444: No Smoking

It was an old Mercedes, the type with big oval headlamps like Betty Boop eyes. Modern cars all seem to merge into the same aesthetic, slanted headlights like the eyes of a villain in an anime. Used to be cars made a point of looking completely different to one another, a VW bug had nothing in common with a BMW or a Porsche.

Now, everything copies the same bullet shape and swept-back lines. It doesn’t particularly bother me, I’m not an old geezer lamenting the loss of cars with pointless fins and spoilers, but I think it indicates that people are being groomed into all liking the same thing.

Once everyone has the same tastes, it will be much easier to switch us all over to Soylent Green without anyone raising a fuss. I’m guessing it will be made by Nestle.

The Merc was roomy and had big leather seats, the type that would probably burn your legs in the summer. The front seats formed a bench, no gap in the middle for a gearbox, which is unusual in Britain.

We like the gear stick down on the floor, left hand on the knob (not a euphemism). This car was definitely not your regular motor vehicle for North London in the 21st century.

I was in the back, in the middle, feeling a little fenced in. Even a big car felt odd from the middle seat. There was a slight bulge under my bum and a raised section between my feet, which made it hard to get comfortable.

“I can swap places with you, if you’d like,” said the guy next to me, “sir.”

He had been giving me odd looks from the corner of his eye, leaning away so we didn’t make contact at the knees.

“It’s fine,” I said. A fight I could handle. Running away and hiding, I was Olympic-level, wouldn’t even need to bribe anyone to get on the podium. But these sorts of social interactions were my Achilles’ heel. The people who can navigate their way through small talk in a confined area, they’re the real heroes.

“Sorry about before.” He wasn’t a huge guy, not like the boys in Jack’s crew, but he was still quite hard-looking. He had the Jason Statham shaved head with intense stubble speckled all the way down to his neck, front and back, and probably down the rest of his body. “Didn’t mean any harm, just doing what we were told, sir.”

I didn’t think there was anything to apologise for. He had attacked me, but nothing had come of it. Didn’t even touch me. He was being very polite and deferential, which sounded quite odd coming from an American. They were usually much more brusque and in your face, but maybe I was unfairly basing my views on misinformation and Hollywood movies. Or maybe he was Canadian.

He looked a bit worried. Scared, even.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said magnanimously. “I won’t hold it against you.”

He had seen me do something odd and had come away from the experience thinking that made me some sort of psycho, which was a tad unfair. It wasn’t like I went around killing people for looking at me wrong. My whole approach was to leave people alone as much as possible, and hope for the same in return.

I would have liked to have looked out of the window and pretended I was busy thinking about something, but that’s hard to do from the middle seat, so I stared straight ahead and tried to get more comfortable. I didn’t even know where we were going, but if I asked that would only open the door to more chitchat. I preferred to remain in the dark.

“We’re being followed,” said the driver. His strong African accent betrayed no signs of nervousness at all, not of me and not of whoever was following us.

“Lose them,” said Lillian.

“In this traffic?” said the driver. “You must be confusing me with Michael Schumacher.”

I wasn’t sure Michael Schumacher would have any better chance of speeding through the buses and cars stop-starting their way past endless traffic lights, especially not in his current state, but there seemed little possibility of losing anyone in a car chase conducted at under twenty miles per hour. Frankly, they could just get out and walk to keep up.

“Pull over,” I said.

“No,” said Lillian. “We don’t want to engage them.”

“You know who it is?” I asked. “Jack?”

“Of course. Do you think they would just let you go?”

“Pull over,” I repeated.

The driver turned and looked at the girl. She was in two minds, although probably whether to keep going or to punch me in the face and keep going.

“If I have to say it again,” I said, “you’re going to be the first one to regret annoying me.”

My words were pointed at Lillian — the whole girl power thing was getting on my nerves, just like everything else the Spice Girls had ever done.

“I know what I’m doing,” said Lillian. “Trust me.”

“No,” I said. “I don’t do trust. It’s not the way I work.” I looked over my shoulder, out of the rear window. I could see a bunch of cars and vans, and one black SUV with tinted windows. “That road on the left, down there.”

Lillian nodded and the driver faced front again. He indicated to turn and then rolled into a side street full of closely-packed houses with no front gardens, just stairs going up to the door and cars parked on both sides.

It was all very well me telling the driver to pull over, but it was kind of difficult with London parking spaces being at such a premium. He pulled into a disabled bay — I know, I was about to leave him a strongly worded note myself — and the other car stopped in the middle of the road.

