“Who am I supposed to have murdered?” I asked.
The policeman with the tablet looked down, tapped a few things, and then looked back up. “That information is restricted. It just says to bring you in. You aren’t marked down as dangerous or violent so we won’t be using the stun feature of these handcuffs.”
“Thanks.” Stun-cuffs? That was new. They were grey and chunky, like they were made of Lego. “You’re going to arrest me without telling me who I’m supposed to have killed?”
“The information isn’t restricted from you, it’s restricted from us,” said the policeman. “We don’t have the appropriate level of authorisation.” He pointed at his chest where there was a name badge: Auxiliary Officer Davies.
“You’re not a real cop?”
“Community support, but we’re both fully trained and qualified to escort you in for questioning,” said Auxiliary Office Davies, a little extra huff in his voice. “We’re usually assigned to low-level crimes so the full-timers can focus on the important stuff.”
“Murder is a low-level crime?” Things really had changed in my absence.
“This wasn’t meant to be a murder case,” said the other one, whose name badge said Auxiliary Officer Carlton. “You were meant to be a petty thief.”
I was no expert on the law — my life had never been exciting enough to require the justice system to take notice of me, and vice versa — but I was pretty sure you couldn’t be arrested without being told what you were being arrested for. But in this new post-Brexit world, who knew what the rules were?
“Oh, wait,” said Officer Carlton, lowering his pepper spray. “He said he’s been travelling abroad. Probably doesn’t know about the new privacy laws.”
“Right, right,” said Davies. “To avoid the media learning about your alleged crime and spreading misinformation that might prejudice your case, details will be revealed to you in a secure location with only cleared personnel present. That way, if the news does leak onto social media, the leaker will be easier to locate.”
It was the sort of law that could have been passed while I was away. The rich and famous were always complaining about a lack of privacy, except when they had something to sell and desperately tried to get everyone’s attention.
“And why did you break into my flat?” I asked.
“It was already open,” said Carlton. “We were just checking if everything was alright.”
“No one home,” said Davies. “Looks like nothing’s been touched. The whole place is covered in dust, though.” He pulled an embarrassed face. “We thought you must be a bit of a pig, but if you’ve been abroad, I suppose that explains it…”
Called a pig by the pigs. What kind of crazy world was this?
At least that meant there wasn’t another Colin living here.
“Okay, let me just check if—”
Davies’ tablet beeped. He looked down at it. “They’re asking if we need backup.”
“Sorry,” said Carlton. “We’ll have to take you straight in or we’ll end up going over the end of our shift.” He gave me an apologetic smile. “They don’t pay us overtime.”
I’d have been quite happy to put my feet up and stay out of everyone’s way for the rest of my life, but apparently that was not to be. I was already in the system and the net was closing around me. I wasn’t panicked, though. The old me might have quietly and forcefully shat himself in this sort of situation, but even without any magical powers I was fine with it. I was still actually quite curious to find out how this was going to go down. Who had I killed? Why was I suddenly the focus of this much attention? And what else had changed while I was away? The quickest way to get answers seemed to be to play along with this charade.
The back of the police car — an electric BMW — smelled clean, but not in a good way. Like a recently disinfected public toilet. I slipped around on the plastic seat cover, still damp from its most recent wipe down. On the back of the driver’s headrest, a small screen informed me of my rights in a sloping white font set against a montage of idyllic autumnal scenes.
It may harm your defence … a carpet of red leaves in Hyde Park … if you do not mention when questioned … Victorian lamp posts viewed through golden branches … something you later rely on in court …
The two part-time officers didn’t seem bothered about the severity of my crime. Perhaps I gave off a ‘just murdered won’t need to murder again for a while’ vibe. Or maybe this was all fake, they weren’t cops, this wasn’t a cop car and nothing in this universe was the way it appeared to be.
In any case, it wasn’t like I had any plans for the rest of the day. The way I saw it, being accused of murder was the least of my problems. Even if someone had died, it had nothing to do with me. I could deal with it once I figured out if any of this was real.
A little before ten, we pulled into what could have easily passed for a supermarket car park, if it wasn’t for all the police cars and the giant, rotating steel sign in blue and silver proclaiming: New Scotland Yard.
Handcuffs still on, I was helped out of the back of the car and Auxiliary Officer Davies led me into the foyer while Auxiliary Officer Carlton went over to a cabinet with a screen where he logged in and either announced our arrival or possibly checked his twitter feed.
Other police officers led in their suspects and signed in at one of the other terminals. The other suspects looked far more likely to have committed murder than me but that was just my prejudices talking. I had in fact killed quite a few people, just not on this planet.
Officer Carlton came back with a slip of paper which he handed to me. “Hold onto this.” It had some numbers printed on it.
I was taken through sliding doors into a large area where there were hundreds of people lined up, waiting their turn to speak to a bored clerk at one of the many computer terminals in glassed-off booths.
The officers unclipped my handcuffs, so they were now bracelets, and placed me in the shortest queue, and then they turned to leave.
“Where are you going?” I said, suddenly feeling a bit lost.
