Sunday 1st September
Okay, so first thing’s first. Annabel had to get rid of the body.
Sundays were hardly her favourite day of the week, but dirty deeds, death, and decomposition were most definitely at the bottom of her to-do list, and today… well today just wasn’t turning out as expected. She was supposed to be miles away from here. Or at least, that’s what Nexus had been spewing for the past six months. Then again, that bloody paper might as well have been called Bullshit Daily for all the truth it told.
There was blood oozing from Derren’s head.
Make no mistake, she hadn’t shot him. Who would think of such a thing? Shootings were messy and tactless. They also reeked of murder in the first degree. Annabel liked to think she was more tasteful than that.
No. Annabel preferred the arrive-at-victim’s-apartment, talk-with-victim-for-an-hour and then bash-victim-over-head-with-spatula-and-kitchen-knife approach. Some might say that was messier than a bullet to the brain, but only in Conto could you find people willing to argue about it.
So here was the problem. She had a dead teenager at her feet. A dead teenager who she had killed. A dead teenager who had tried to kill her, but had miscalculated and ‘tripped’ into the kitchen knife, which was now sticking out of the right side of his head. Crimson dripped onto the cheap kitchen tiles.
Kids these days, honestly.
Creased fingers reached down and tugged at Derren’s shirt. It was stained, but not just from blood. Three holes were burrowed deep into his chest, filled with deep oceans of blood. That didn’t make any sense. Annabel had only stabbed him twice, hadn’t she? Under the arms were grey patches of sweat. Around the collar was the flaking of dandruff and the slimy contents of last night’s dinner, dribbled out of his mouth and drooled onto the once-white shirt.
Ugh, and the stench. Living alone had obviously taken hygiene out of his lifestyle. No wonder he lived alone. No wonder he’d limped up with red eyes and a skeletor figure to invite her inside. No wonder it had been her he’d called in the end. He’d wanted her to help him. Ha-ha, next joke.
Help was something she sure as hell hadn’t done. But what did he expect? And coming at her with a knife, salivating like a rabid Chihuahua, that hadn’t helped anybody!
She’d had no choice. That’s what Annabel told herself as she squeezed her gorgeous, orange purse under her arm and dragged his ghoulish body towards the front door. She’d had no choice whatsoever. Such was the way things were in Conto. Things were brutal and it left people like her with no choice.
He’d been a little bastard to begin with, though. She had to remember that.
Her hand fumbled for the rusted knob and she dragged out the dead one. The smell of old pizza was gone. Just like that. There was no lingering stench, no sickly smell of plasterboard or mouldy cheese, just the new one of…
Annabel wanted to say faeces, but the word just didn’t appear fast enough for her to dig her claws into. And they were claws now. The claws of a killer. Besides, faeces probably wouldn’t have summed up the new smell as well as shit. And shit was probably the best word to describe her situation, too.
The fumes wafted into her narrow nostrils and Annabel felt her heart fill with lead. That smell confirmed that she hadn’t just clobbered or stabbed Derren, but actually murdered him.
But she’d had no choice, remember? No choice whatsoever.
The apartment block was quiet as she heaved the body out onto the staircase, her purse beginning to dig into her skin. The truth was at this time in the morning it wasn’t really early enough to be deserted. Derren’s haunted neighbours ought to be up and about, slobbering over that morning’s fix and planning the best way to get another before lunchtime.
This city had long been a cesspit of bullshit. Shame it had taken Annabel forty-five years to smell it. Derren, at least, had achieved something worthwhile in his miserable, parasitic life. He’d opened her eyes and nose to the truth behind Conto: the place was secretly hell, not that Annabel believed in such things.
His leather jacket scraped against the stone steps and his head cracked over and over again on the concrete leading to the first floor. The grimy t-shirt rode up, and the faintest hint of a tattoo was teased on his chest, jumbled letters spelling a word she couldn’t quite see, but knew anyway. She ignored it. The sun beat down on the outdoor staircase, but it wasn’t too bad yet. Just one more set of stairs to go and then Annabel would be at the car. And then she would just drive. It would be fine. As long as nobody popped their rancid, greasy mugs out of their caves she’d be perfectly–
“Alright baabe, wotcha got there?”
The voice was drowned in slurring and degradation. The syllables merged with one another into one big fucking mess of sounds, but still it made Annabel’s blood freeze in her veins.
And surprise, surprise. It was a man, too.
“Y’alright down there? Fuckinn’ long night wassit? Ha-ha!”
Annabel straightened up and let Derren’s arm flop to his side on the landing. The rotting voice was from behind her, which meant the owner of said voice wouldn’t be able to see Derren just yet.
