Short Story Â© Gareth A. Williams 2006
Boots was far from happy with the situation. He was breaking one of his own golden rules: if it didn't feel right, walk away.
He stood under a 'Buses Only' sign, his hands in his Parka pockets, the hood shielding his face from the drizzle. He was wet and cold. He had been standing in exactly the same spot for about half an hour and still couldn't get the timings right. Green for about a minute and red for ' how long? Sometimes four minutes, sometimes four and a half. Such inconsistency was irksome ' and thirty seconds could be the difference between success and failure.
It was a point of principle with Boots: you should always carry out a period of thorough research. Make sure you knew what you were dealing with. He'd been observing the light at this junction for a couple of days and he had it licked. But this evening he'd turned up for work to find it encased in blackness. A plastic sign had been hastily tied to the post, depicting a traffic light with a thick, black line through it. Immediately in front of the dark, dead signal, looking like its scruffy offspring, was Boots' nemesis: a temporary traffic light. His research had proved futile.
Under normal circumstances he would have cancelled but he knew he couldn't afford to. The order had been given: Robbo had let it be known it was to be settled this week.
As the traffic slid by him in a swirl of noise and spray, Boots placidly studied the anonymous, shadowy figures behind each wheel. A nearby streetlamp gave him a picture of surprising clarity; he could see their anxious faces as their fear grew that the green light was about to disappear. When this did happen, and the amber disc shone brightly, he started to prepare himself. The cars, which had been lugubriously shuffling through the junction, suddenly speeded up as the drivers saw their exit being shut off to them. The light had been red for about twenty-five seconds and at least eight cars had sped through in that time. Such flagrant disregard for the rules never failed to give Boots a sense of moral outrage. Eventually the driver of a four-by-four, mouthing silent swear words, bottled it, braked and came to a reluctant halt.
As the cars directly behind also slowed and stopped, Boots had already made his selection. Third from front, a silver Vauxhall hatchback, about two years old, was revving impatiently. The driver, a pristine-suited businessman, was forced to stretch to catch a glimpse of the traffic light which was almost obscured by the four-by-four.
One minute. Boots smiled. There was no way the man's concentration was going to waver from the red light. His handbrake would be released as soon as red was joined by its amber cousin. The revving continued.
One minute thirty-five seconds. Boots began to edge slowly off the curb and into the road. There was no rush. The amount of time the drivers waited on red directly correlated to their expectation of the light changing; and the higher that expectation, the more hypnotising the light. Another rev from the businessman.
Two minutes fifteen seconds. Boots now stood fully in the road, the Vauxhall in front of him, a white Transit behind. Through the Vauxhall's rear windscreen, he could see the back of the businessman's head, cocked slightly to one side, the neck stretched up. He hadn't noticed Boots at all. He felt warm exhaust fumes blow against his jeans as the businessman revved once again. Two minutes fifty seconds. It was time to act.
He firmly jabbed his thumb into the Vauxhall's boot release button. There was a dull, metallic 'click' and the door swung upwards. Thoughtfully, an automatic courtesy light flickered on, making Boots' job easier. He spotted a black leather laptop bag and yanked it out by its handle. He grunted, always surprised by the weight of these things, and with his free arm, lowered the boot door so it almost clicked shut (very important, that).
Three minutes ten seconds. Now all that was left was to run, a skill in which Boots was proficient. He was young and fit, and even with a laptop in one hand he fancied his chances against an apple-shaped businessman. He set off for a nearby side street.
Three minutes forty-five seconds. He could hear a shout from behind him; evidently the businessman had become aware of what was happening. Boots glanced round. The driver was leaning out of his window, his fist raised in a threatening gesture. He opened his door and made as if to jump out, but he was struggling to release his seatbelt. He shouted again, as he at last managed to free himself. Four minutes ten seconds. The businessman was out of his car. His first action was, as Boots expected, to push his rear door shut (he didn't want anything else to go missing). Four minutes twenty-five seconds. He took some steps in the direction Boots had taken. Four minutes twenty-eight. The amber light took up position just under the red, and the businessman's first running steps were accompanied by a collective roar of engines. The businessman stopped and looked back at his car. Four minutes thirty. The light was now green. The white Transit behind the Vauxhall sounded its horn imperiously. As he disappeared round the corner of a building Boots' final image of the scene was the businessman standing in the road, comically torn between chasing his laptop and returning to his car.
As Boots continued running, he could hear more horns joining the chorus, and he knew that the driver would be, by now, obeying his instincts and climbing into his car. It was impossible for him to leave his Vauxhall blocking a green light: some rules just couldn't be broken.
Even though he was certain he was safe he kept on running for a while. He wanted to get to the usual place.