“You’ll be fine, just stay in your snake,” said Officer Davies, referring to the winding barriers that kept the different queues separate. Fine for the Post Office, not so great for London’s Most Wanted.
“Aren’t some of these people dangerous?” I asked.
“Innocent until proven guilty,” said Carlton. “Don’t worry, you’ll be perfectly safe.” And off they went.
I was on my own, to do as I pleased. There didn’t appear to be any guards. I could have just walked off, but there had to be some kind of security. No one else was making a run for it. They also had chunky bracelets on.
Having not been around for these changes, I didn’t want to embarrass myself by trying to leave and triggering an alarm. I was in the company of London’s most undesirable elements, and I didn’t want to make myself look bad in front of them. I was being kept in line by peer pressure.
So I waited my turn, standing with the bald and the tattooed. When a gap opened up in front of someone daydreaming, a polite cough would get the line moving. Say what you like about the English criminal class, they know how to form an orderly queue.
‘Window. Number six. Please,’ a disembodied voice instructed me when I got to the front.
Behind window six, a young man in a short-sleeved shirt sat in front of a touch-sensitive screen, which he poked every now and again. His name tag read: Ancillary Officer Lennon. I wasn’t sure how an ancillary officer differed from an auxiliary one. Probably a matter of pay grade.
“Name?”’ he asked in a bored monotone.
The Ancillary Officer typed it in. “Surname: Collins. First name: Brian.”
“No,” I said. “Surname: Brown, first name: Colin.”
Officer Lennon smiled at me but made no move to make any corrections. “Customer number, Mr Brown?”
“Aren’t you going to change my name?”
“The computer does it automatically when we put in the customer number.” He lifted a small flap at the bottom of the glass screen separating us.
I passed him the piece of paper I’d been given. After half an hour standing in line, clutching it in my fist, it resembled a tissue that had been used for dubious purpose. Ancillary Officer Lennon passed it over a scanner, got a red light, pressed it down on the tabletop and used the edge of his palm to flatten it out, tried again, and then began inputting the number manually via a virtual keyboard on the screen.
“I don’t have one,” I said.
Ancillary Officer Lennon held up a glossy leaflet with a picture of a driving licence, passport and credit card merging into the colours of the Union Jack. “Can I interest you in purchasing a biometric card today?” he recited. ‘This leaflet explains the benefits and details the application process. If you apply online, you can save twenty percent.”
“No thanks,” I said, with the same fixed smile I used for Jehova’s Witnesses and Greenpeace recruiters.
“The biometric card increases national security, is convenient and practical and can save time on long journeys. All your information will be stored in one place that is almost completely secure and will be dealt with in the strictest confidence.”
“Almost completely secure? What do you mean almost completely?”
“The New Metropolitan Police Service has implemented, to the best of our ability, every possible control and safeguard to ensure abuse of your data never occurs. The details are in this leaflet.” He held up another leaflet. This one had a picture of a smiling black policeman.
I proceeded to turn down life insurance, health insurance, property insurance and a lottery ticket. Top prize was £250,000, which isn’t much these days. Missed opportunity, if you ask me. If they’d offered an actual get out of jail free card, they’d probably become the best-selling lottery franchise in history.
I took all of this nonsense in my stride. My belief that this wasn’t the real planet Earth, 2020 AD, was only getting stronger. I hadn’t managed to burst the illusory bubble I was caught in yet, but it was only a matter of time.
Until that happened, I was finding this version to be very interesting. There was a lot here that was almost plausible. Some of it would actually improve things. If I ever got back to the real Earth, I might suggest it. Well, I’d post it on Reddit.
It appeared that in this version of Britain there had been some rebranding in an effort to correct the public’s mistaken impression of the police, formed by over a hundred years of unfair press, the occasional accidental dropping of a suspect down a flight of stairs, the inadvertent shooting of unarmed people with a tan, the frequent exoneration of footballing rapists, and the unintentional systematic recruiting of members of the British Fascist Party.
Ancillary Officer Lennon put a new slip of paper in my hand — number 00172 — and directed me through the sliding doors to my left.
The holding area was of airport waiting lounge proportions, containing some of the most technically advanced vending machines I’d ever seen. I marvelled at the range of soups, snacks and sandwiches on offer. Toiletries, shaving kits and pay-as-you-go smartphones. Toys for upset children, flowers for the distraught spouse.
The door I’d come through didn’t open when I approached it and there was no other way out that I could see.
There appeared to be no police or security people around. Nobody in any kind of uniform. Cameras were mounted in the ceiling, but they didn’t move and showed no indication of actually being on. The room was filled with rows of plastic seats fused to the floor. Large TV screens dominated the walls, with the volume muted and the subtitles on.
All the televisions screens showed the same smartly dressed man thrusting a microphone at a weeping woman. I’m soggy, lover, I’m soggy, read the subtitles. The caption at the top said: I’m a chocaholic with a secret.
Thirty or so bald, tattooed men — some with tattoos on their bald heads — watched with rapt attention, their lips moving in unison when the subtitles popped up.