“Yeah, you wouldn’t believe.” She swallowed and turned a fraction to the side so the stranger could catch just a peek of Derren slumped over on the stairs. “I’m taking him back to mine for a lie down,” she said, gesturing to the corpse.
“Bit young for you ain’t he? Ha-ha!”
Something told her on the deepest level of her cynicism that this guy didn’t even live in the apartment he was hanging from, like a scabby monkey oo-oo-oo-ing at the passers by. His gaunt eyes were so small, they might as well have been grains of sand folded in the pockets of his grey skin. Annabel hadn’t paid any attention to the teeth either, but she knew –
somehow she knew – that if she did, she wouldn’t like what she saw.
“Oh yeah, haha! No, I’m just a friend of his.”
“Ayyye, I’ll bet,” his teeth lips chapped away from each other and the tiny eyes tried to search around Annabel to look at the body. Annabel moved to the right defensively, shielding Derren from view. “I’m Thomson by the way. Lawwwwrence Thomson. He looks a fuckin’ state, I tell yer.”
“You don’t need to,” Annabel replied, trying to keep her voice calm and her fists by her side. This guy was really beginning to get on her nerves, and she didn’t give a fuck what his name was. “I saw it for myself. He nearly drank himself to death.” The gangly bastard just yawned contentedly and scratched under his armpit. He reached up and rapped the top of his doorway and yep, there was the body odour. Annabel sure as hell should’ve been prepared for that.
“Don’ I know you?” He asked.
“Probably just spotted me last night. Anyway, I best get going,” she choked. “Things to do, young men to take care of, you know.”
“Yer, whatever missus,” the slob yawned. “Be sure to gimme a call if… you need another young’un to take care of.” A yellow eyelid squeaked shut as he winked, and Annabel suppressed the urge to push him down the stairs.
“Will do,” she smiled politely, trying not to gag.
As Lawwwrence Thomson darted back into the apartment, Annabel realised how hot it was beginning to get. Murder was a thirsty business, but body disposal was just insufferable. Ah Conto, best weather around if you liked the unpredictable and unforgiving. Fucking heatwaves.
She grabbed onto Derren and cracked him down the final flight of stairs. Nothing drowned out the sickening crunch of the neck snapping in a thousand different places. Annabel’s guts felt ready to explode all over the pavement, dribbling to mix with Derren’s shit smell to make a ghastly concoction of–
Ugh, that was the last thing she needed. Hold it together, Annabel.
The car park was empty. Really empty, not just an illusion like the bloody staircase. The skyscrapers loomed down on her like giants ready to stomp their way straight into the apocalypse, and in the distance stood the Scythe. A great, glass beast built straight up with a curving edge at the top, it now housed the self-titled President of Conto – Maximillian Brooks.
Maximillian Brooks – watching over the city he kept forever tucked under his thumb.
Conto hadn’t changed one bit since she’d disappeared.
The Sedan wasn’t far, and with it, salvation. A murder charge in Conto was as dangerous as playing Russian roulette with an empty chamber, but it wasn’t Commissioner Harraway’s police Annabel was afraid of.
This fucking city.
Make no mistake, she wasn’t bitter. She was just… wise. She’d been at the centre of Conto for so long that she knew how things worked, and worse yet, everyone knew who she was. That was why when it happened she’d had to disappear. Fat lot of good it had done when Derren of all people had been able to track her down. Though, some would argue that if Conto was so dangerous, she could have always left the city, right?
If anybody thought that anymore they were as stupid as Annabel feared. Leaving the city would break Conto’s only rule – The Rule: you didn’t leave.
She was almost there now. But oh god was Derren heavier than he looked.
She wrenched at the body, quickening her steps. The less time she was out here, exposed, the better. Closer, closer now, closer still…
She pulled the keys from her back pocket. It had been a fine day not to wear a skirt. Good thinking on her part. The rear lights flashed and the car yapped happily at her as the boot was unlocked. It would have to do until she could get beyond the Perimeter. There she’d put the body somewhere nobody would fine it. Body: it was probably best that she think of him it like that from now on. It made the guilt a little less… there.
The car yawned and the boot opened with a glorious swoosh. Annabel puffed out her cheeks, her mind a blur of thoughts and plans. It may be a weedy little thing, but the body was going to be difficult to lift into the boot from the ground. Sometimes Annabel hated car manufacturers. She loved her car, but she hated-hated-hated the people behind making them. Why couldn’t they just make the damn thing a little bit lower so she wouldn’t break her back when she tried to lift the body!?
Well, she thought as she cupped her hands under what was left of the broken spine, I could always use the exercise.
Yeah, like that was true. What she really needed was the delicious red glow of a cigarette. Forty-five was hardly the epitome of sex. Conto – just like everywhere else – was dominated by the vision of big tits, tight asses and blonde hair. These days, Annabel wasn’t part of that vision, but she still had her resilience. And her wit. And her cynicism.