It was almost another four minutes before Boots slowed and stopped. He was gasping heavily, noisily, trying to ease the fire in his chest. A further two minutes were needed for his breathing to get close to normal. He looked around him. He was standing outside a disused Victorian warehouse and he was the only person around. Despite its proximity to the city streets, hardly any noise permeated this lonely enclave. Away from the streetlamps it was completely dark. Against the skyline Boots could make out the black, bulky shape of ivy, impervious to the structure's man-made aspirations, sweeping nonchalantly over the eves. He sat himself on a stone doorstep and rested the laptop case on his knee, positioned so he could easily undo the straps. From his pocket he brought out a small torch. He twisted the end to turn it on, and directed the bright, crisp beam on to the case. He noticed now that the case was not genuine leather and, judging by the scratches and the fraying edges, it had been about a bit.
With misgivings, Boots pulled out the computer. As he feared it was a basic model; old and slow. Windows 95, if he had to make a guess. The businessman was working for cheapskates: no wonder he gave up the chase before it had begun!
Boots returned the laptop to its case, and then allowed them both to slip from his knee to the ground where they landed with a 'clunk.' They were, to Boots, worthless.
Inevitably, Boots' thoughts turned to Robbo. This was not looking good. Robbo was a man who expected things to be done in a proper fashion. Any agreement with Robbo should be kept to the letter. Boots shivered to think of the consequences of turning up again empty handed. His debt was due a week ago, but ' somehow ' fate smiled a judicious grin. Boots, expecting a beating, had fixed his stare on the man himself, but Robbo simply shrugged 'Next week, my boy, it will be settled.' Despite the chilling seriousness of the face, Boots could still see the laughing smile in those child-like eyes. You didn't break Robbo's rules lightly, but it was only a week late. The important thing was that he'd pay back the debt.
Boots pursed his lips, pretending to whistle, as he pondered another of his golden rules - always vary the location - which he knew he would have to break: he would return to the same traffic light on the same night. He spat on the laptop case, disgusted at how his desperation was affecting his judgement. After all, the rules were there for a reason.
Two minutes. The scene was much as it was earlier. From under the 'Buses Only' sign, Boots had watched different drivers in different vehicles, illuminated by the orange streetlamp, slipping past noisily on a carpet of spray. The businessman, of course, was no longer around. He was probably at home by now, or in the pub, bemoaning his ill-fortune while hoping secretly that his employer bought him a decent replacement. Maybe with a DVD-player and Bluetooth. And Boots had finally selected his second target of the evening, a silver Vauxhall, a couple of years old. His selections were always the same. It was a percentage game; they were more often than not driven by the right demographic. Two minutes thirty-five. This particular Vauxhall was again near the front of the queue, the driver's features obscured by clingy, thick smoke from an over-sized cigar. Boots took up position behind the Vauxhall, the familiar pounding of his heart helping to keep track of time. Three minutes ten. He pressed the button to open the boot and waited for the courtesy light to display the treasures within.
Three minutes thirty-five. Forty-five. Boots was unsure of exactly how long it took him to realise he was staring at the naked corpse of a young man. Its skin was whiter than Boots could have imagined. Its eyes were still open. The courtesy light gave it an even more unreal quality than it deserved. On the man's chest, like a price tag on a pig, was pinned a roughly scrawled note: 'This is you.'
Boots shut the door in the vain hope its 'click' would erase the gruesome vision. He looked through the rear windscreen of the Vauxhall. In the mirror, thick cigar smoke parted to reveal laughing, child-like eyes fixed on him. So it was to be settled.
Boots ran faster and harder than he knew how. Just as the red disappeared and was replaced by the green, the traffic started moving freely. Boots heard the screech which told him Robbo had found room to U-turn (in a 'No U-turn' zone). He headed for the same side street as before, looking round to see the silver Vauxhall closer, closer¦
With a sudden change of direction Boots regained his advantage, sprinting up a familiar alley way, through a familiar fence. The research was serving him well: Robbo would have to follow him on foot.
He briefly found himself on a residential street, but not for long: another change of direction took him through some back gardens and across a park, down a cul-de-sac and over a railway bridge. He tried to straighten his thoughts as he ran, but all he could think of was the note pinned to the corpse. 'This is you,' it said. 'You broke the rules.'
Before he knew, he was on home ground. The clouds in the night sky had darkened, if possible, and the rain was heavier and set for the night. As a consequence, the ivy was less visible against the skyline, but Boots knew exactly where he was. He threw himself on to the grassy rubble that was peculiar to these old, industrial places, forcing in huge, rasping lungfuls of oxygen. He didn't notice the rain which drenched him, or the 'tick, tick, tick' of the engine.
He did, however, notice when the headlights were switched on. He lay on his stomach, watching the Vauxhall, without the strength even to lift his head. He saw how the beams picked out the most insignificant details; how tiny stones could cast long, elegant shadows in their brief moments in the spotlight; and how their shadows shortened and eventually disappeared as the car approached and sped over them.