I know it’s wrong to look down on people just for being foreigners, but at this point any hate was fully justified. I was willing to bet neither party knew how to queue at the express till in a supermarket, either.

“Can you get out?” I said. “I don’t really want to have to pass through either of your bodies, it might contaminate my DNA and make me go all Brundlefly.”

The people on either side of me got out and I was finally able to feel in possession of myself. Being stuck close to people has never been my favourite position, in a car or in life.

Jack was getting out of his car, backed up by his boys. His face was heavily bruised and generally fucked up. He looked a bit confused. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” I said. “Are you? You look terrible.” I turned towards Lillian. “Did you do that?”

She shrugged. “It wasn’t personal.”

“She says it wasn’t personal,” I shouted at Jack, “but I think she has daddy issues, and you can’t get any more personal than that.” I could feel a heat boring into the side of my face. It was quite pleasant, actually. “Why are you following me?” I asked Jack. “I thought we’d spoken about this.”

“We were coming to rescue you. From her.” He pointed at Lillian, who turned and looked behind her as though he was indicating someone else.

“That’s nice of you, but do you really think I need saving? She beat you up, not me.”

“She didn’t… It doesn’t matter. She isn’t someone you can trust.”

“Well, duh. Neither are you. In case any of you haven’t figured it out yet, all of you are the bad guys.” I waved my hands around to make sure they understood I was including everyone in the vicinity. “Them doing evil shit doesn’t make your shit smell any sweeter. You’re like the Germans and the Japanese during World War Two, no one can choose a winner for shittiest human beings between you. There’s no point trying to use the conditions in the other guy’s concentration camps to prove how much worse they are than you. To be totally honest, it wouldn’t surprise me if it turns out you’re both secretly working together, trying to get me to choose sides when there’s really only the one choice dressed up in different clothes.”

Being the sort of person who is aware of tropes and archetypes, I was more than familiar with how you could convince a gullible victim that they were in charge of their own destiny by presenting them with what looked like a free choice, but all they were really getting were two carefully picked candidates who were both in the pocket of their, and your, true master.

You may be familiar with this trick, it gets played on you roughly every four years.

“We were trying to help,” said Jack. There were five of them and four on Lillian’s side. Then again, she had messed up his face pretty good, so maybe she had some Black Widow moves to even things out.

“I don’t need help,” I said. “Well, I do, but not from people who are planning to do terrible things to me and then end up coming to me for help when they fuck things up royally. I think you may have some sort of messiah complex, Jack, probably caused by something that happened to you when you were very young. Under seven. Did your dad leave?”

Jack looked more confused than ever. “What has that got do with anything?”

“Aha! I knew it.”

“No, my dad didn’t leave.”

“Don’t deny it now. Every American action movie I’ve ever seen has the same motivation for the hero — to prove he’s good enough to his dad. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jaws… all the same.”

“How is Jaws—”

“Shut up,” I said to Lillian, “I’m having a moment of clarity. This is his turning point, when he realises he is good enough and doesn’t have to treat women badly to punish his mother for making his dad leave.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” said Jack. Classic deflection.

“It wasn’t your fault, Jack. He was a piece of shit before you were even born. I mean, you do have half his shitty DNA, so it isn’t all good news, but you have to take the rough with the smooth.”

The driver started laughing. He was tall and skinny with a high forehead and his natty afro hairline starting way back on the top of his head. He seemed to be the only one appreciating my analysis.

“I think you might have few childhood traumas yourself,” said Lillian.

“Of course,” I said. “You don’t get to be like me without a little assistance. But I’ve made my peace with it. Helps that both people responsible for my rubbish childhood have fucked off. By which I mean they’re dead. It’s great for closure, death. Much better than someone going out for a packet of fags and never coming back.”

“He didn’t—”

“Jack, it’s okay. You don’t have to protect everyone. I’ll be fine. This bunch of clowns are just as clueless as your lot. And the chick, I’d give her a five out of ten on the vindictive tart scale. Don’t want to boast, but I’m used to dealing with tens across the board.”

I could tell by the looks I was getting that I had made an impression.

There was a woop-woop from behind the SUV and flashing lights. The police had arrived, probably called by one of the street’s residents who didn’t like all these able-bodied people occupying handicap parking. Not because it was morally wrong, more likely out of spite — if they couldn’t park there, why should we get to?

“Take care of them, would you?” I said to Jack. I assumed he had connections and a phone number to call if things got sticky. Normal rules didn’t apply to the rich, and anyone who could transfer two million quid into my bank account wasn’t short of a judge or two in their back pocket.