She pushed the body into the boot and waggled her fingers. She had just had her hands near the rectum of a dead kid covered in poverty-stricken shit. Life just didn’t get much better than this.
The face was looking at her.
The neck was bent like a rubber ruler, and the eyes, nose, and mouth looked dry, dead, lost. Without another word she cricked the neck over so she didn’t have to look into the egg-yoke eyes. And for good measure she covered it over with a blanket from the back seat.
“Whatever,” she muttered.
She slammed the boot shut on the dead boy and the echo almost made her jump. A hasty scan of the car park later, Annabel dived straight into the driver’s seat.
The engine roared. It was time to get the fuck outta here.
Oh god. They’d be looking for him. They’d all be looking for him. Maximillian, Finn, even the police would be drilling deep into the bloody core of the city in search of that little bastard. She had to get rid of the body. She had to get rid of the body. And she knew just where to put it. She would drive out of Conto and bury it out on the motorway, far from prying eyes.
You might be turned away at the Perimeter, then what? Her conscience asked dryly.
Well when it came to it, Annabel would think of something. And the drive wasn’t too far, either. She’d be able to make it. And if she just turned the radio on for a while, maybe some music would cheer her–
“–so just make sure you give a warm welcome to Max if you see him out on his campaign runs today–’’
So much for that idea. Maximillian-fucking-Brooks and his propaganda were the last things she wanted to see, hear, or even know about right now. Power and Strength! the billboards and posters declared in bold ink. She could do with some of that right now, and she sure as fuck wasn’t going to get any from the President.
The cigarettes sat on the dashboard, glinting in the twinkle of light cast down by the streetlamps forever lit; night and day. She took one out of the packet and felt it squeeze comfortably between her lips. She pulled the lighter out of her purse, and the translucent casing was illuminated in a flash of fire. The cigarette dangled from Annabel’s pursed lips, licked tenderly by the flame. As she breathed the smoke in, she ran a slender finger through the flame dancing in the lighter. Pretty.
She would drive in silence. She would drive until she reached the Perimeter. She would drive with what Power and Strength she could muster.
In the boot, a broken body rattled with support.
Despite no traffic, it was lunchtime before Annabel reached the Perimeter.
Maybe the journey had taken this long because of the extra weight. Or maybe it was because of the guilt; most likely the guilt.
Annabel snorted, staring out the windshield. The city was behind her. A stretch of motorway was now between her and Conto, and she wasn’t going to go back, regardless of the Rule. The Perimeter loomed overhead. Great, ebony bricks lay on top of one another to form a wall which stretched all the way around the city. It was flawless and smooth. Nothing could make a dent in the marble.
She wasn’t guilt-ridden, was she? After all it’d been self-defence, hadn’t it?
She peeped out from behind her windscreen and surveyed the toll booth defensively. Dust and desert stretched out for miles on either side. One way in and one way out, and beyond the perimeter lay the world outside. Plenty people came into Conto, and plenty people died in Conto, but nobody left. But Annabel wasn’t going to let a little thing like that stop her. She had a body to bury.
She gunned the engine and it roared just theatrically enough to scare whoever would be sitting in the booth ahead. From here, squeezed into his seat, Pete Romero looked like a daunting, meaty, black silhouette.
Romero was the tollbooth guy. Or at least that’s what the masses knew him as. He was the sort of person who was so soft, pudgy, generous and fresh-faced that it was hard not to instantly like him. Annabel had only met Romero once, at a party or gathering or something. She still heard the clinking of crystal glasses and the inane chit-chat, though out here near the dust and dirt it felt like miles away.
She slid her hand over the gearstick, wrenched it into second gear and the roaring died away. She rolled up to the booth nonchalantly. Nothing to see here. Definitely no dead bodies in the boot of this car! She rolled the window down as gracefully as it would go, not hearing but feeling the squeak of hot rubber against grimy glass, and looked up into the cheerful, rosy-cheeked face of–
Wait a minute.
“You’re not Pete Romero.”
Not-Pete-Romero slapped on a look of mock surprise and glanced down at his black suit. He hung out of the window, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The pretty orange light at the end oozed a poisonous fog, and almost hid the stark red tie and cold eyes.
“Are… are you sure?” He slapped the pocket of his jacket as if there might be proof of identification in there. “I think you’re right, Annabel!”
What the ffff– how did he know her name!?
“Do I know you?” She yammered.
There was a pause where the stranger didn’t speak, just smoked. Not a muscle in his face twitched. The cigarette was still in his pursed lips, trickling ash like an abstract waterfall.
“No,” he said when the silence became almost too much to bear. “But anybody would recognise you.” Those eyes just wouldn’t stop staring. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Annabel rapped her fingers along the steering wheel and stared at the dashboard. The motor was running and her seat was rumbling but her gung-ho spirit had left her.
