for some surreal reading. Anna couldn’t banish the suspicion that Ed had made up half the stories from an amalgamation of third rate bargain bin novels. Aside from a surprising number of fellow motoring figures and representatives (was that the Erin CEO’s wife!?), there were the less surprising over-moneyed playboys, the fellow aspiring racers, the former professional racers, the secret agents? And the really shady gangsters and career criminals? At least the aspiring film makers could help with promo material, if any of this was legitimate at all. But Ed wouldn’t lie, she told herself. Yes, he was, as her mother put it, young. But one of the reasons she thought of him as a friend was because he always had integrity in his work, even if it made him a bit of a pompous git in other places. Besides, five million quid, if that was really the prize on offer, that’d draw all kinds. Actually the more she thought about it, the more the dossiers made sense, and the scarier this was sounding.
Scarier still were the cars. Some of them were barely modified sportscars and tourers. Others were downright bonkers, maximum power, tuned to the absolute gills. She was seeing speculated outputs of close to a thousand horses on some of them. The writing was on the wall for the EVO: that tipo had to go.
But what could fit in its stead? She had three weeks to get it all up and running and then somehow secretly ship herself to Spain. There’d be all kinds of conditions to drive through. The engine had to be durable and be able to tolerate a more aggressive tune without ruining the fuel economy. Frequent fuel stops would not be compatible with dodging the law enforcement. But she still had to have enough power to match the big guns, but without ruining the balance of the car. Bigger displacement, and lower boost.
Out came the schematics again, papers spread all over the floor. Anna plumbed the depths of Arthur’s notes once more, noting the dimensions and layout of the bay, then digging through the archives of all the engine contracts that had fallen in a disorganised heap of legal proceedings and almost ruined the entire company. One series in particular caught her eye: the partnership with a still active supercar manufacturer by the name of Empyrean. Armada had lent their advanced valvetrain technologies to Empyrean, and in turn Empyrean had further developed variably timed and liftoff valves combined with turbo technology to produce high output V12s that had early spool. It was complicated stuff to work with, but being the stuff of supercars, it combined the best of as many worlds as possible. And, if the notes were still correct, their last contract would have produced a current model for their mid-size supercar, the Stretto. Which meant it was a matter of getting her hands on one. Which wouldn’t be possible in the timeframe she had if she had to order one from the other side of the channel. She’d have to search… closer to home.
Security was light at the Armada Factory. Anna knew well there were no guards and not much in the way of cameras. All that stood between her and a certain crate in the R&D archives was a keypad, and of course, it was still her dear Grandpa’s birthday. Which was why, in the dead of night, or two in the morning, she’d taken mother’s car and the trailer they’d “borrowed” from the factory, covered the plates, wrapped a scarf around her head and donned her puffy winter jacket, and snuck into the factory. After all, if she was going to embark on an illegal road race in an illegally modified car with four dozen other nutjobs, what harm was a little headstart?
Several minutes of cursing at the forklift later, Anna found the crate she was looking for, and loaded it onto the trailer. Before leaving, she took another look in the archives and realised that next to the engine was the fancy new six-speed gearbox with synchro and adjustable central diff. So she took that too. And a spare winch. And a new set of power tools. After all, she’d pay it all back with the five million quid like easy, right?
Christine, so recently basking in the renewed domestic comforts of her returned prodigal daughter, felt the stirrings of unease once more. Anna’s determination had taken on a frightening edge. She was constantly preoccupied, brooding, and back to being her aloof self. Plans to return to the track were rebuffed and postponed. The cups of tea returned to a state of awkward silence. Worse yet, whenever she entered the garage, Anna would jump with a hunted look on her face. She wouldn’t explain what the winch was for, though she knew full well that Christine knew the one application, so what exactly was it that she was concealing? Along with the hard muscular body Anna had mysteriously developed, Christine wondered whether Anna had been taking any drugs over and above the passion that had become obsession.
Come October, and Christine decided she’d had enough. Early one morning she marched back into the garage in which Anna was now permanently sequestered, only to find a big empty space where the Evo had sat. Which was to say, the car had gone, leaving a big fat stain of a former oil patch. And a note left in the middle of it. Hands shaking, Christine picked it up, and recognised Anna’s characteristic angular small caps writing.
SORRY I WAS SUCH A HORRIBLE DAUGHTER THESE LAST THREE WEEKS. THE TRUTH IS, OUR ORIGINAL PLAN TO CREATE A TRACK LEGEND OUT OF THE EVO NEVER CHANGED. BUT AN OPPORTUNITY CAME UP AND I SIMPLY HAD TO TAKE IT.
I’M TAKING THE EVO ON A TOUR ACROSS EUROPE. DON’T WORRY, I’LL BE CAREFUL AND I’LL TAKE GOOD CARE OF THE CAR. I ALREADY SWAPPED THE ENGINE AND TRANNY OUT AND I’LL TUNE IT PROPERLY SO IT WON’T EXPLODE AND STRAND ME IN SERBIA OR SOMETHING.