I headed back to the car. The SUV was in the middle of the road, which meant there wasn’t enough space for the police to go around. London roads for the win.

The good thing about this minor delay was that I now got to change the seating arrangements. I took the front seat, giving the guy who had previously ridden shotgun a look to let him know his days of wine and roses were over. The three of them got in the back with Lillian in the middle. Let’s see how she liked it.

There was plenty of room in the front and I stretched out. I was starting to see the attraction of being a merciless leader and tyrant — it was the legroom.

The driver peeled out before the cops could get to us and Jack stepped in to pacify them. Good call by me, for once.

“He won’t let it go,” said Lillian, hunched up and leaning forward. There’s no good sitting position in the middle.

“That’s okay,” I said. “He’ll back off for now. And you never know, I might need rescuing at some point.”

The driver laughed again. He didn’t say much but he had a big laugh, all big eyes and white teeth. Not that I’m trying to paint him as some kind of jolly black stereotype, but he was certainly the only one in the car who was having a good time.

The front of the Merc was a little unusual. There were a lot more knobs and switches than I was used to seeing in an old car like this. You hardly expected electric windows and locks in something of this vintage, so I was curious to see what they were for. I flicked one.

“No, don’t, that’s—” said Lillian before a glass screen came up and separated the back of the car from the front.

I wasn’t unduly concerned — privacy in the back of a limousine was a normal feature, even if this wasn’t a limo. It was when the back began to fill with gas that things struck me as not good. Not good at all.

I flicked the switch back but it did nothing.

“Shouldn’t we stop?” I said to the driver.

“No point.”

The back had rapidly filled with thick white smoke. Lillian was banging on the glass partition, her face disappearing and only her hand visible as it pounded.

“Maybe open a window?” I suggested. It hadn’t really registered what was going on.

“Rear windows don’t work. Doors won’t open. Once it starts, no way to stop it.”

“Are they going to die?”

“Yes.” He took a left.

This was not what I had been expecting.

“Do you want them to die?” I asked him. Lillian’s shoe was now banging on the glass.

“No, not at all. I wasn’t the one who turned the switch.”

I got the feeling he was making this my fault. “You’re the one refusing to let them out.”

“There is not a way out.” He didn’t sound at all upset. “The doors are reinforced, the glass is unbreakable.”

The back of the car was a solid block of white. It must have looked quite odd to anyone on the outside. It wasn’t like we were in Notting Hill where this sort of thing was normal.

“You,” said the driver, all smiles, “you… you give no fucks, eh? Haha.” He took his hands off the steering wheel and clapped three times, then took back the wheel before we crashed into oncoming traffic. “I like you, my friend. I like the way you operate. I am AJ, if you ever need a driver, you call me, ah? Any time, anywhere. Here.” He thrust a phone at me and then pulled it back. My own phone buzzed. “That’s my number. You call me any time. We will have fun.”

“Thanks.” I couldn’t quite accept they were really going to die in the back. Was I meant to be back there? Was this how they planned to deal with me? No, they knew I’d be able to escape. This car was just fitted with this extra feature, just in case. Who were these people?

“I have known many men like you,” he said. “Men with the same look in their eyes, the look of death and rage, the darkness of a soul without remorse.”

“Oh, are you from Peckham, then?”

“No, I come from a small village in Ghana. It is a brutal place, full of violence. I think you would like it. Every boy is put into a pit with a wild animal when he is fourteen, to prove he has the right to be called a man. With only a knife he must defeat the goat.”

“I don’t think a goat counts as a wild animal,” I said. The banging on the glass partition was a lot less now.

“The goats in our village were like lions with horns. Come, we must change cars.”

He pulled into a multi-storey carpark belonging to a supermarket. People were pushing around trolleys full of shopping. We wound our way to the top and parked in a corner. I think it helped that I couldn’t see in the back. Made it easier to pretend nothing untoward had occurred. I did feel a little guilty, but it wasn’t like I had done it on purpose. It wasn’t personal.

We got out of the car. AJ looked around and then pointed his phone at the other cars, waving it from side to side. A car on the left beeped and its lights flashed. “That one.”

The car, a modern saloon that looked like every other car on this level, was now unlocked. We got in and AJ started it up.

“The boss is going to like you, of that I am sure.”

“Why’s that?”

“He is like you.” AJ drove us towards the exit. “He is a killer.” AJ smiled a big white smile and started laughing again.

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