“Away from here,” she told the steering wheel. “Far away from here.”
“And you realise that you’re not allowed, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, looking up into the stranger’s eyes. It took a long time. There was something so categorically wrong about this man that Annabel didn’t want to hang around any longer than was necessary. If he didn’t open the barrier, she was going to drive straight through it.
“My name’s Lewis.”
Nice to meet you Lewis, now would you mind stepping the fuck aside?
“Are you going to let me past?”
And then the chilling words came.
“Oh, Annabel. Where would the fun in that be? And don’t you think Derren should be buried in the city instead of some random woodland?”
Annabel shivered. Icy fingers stroked her spine. Lewis smiled with pointy teeth.
“I’ll open the barrier,” he licked his lips and pushed an unseen button. The wooden plank separating a million souls from the world outside cranked up, pointing straight into the grey sky. “But you’ll be back.”
Their gazes hit each other and Annabel asked the question, “Will I?”
Lewis leaned out of the window. Dirty fingernails clung to bony fingers glued to a skeletor figure, and his smile was equally as thin. “Oh, yeah. Nobody leaves, remember. Not really.”
“I’m leaving! And fuck you if you think you can stop me!” Annabel shouted. Spit flew from her mouth and onto the round moon-face of a confused Pete Romero.
“I…” A thick hand tenderly touched the tollbooth guy’s cheek.
Wait. Where had he gone? Lewis?
“Oh my god,” she gasped. “I’m so sorry, Pete.”
“It’s alright, ma’am,” he chuckled sheepishly and wiped the spittle away. I’ve had worse thrown at me at this booth! He rolled his eyes at her with a some-people-eh? look and glanced at the open barrier.
“Gosh. How’d that get there?” He gawped.
Annabel swallowed. She tried to grip the steering wheel but the goosebumps made it feel numb and hostile. Romero sniffed from somewhere very far away and said something, but Annabel was too busy looking at the road ahead.
Time to leave.
“Sorry, Pete,” she said, staring at the deserted stretch of grey, black and grey.
“Sorry for what, ma’am?” The chewy voice was so damn innocent. The naivety of youth.
Annabel didn’t answer, she just slammed her foot down. In the rear mirror, skyscrapers receded into the hairline of the horizon. As she continued to drive, the buildings disappeared until finally, all that was left was the glass pillar – the Scythe. It glinted in the distance, beckoning her back, pleading with her not to go, not to bury…
The body kept rattling.
The motorway continued on and on. She ignored the dashboard. She didn’t even pay any attention to the road. She was gone. She was out!
To celebrate, Annabel broke a second rule.
She wrenched the steering wheel off to the left and veered over into oncoming traffic. Or at least, that’s what would have happened if there was any traffic to veer into! She swerved to the left, and then to the right, to the left again, and finally to the right. She didn’t give a whoop, or a war cry, she was still too melancholic for any of that bullshit. The exhilaration was there, though, more juicy than ever. Nobody would find out about Derren. Even if the police traced the mess at the apartment back to her, even if Pete gave away her escape, nobody would be allowed to pursue her. That was the Rule, and nobody, nobody in Conto broke the Rule.
Except her. How had that happened?
Annabel swallowed. She had just been the exception that was all. Every rule had an exception and Annabel had been intense enough, lucky enough to be it this time. Now all she had to do was drive, and drive, and drive until she hit some woodland.
And then the engine sputtered, wheezed, coughed, choked and died.
Annabel didn’t make a peep. A part of her had known the minute Lewis had melted into Pete Romero that her plight was doomed. This was Conto. Something always brought its people back.
“Mendax Faux!” She cursed, using the apparently-sacred name completely out of context. What would the Church of Laedology say if they saw her now? Hollering their prophet’s name at the empty, vast sky outside the car. Mendax-fucking-Faux.
The Sedan didn’t stop straight away. It just slowed in the centre of the road with one wheel in the left lane and the other in the right. Between those wheels Annabel quivered with rage, disappointment and unmatched self-loathing.
Stupid. She was so fucking stupid to think that would work – to think that Conto would let her leave. What would she do now!? Just limp to the next town? She couldn’t have been driving for half an hour. A pitiful half an hour so why couldn’t she just get away from here!?
No tears this time, just sobs.
Focus, Annabel, fo–
Fuck it. She deserved a moment now and then, didn’t she? She deserved to go off the rails and just take a moment to herself. She didn’t deserve to be locked down in a sprawling metropo-hell. She definitely didn’t deserve to be stranded several miles outside of that damn city and several hundred away from the rest of the world.
She’d never been this far out of Conto before. Few probably had.