I sat down in an aisle seat and nearly slid off the waxy plastic. I settled into an involuntary slouch and wondered if they called out names over a tannoy or if I had to wait for my number to appear on a display somewhere, like at the supermarket deli counter.
Opposite me sat a very large, thick-set Asian man with an impressive twelve inches of hair growing out of his chin. He wore white trainers with the tongues lolling out, baggy cotton pyjama bottoms, a skull cap made of lace doily, and a faded green t-shirt with what looked like ‘Don’t shoot, I’m Brazilian’ in flaked-off yellow print.
I glanced around, careful not to make eye contact with anybody. I was in a large open plan room with a bunch of criminals and little to no supervision. It didn’t seem very safe although it was probably quite cheap, especially when you factored in the prices on the vending machines.
The Indian guy got up and sat down next to me, practically overflowing his chair and taking up some of mine. “You look like a newbie, blood,” he said. “Word of advice. You probably aren’t planning on saying anything incriminating while you’re here, but, just so you know, the whole place is wired: lights, camera, conviction, you get me?” He pointed his finger up.
I took another look at the many cameras bolted to the ceiling, lenses pointed directly at the floor. “Do those things even work?”
“Don’t be fooled. Voice-activated, high-def, high resale value. I’m Shammy Izwaki. Nice to meet you.” He nodded at me.
“Hello,” I said. I tried not to sound too suspicious but no one ever came over and started speaking to me. Most of them slowly backed away if I looked like I might come over to speak to them. So this turn of events struck me as prepared in advance. “I’m here for murder,” I said. “How about you?”
He gave me a strange look and then burst out laughing. “Nice one. You got the right idea. Don’t take it too seriously, blood. Just don’t get cocky, alright? Friendly warning. They play it the English style here, you get me? All chatty and relaxed with man, offer you tea and biscuits, and then, Bam! Next thing you know, you’re doing fifteen to life for something that happened five years before you were born. Not that they’re all bad people, you know? But it ain’t like on the telly. There ain’t just one bad apple in a barrel of Golden fucking Delicious. Barrel is full of worms. Lucky to find one decent Granny Smith in there. Key is to not let them intimidate you. They’re just people like you and me.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Don’t get me wrong, the bizzies do their job as contracted, kushti. But if they tries to tell a man what he should or shouldn’t be doing ’cos they happen to wear a shiny badge? Give me a break, man. Fuck that, and fuck the police,” every camera in the vicinity sprang into life and rotated in our direction, “hating scum that ruin this country.” The cameras all powered down again.
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks for the advice.”
“You got yourself a lawyer?”
My new friend pushed out his bottom lip and vented air. “‘Haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve said? You have the right to have your solicitor present – use it, blood. Doesn’t matter if you’re guilty or not. And don’t take one of them duty solicitors they’ll try and fob you off with. Tell you what, have a word with my girl, she’ll see you right.”
“No, I’m fine, thanks.” I was starting to get the impression this guy was some kind of pusher, an agent for bad lawyers working on commission.
“Honest, bruv, she’s killer. She's so ahead of the curve, she’s practically psychic. Knows where they’re going to plant the evidence on you before they do. Trust me, this is the girl you want in your corner, Colin.”
My ears pricked up when he called me by name, since I hadn’t mentioned it.
“What else does she know?” I asked.
“This and that,” said Shammy. “All sorts, really. Knows all about you. Told me to come here today and introduce myself. Today’s a special day, you know? Very busy, people coming and going, coming and going. Leap year, makes people a little crazy. Me too. Had to get myself arrested just for the pleasure of bumping into you. Not my usual MO, getting caught, but I made an exception, seeing as how you just landed. How was your trip?”
“Fine.” I wasn’t sure how to take my new best bud. He could just be a blithering idiot, but something told me there was more to it than that.
“The way I hear it, you’ve been to some exotic place where the land is flat and the trolls aren’t online.” He grinned and winked at me.
“What is it you want, Shammy?”
“Me? Nothing. But you’re gonna be real popular, I’m guessing. Lots of chatter the moment you popped back. They’re going to want to have words, hear your holiday stories, check your Snapchat.”
“Lots of different people. You should definitely lawyer up.” He handed me a business card that appeared in his hand out of nowhere. I think he had it tucked into his beard. “You should give her a bell. Number’s free. Careful what you say.”
“The phones are tapped?”
“Wouldn’t know, not an engineer. More of an entrepreneur. Adventurer, some call me.” He stood up. He was big but he didn’t seem so fat anymore. Just solid. “You take care of yourself, Colin. They’re coming for you.” He walked away. “Call her, you won’t regret it,” he called over his shoulder, and then he walked up to the doors which shuddered and then slid open for him. He took off his bracelets and dropped them on the floor as he walked through the open doorway, and then a bunch of alarms went off and he ran.
A second later, a group of people flashed past the glass walls in pursuit.
I looked at the card in my hand. Cherry Hinton, Solicitor & Oracle.
How could I not call?
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