THANK YOU FOR HELPING ME AND PUTTING UP WITH MY CRAZY DESPITE EVERYTHING. ACTUALLY SORRY I WAS SUCH A HORRIBLE DAUGHTER THESE LAST FIVE YEARS. HELL, MY ENTIRE LIFE. ONLY NOW DO I REALISE HOW MUCH YOU’VE REALLY DONE FOR ME. I PROMISE I’LL DO BETTER WHEN I GET BACK.
P.S. YES, I KNOW I’M GOING TO BE GROUNDED FOR LIFE. FINGERS CROSSED IT’LL BE WORTH IT HAHA
With Christine’s world crashing down around her, she did the only thing she could think to do.
She phoned Graham.
“What do you mean, the cameras can’t identify the thief?” Graham Streeton fumed at the technical staff, wiping his brow furiously with his handkerchief. “Whoever waltzed in and made a five finger discount store of our factory had access codes, it can’t be that hard!”
Inefficiency like this infuriated a numbers man like Graham. And when it had taken an inventory check to pick up the irregularity a good two weeks after the date the cameras picked up the mischievous bugger who had made off with some suspiciously specific hardware, and one week later they were still no closer to figuring it out, it made Graham twitch, and when he twitched, he started sweating, and it compelled him to use his ‘Anna wipe’ for a different occasion. He couldn’t help but think that perhaps this was beyond a coincidence.
“Mr Streeton,” there was a tap on his shoulder.
“Can’t you see this isn’t a good time?” Graham snapped, without turning.
“I’m sorry sir, it’s just, it’s Christine Herrington on the line. She says she knows what happened to your Stretto component prototypes.”
A lightning bolt shot through Graham’s spine. “DANG AND BLAST I KNEW IT!” he yelled, much to the shock of everybody present. “I’ll take that call,” he snarled through clenched teeth.
There was only one place that Annabel Herrington could be, if she wanted to take an all-wheel-drive jury-rigged Frankenmonster car on a jaunt around Europe and not have the engine lunch itself thirty miles in. It was the only one, because at the time, there was only one four wheel rolling road dyno that corner of England. And as far as that place went, it was also the only place equipped with the computers to reprogram the ECUs for such cars. And so it was that Graham found himself screaming down the highway in his Znopresk Zap! to catch an Anna.
The garage itself had all the usual suspects, the grey-market imports, piled up all over the lot. It was a hive of young hoons, the crowd that would make fun of his receding hair, the crowd Armada was supposed to be popular with. He grumbled to himself, straightened his glasses and squared his shoulders before swinging the door open and marching up the drive.
“ANNABEL!” he bellowed. The gaggle of youth clustered around, no doubt, the Group B Evo, all gawked at the suited middle-aged man, then guffawed. “Hey is that your old man?”
“Oh for crying out loud,” Anna muttered, still untangling lines and legacy port cables from the ECU board. “Sod off Graham, this is none of your business!”
Graham planted his feet in the middle of the drive, a tower of manly wrath. “It IS my business, when you steal company hardware and compromise the integrity of our intellectual property! You’re lucky I haven’t already called the police!”
“Go ahead then!” Anna taunted, throwing the cables out of the cabin and popping the panels back in place. “The bobbies can’t touch this, not with what I’m packing now!” She flipped several switches and punched the START button. With a cough and a bark the engine came to life… with the telltale sonorous thrum of a bi-turbo V12, much to the delight of the crowd, and the chagrin of Graham.
“I can’t believe you just went and modified our one-off prototype,” Graham frothed, going a hitherto undiscovered shade of red.
“This is what the Evo should have been all along,” Anna yelled over the straight-piped din. “Besides don’t you have a whole line of econoboxes to worry about? Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a race to get to.” She slipped some earmuffs over her head, then gunned the engine again.
“ANNABEL. DON’T YOU DARE!” Graham started marching up the driveway again, hand outstretched, as if that would make a difference. But Anna dumped the clutch amid much cheering and with a chirp, the wheels bit and the modified Group B Evo leapt out of the garage directly towards Graham. Before Graham could untangle his crossed knees, Anna flicked the wheel left and then right, yanking the handbrake, throwing the Evo into a four wheel donut with Graham at the center. As he cowered under the automotive assault, he couldn’t help but notice the further desecration of Armada history: in particular the bolt-on flared fenders and wheel arches. Aghast, he wordlessly mouthed at Anna, but she stared back at him, eyes locked on his even as she spun the wheels in a cloud of smoke, swivelling around him barely a foot away with one hand on the wheel and the other hand flaunting a V for Victory.
Except the hand was the other way around.
Then she was off! Flicking the wheel back, the Evo straightened up and shot out onto the road, rocketing off into the distance and leaving Graham in the scattering dust of his impotent rage.