The thought struck her with a frosty resilience she didn’t want nor need. She had to do something. Now. No more feeling sorry.
Dumping the body was no longer objective #1. First, Annabel had to get out of the car. With shaking legs and a dancing hand she managed just that, and she felt the cold of the deserted road. It was just cold in the desert’s afternoon.
She exhaled old air and breathed anew. Her hinges creaked and squealed, but she reached the back of the Sedan quickly enough. The fucking machine wasn’t so reliable anymore, was it? Maybe Lewis had been right. But Lewis didn’t exist, did he? He’d just been a hallucination; her guilt talking to her from somewhere terrifying and very far away – a coffin.
She opened the boot and winced.
Derren’s eyes were staring straight up and into the afternoon sky. That didn’t make any sense, Annabel had made sure they were glaring into the interior! She’d even covered it with a blanket! Which, of course, was now bunched up under the corpse.
The body must have been tossed over in the journey, that was all. The rear end of the car would’ve been bouncing up and down. It was understandable, nae, expected that the body would spin around.
There was a roaring. A roaring from behind. Like a lion, like…
A car engine!
Annabel slammed the boot shut. Nobody had to see the body if she was lucky. She could just leave it here and run away with her noble saviour. That would count as dumping, right? Her ankles turned her as soon as the body was snapped out of sight, and she waved her arms at the approaching car.
It didn’t look like it was slowing down, though. And it was heading towards Conto.
The engine roared louder. A painful, sobbing sound, like a dying beast.
Yep, they weren’t slowing down.
Annabel’s heart skipped a beat and she snorted. Without a second’s hesitation she stepped in the path of the car; legs wide and her arms still waving back and forth.
The car came closer. The roaring of the engine was replaced with a dewy squeal and the slowing of tyres on tarmac. The Mazda (because of course it would be a Mazda) glinted in the sunlight as it slowed to a stop. Red paint gleamed and a wide dent with crooked headlights winked mischievously. Something had smashed headfirst into this driver.
“Thank god!” She cried dramatically and opened the driver’s door as it stopped. “Can you help me? My car broke down and…”
She faded away because the driver wasn’t looking at her. He was staring, dazed, through the windshield, as if he’d just seen something he shouldn’t have. Oh no, what if he’d seen the body!? What if he was one of them?
No. That was ridiculous. Whoever he was, the driver had been driving towards Conto. He didn’t know about Max Brooks or Mickey Finn or anything yet, so he sure as hell couldn’t work for them. And besides, he couldn’t be any older than twenty-five. Annabel didn’t know why, but the age – the youth – comforted her.
“Hello?” She asked with all the tenderness of a grizzly bear. She leaned over and shook the driver’s shoulder. That was enough to snap him out of his daze, at least. And as he raised his hand to his temple she noticed the ring. Gold. Simple. He was married, too. That was a plus.
Then again, she’d learned first hand that being married didn’t make a man trustworthy. Little did.
That dazed look was still in his eyes. They were bloodshot. A fog of red swimming around the brown irises that matched his red tie and dark blue suit. Annabel didn’t know why, but these little details – the ring, the suit, the brown eyes – they were all important.
And what of the driver? The bloodshot eyes and the confusion. Was he on drugs? No matter how desperate she was, she didn’t want to get into a car with a madman. Maybe he was just deaf and dumb?
“Sorry,” he mumbled. Then with a quick blink and flick of his temple he rose his head. “Yes! Sorry,” he fixed Annabel with a curious gaze and all suspicions of drug abuse or retardation left her mind. He was fine. And hopefully, everything else was going to be fine, too.
“Are you sure? You look a little bit confused.” This time she really was tender in the arm-touching. After all, just look at how bright his brown eyes were.
“Yeah. I… I just thought I was driving and there was an… accident. No.” He shook his head and rattled his fingers against the steering wheel. “I must’ve just been daydreaming. That was spooky.”
Annabel nodded understandingly but didn’t quite understand.
“I’m An… Garrison. Andrew Garrison,” he smiled up at her. “You know, most hitchhikers wait until the driver opens the door. You in a hurry?”
“You could say that,” Annabel forced a smile. “Are you heading into Conto?”
“Conto.” She pointed into the distance. “The city ahead. The only city ahead, in fact.”
“Oh.” Garrison followed her finger and ruffled his short scruff of dark hair. “Um. I guess so!”
“You guess so?” Annabel chewed her weathered lips. “Most people don’t guess that they’re going into Conto.”
“No. I’m certain. I… I need to.”
“Why do you need to?”
“I… I don’t… know.”
Annabel stared at him hard. Harder than she would normally stare at a man who was about to offer her a lift. Garrison was just a lost boy out here. He didn’t know the rules of Conto. Should she tell him? If she did, she might forfeit her chance at getting back to the city. And if she didn’t get back to the city the body would be left out here, stranded in the middle of the road for anybody to find. She couldn’t risk some stranger coming by it on their way into Conto.
“So,” Garrison said, still obviously trying to smile reassuringly, “want a lift?”
It took almost an age for Annabel to make her mind up. What if some newcomer found the body and brought it back to Conto with them? What if they saw the tattoo?
“Sure,” she smiled. “Just give me a minute, okay? I need to stick my belongings in your car.”
“Will do,” Garrison said. “Want a hand?”
“No!” Annabel clenched her fists and bit her tongue. “No, it’s fine, ha-ha. It’s just some personal luggage, you know how it is.”
“Ah,” Garrison grinned, relaxing into his plush, leather driving seat. “Suitcases full of undies, that sort of thing?”
“Yes,” Annabel smiled. “That sort of thing.”
She paced back over to her car. Some force unseen had made sure Garrison had pulled up so his boot and Annabel’s boot were right next to each other, so at least lifting the body this time would be a simple case of rolling it out of one metal box and into the next. That was lucky. Annabel wasn’t sure her legs could take another dose of lift-the-cretin today.
She pressed her fingers under the back door and the Sedan’s boot unlocked. She heard an unfamiliar kachug and the Mazda’s red boot popped open almost boastingly. She had a little smile to herself as she saw the noticeable difference in space. The Mazda was definitely more ideal for body-disposal.
She took the balled blanket and wrapped it around the corpse, just in case Garrison peeped in his rear mirror. The cars were parked at such an angle, though, that he probably wouldn’t be able to see her anyway. But there was never such a thing as being too cautious. With a quick puff of her cheeks and the bending of her knees, she managed to lift the body up and balance it on the metal rim of her own boot. Then, with a pant and silent huff she rolled the body over so it landed with a loud thump into Garrison’s car.
Annabel was sure there was a crunch and a wet slap mixed somewhere in there, too. She closed the boot before she could dwell on it any longer and it was as she did she realised Garrison might prove to be a problem when she tried to take the body out the car later. What would she do then?
Well, she wasn’t going to kill him. That was for sure. Whoever he was, it didn’t take an Einstein to figure out that Andrew Garrison deserved the absolute opposite of Annabel’s… hospitality.
She stroked the clean, red metal of the Mazda as she returned to the front of the car. Climbing into the passenger’s seat, she found Garrison staring at his palms with a heavy frown.
“Everything okay?” She asked.
His head snapped up too suddenly for his reply to be genuine. “Yup! Good to go?”
“Good,” he said, nodding his head with those sparkling eyes. He fired the ignition and the Mazda purred into life. “Sure your car’ll be fine all on its own?”
“Yes,” Annabel said without thinking. Frankly, she didn’t care. The Sedan had let her down. It could melt in a junkyard for all she cared. She stared out of the window and plotted a) where she was going to go and b) what to do when she got there.
She was struggling to find answers to both of those questions.
“So you didn’t tell me your name.”
Annabel blinked slowly, deliberately.
“Annabel.” She had to shove the words past her tongue.
“Just Annabel.” She flashed a genuine grin at him. “Hope you understand.”
“I like a woman who can play mysterious.”
“Really?” Annabel smiled, “I prefer a man who keeps his mind more on the road than his women.”
“His women?” Garrison chuckled to himself, “somebody sounds old-fashioned.”
“Not at all, I merely assumed you were one of those sexist types.”
“What makes you think that?”
“The flashy car, the wedding ring.”
“The wedding ring makes you think I’m a sexist!?”
“Oh, of course!” Annabel glanced out of the window as the motorway passed by in a blur. The Sedan watched them sadly from behind, like a dog abandoned by its owner. “Marriage is the only door open to women who seek gender equality. The very fact that it exists sticks a lock on all the others.”
“You’re beginning to sound like a misandrist, Ms… Annabel.”
“Oh please, I don’t hate men – I just don’t trust any of you.”
Garrison laughed again. “Touché.”
“Leave my tooshy out of this.”
“That’s the worst comeback I’ve ever heard.”
“I’m also too old to use it,” she gazed out of the window. “It’s been a while since anyone looked at my ass.”
“Sure about that? Maybe I had a sneaky peek when you were tinkering around out there.”
Annabel snorted. “I hope not.”
Garrison licked his lips and drummed his fingertips on the wheel. “Nah, don’t worry. I like to think I’m more of a gentleman than that.”
“Well you keep those pretty eyes of yours in your sockets and we’ll get along just fine, Garrison.”
“Please, my friends call me Andrew.”
“And who says I’m your friend?” She didn’t like where this was heading.
“Woah! Hostility is definitely your strong suit.”
“That’s what my ex-husband said.”
The Mazda’s speed tore them down the concrete road in half the time it took Annabel to travel her meagre distance. It wasn’t long before she could see the Perimeter dead ahead, and the skyline of the city blotting out the sun on the horizon. A part of her couldn’t wait to see what Garrison thought of Conto. Fresh meat was always picked apart, but more importantly she wanted to see what a fresh pair of eyes would see when he looked into her own personal hell. He was too cheerful for it to be a place which wore well on him. Annabel could almost picture him in a baker’s apron, rolling dough all day long. It was too bad that the image was tainted with the red sports car and flashy suit he was wearing.
“A tollbooth?” He queried as the white box rolled up, contrasting with the black, bleak wall. “How much to get in?”
“Nothing, it’s free. The booths are just a way of monitoring who goes in and…” she was about to say out but on hindsight that was probably a bad idea, “…and just who goes in, really.”
“Ah,” Garrison nodded, but the puzzlement was etched on his face. “I… don’t get it. The wall makes it look like I’m heading into a concentration camp.”
You might as well be, Annabel thought, but she just smiled and said. “Nobody does.”
The car bellowed one final time as Garrison cut off the ignition, pulling up alongside the tollbooth. Annabel peered through the car window and to her dismay, she found that Pete Romero was no longer sitting idly inside. Again, it was someone else. What was going on!?
He wasn’t unnerving like Lewis had been. In truth, he looked just like your typical shmuck, really. A neat, grey moustache was perched atop some plush pink lips. There was a piercing gaze so sharp it almost gave Annabel a heart attack to just make eye contact with him. The pristinely polished name-badge read GORDON.
“Hello!” GORDON croaked with a voice as dry as sandpaper. “First time visiting?”
He was obviously reciting some lines he’d learned that morning. Everybody in Conto knew that there was only a first time visiting around here.
“Yep!” Garrison chirruped back, “first time tollboothing?”
GORDON chuckled weakly. “Is it that obvious?”
“I can practically smell the cue cards,” Garrison winked. Well Annabel had to give him credit. The guy was smooth.
“They’re not cue cards,” GORDON smiled. “But I have been thinking of the best way to greet you since I saw the red flash in the distance. I guessed that you hear ‘nice car’ a lot, so that was the next best thing.”
“Well it was alright for your first day, I guess.” Garrison grinned like a cheeky schoolboy.
GORDON har-har’d again, but sincerely this time. From behind the glass his arms moved and he picked something up. “So what’s your name, stranger?”
“Garrison, buddy. Andrew Garrison.”
“Andrew Garrison…” GORDON pondered, looking down at whatever was in his hand. “Ah! Here you are.” He looked up. “You’re late!”
Garrison’s head craned back around and he looked at Annabel questioningly. What is this? It said.
Annabel shook her head. I haven’t the foggiest. And how could she? Her knowledge of the city didn’t extend past the rules and the tourist attractions.
Tourist attractions. In Conto. Ha-ha! Sometimes she cracked herself up.
“Well,” GORDON smiled, jabbing at a button so the barrier opened up. “Go on in!”
“You were expecting me?” Garrison asked.
“Go on in! Thanks very much, see you later!” GORDON waved nonchalantly and turned his back to them, pouring over some unseen paperwork.
Annabel watched Garrison’s adam’s apple bulge and contract as he swallowed his nerves. With a what-the-fuck look on his face, he pressed his foot down on the pedal and drove ahead. The body thudded and bounced in the back as they passed through the Perimeter.
Annabel shuddered, but not just because the corpse was making noises again.
“So are we going to just pretend like that didn’t happen?” She asked as the Mazda passed the speckled sign bleating WELCOME TO CONTO in the cold evening wind – because it was evening now, and this day had been far from boring. Looking at the car’s dashboard, she could see the time blinking back at her in glowing, broken lines. 18:12.
“Yeah,” Garrison shrugged. As if an old codger beckoning at him with a crooked smile and the knowledge that he’d been expecting him was no big deal. No big deal at all.
Then the motorway, the dust and the desert disappeared, and they entered the city.
Conto was one of those places where it wrapped itself up in suburban outcrops, detached houses with three or more bedrooms and big gardens to give the initial impression that everything was A-Okay. Looking out of the window, Garrison wrinkled his nose.
“This is a nice place.”
Annabel snorted. “Roll down the window.”
Garrison glanced at her.
“Do it!” Annabel insisted. “Roll down your window.”
The Mazda slowed considerably as the glass relinquished a little.
“Now stick your head out and take a deep breath.”
Garrison stuck his pointed nose out of the window and inhaled the scent of the city. He smiled, nodded and withdrew. “It smells nice. Like freshly cut grass.”
Annabel nodded. “Now keep driving. When I tell you, take another sniff. Then you’ll see what Conto’s really like.”
Garrison frowned softly as the window rolled back up. “You really don’t like it here, do you?”
Annabel hee-hawed all the way to the bank. “What gave it away?”
“Oh y’know. I’m psychic.”
Annabel relished the silence which followed. “See that big glass tower ahead?”
Garrison didn’t need to crane his next this time. As the detached houses were replaced with semi-detached ones, the Scythe drew ever closer. “Uh huh.”
“That’s the Scythe. As you would expect, it’s slap-bang in the middle of the city, right next to Rose Park and overlooking the Perimeter, the Canyon, Cold-House… the lot. From the top of the Scythe you can see all of Conto in the blink of an eye.”
“And what exactly is the Scythe?”
“The building which holds the powers that be. In particular, Maximillian Brooks – the President of Conto. He’s also one of the most corrupt, ruthless, hypocritical wankers you’ll ever meet. He’s intent on turning Conto into a totalitarian state, and to some extent he’s succeeded, if it wasn’t for a select few putting up obstacles at every opportunity.” She ground her teeth almost to dust. “That bastard’s been in power for twenty-four years. I don’t think I’ll ever understand how he does it.”
Garrison pondered this silently, probably a little perturbed by the sudden influx of information. Annabel didn’t know why, but instinct told her it was very important that she explain all of this to him before they got any further.
“The elections could be rigged,” he said at last.
“I don’t doubt it, but they’re closely monitored by the MPD – Conto Police Department – and Max doesn’t have them under his thumb,” she snorted, “trust me on that. Their allegiance lies elsewhere.”
“And why, may I ask, were you leaving Conto?”
“I was dumping the body of a seventeen-year-old boy I just killed,” she didn’t say. Instead, she chose the generic answer of, “I was leaving because I have to. I’ve been here for too long. Too many ghosts here.”
“Then why did you hitch with me to come back?”
Annabel barked her laugh “Because I had no other choice. There’s been a… complication.”
“What kind of complication?” The amusement in his voice meant that he didn’t suspect a thing. That was good. The less Garrison knew, the better. Annabel considered for a second even explaining her situation to him. They could find somewhere to dump the body. Hell, he might even offer to help her!
“I’d rather not talk about it. If you don’t mind, that is.”
Garrison didn’t say anything. He just nodded and passed by the semi-detached houses. The Scythe was only a few miles away now, and the sunset was staining the sky with a spectacular orange.
“So where do you want to go?” He asked eventually, as the houses gave way to red-bricked apartment blocks and dirty, stinking streets.
Annabel realised that she didn’t actually know. “First,” she said, “roll down the window.”
“Here!?” Garrison peered out at the skulking locals staring at his car. On the pavements surrounding them, hooded, cloaked and scantily dressed criminals licked their lips and glared at the polished casing for a rumbling engine.
“Yes,” Annabel smiled. “But the fact that you’re even hesitating says it all, really.”
Garrison raised his thick eyebrows at her and clicked down on an unseen button so the windows rolled down on both his side and hers. He didn’t even need to stick his head out this time. Annabel could see the widening of the eyes and the gagging in his throat. She could smell it too. It was the same smell coming from the boot. She thought she’d be used to it by now.
“Shit,” Garrison choked, jabbing at the button before the local populous dared come closer. “That’s disgusting.”
“You get used to it,” Annabel smiled. “It’s not sewage you’re smelling either. It’s sex, violence, drugs… you name it.”
“What kind of sex do you have!?” Garrison wrinkled his nose. “I’ve smelt sex, and I can tell you it smells nothing like that.”
“Solicited sex has a different stench,” Annabel replied grimly. Not that she knew about that. She just knew someone who did – someone who ought to know better.
The car trundled up to a crossroads. Lights were sparking into life all over the city. Shops, sex shops, road lights, restaurants, houses, flats and headlights illuminated out against the oncoming darkness. As if Conto were scared the black of night would eat them alive.
“The streetlights have been on this whole time,” Garrison muttered. “What time do they come on? It’s a bit early for that, isn’t it?”
“They never go off. The streetlights stay on all day and all night. Maintenance crews work around the clock to make sure they don’t go out, either. I hate to say it, but it’s actually a pretty good idea, in its own way.”
“I hear that,” Garrison nodded, glancing out of driver’s window curiously.
She was about to tell him to turn right when it happened – when the city became a blur of movement and slow-motion, when the people stopped walking, talking, flirting and weaving, and when Garrison’s flapping tongue and thick jaw paused. Straight ahead, mere metres away, Annabel saw the blear of headlights hurtling towards them.
When the van crashed into them with a squeal of metal on metal, a spark of graceful fire, and the musical roar of flames it destroyed the car, and almost everything inside it.