The ride home reflected my mood perfectly. The wonder was gone, replaced by darkness. We passed from one island of light to the next, the headlights picking out a portion of the world and distorting it. The vast open landscapes were cut down to sections, glimpses of trees. The distant mountains that had been so grand were unidentifiable, looming, black silhouettes against the night sky. They pressed inwards. Claustrophobic.
The snow had started in earnest. No pretty little flakes dusting the landscape. It came down in inch wide disks. They dimmed the windscreen. The wipers battled, futile, to scrape it off. I could hear the electric motor whirr when the wheels lost grip on the road. It was fresh though, so our tyres kept surprisingly good traction. Once it had either been trodden down, or thawed and re-frozen, or simply got too deep this road would be impassable. That is, until whatever contraption they used to clear away the snow came around.
The city was warmer, but the snow fell just as heavily. As we passed through the outer neighbourhoods I saw a few stuck cars.
“Mz, you should probably go to your place, we can walk from there.”
“I’m not letting you walk, besides I should drop Beth off at her home…” She said.
“Fuck no!” Beth said. “I knew you were up to something… If you drop me off there I’m just walking to Alex’s, and that will take hours.”
“Fine!” She made a ‘humph’ of defeat. “But I’m not letting you walk in this weather. You don’t even have a proper coat Alexis.”
“Mz, look at the snow. You don’t want to get stuck somewhere…” anywhere near where I live.
“We’ll be fine.” Famous last words.
* * *
The wheels spun. I could feel the car slipping, willing it to grip and push us forwards.
Shit, we were stuck. And this was not a good place to be stuck. I’d been trying to build up the courage to suggest a different route. My indirect protests hadn’t sufficed. I hadn’t dared push it. Why the hell not?
“Damn.” Mz Gregory said, but she didn’t sound worried. “Maybe we can ask someone for help?”
I nearly laughed, she was so naive. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, this really isn’t a good place to be. I’ll take a look. Maybe I can push it free. Stay inside.”
I slid the door open and stepped out. As soon as stepped into the world outside I started to ache for the sanctuary of the climate-controlled cabin. It was bitter, biting.
And yet it wasn’t unpleasant, for once there was little wind. It was calm, almost serene. I would have thought it beautiful if I hadn’t been so worried about other things.
To be honest I wished it was awful. I wished the snow was the wet, sleety kind that stung my skin. I wished the wind to batter me. Maybe then other people would stay at home…
The thick torrent of flakes reflected the streetlights, distorting distances. It was like a fog, except moving in all different directions. My visibility could be measured in a few meters.
I braced myself, difficult in snow, and leaned all my weight into the back of the car. I could hear the wheels whirr, rubber against compacted ice. All the while my attention was on my surroundings. Visibility might be low, but there was noise. And who around here has a car? I saw a few figures, silhouetted against a backdrop of white noise and mist. None close enough to get a good look at and none who stopped.
I wished I had my belt knife. My fingers itched at my waist. I’d only had it a week and now and I missed it.
It was almost inevitable, maybe because I’d given up already. It was going to happen. We were too big a target. A nice car, stranded in a place like this? A clearly wealthy woman and two young girls, helpless.
The local criminals would be idiots not to take the bait. We were the metaphorical ripe fruit, right here on their doorstep.
At least I had a phone to give them. Hopefully this wouldn’t end in a getting beaten up, or worse. We could give them what they want. Mz would have some money. They wouldn’t take the car. It was stuck anyway.
A patch of darkness caught the corner of my eye. A skinny figure. It was a creepy image in the half-light. I redoubled my efforts to get this stupid chunk of steel moving.
“You need some help little girl?” Here we go… I gave up on the car, prioritising working out where they all were. There would be more than one.
A quick scan of the area resulted in at least five. I couldn’t see any particular gang markers or colours. None of them had the three dashes above their eye. That was a small comfort.
Two approached me. Flattering. One was the speaker, and his friend seemed young. Addicts that couldn’t resist an easy prey? No, too organised. An opportunistic mugging alone, or in a pair would fit that. This was too many people just to be druggies trying to get the next fix. Not that they wouldn’t be druggies…
The other three had approached the car. Lock it, stay inside. Don’t open the door.
Shit, she opened the door.
“Hello, could you please give us a hand, we appear to be stuck?” Mz Gregory stepped out. So fucking dumb. I was glad to see Beth stayed inside. I’d walked through places like this with her over the last few days. She must know what it’s like by now.
“I can give you a hand all right.” He sniggered at his own joke, did that even counts as a joke? He clearly thought so.
Please, Mz, just give him what he wants and hopefully they will let us leave.
“How much is it worth to you?” another of the three said. A short guy, he was broad though– someone to watch out for.
“Well, I suppose I could give you a few dollars for the help…” There was a note of caution in her voice now. Catching on. The one who’d made the ‘joke’ stepped forward. I dubbed him leader. My attention was split between the two assigned to me and what was playing out at the front.
The guy in front of me, maybe second in command? No, gunning for leader. First to speak… But he hadn’t got the good job. The leader was showing him his place, looking after the child. I watched his eyes; he was switching between me and the events at the driver’s door, taking in every detail, eager. Waiting for someone to slip up so he could exert the authority he wanted so badly?
Short guy was second in command; favoured by the front runner, hated by everyone else by the looks the others gave him – not obvious ones, mind.
There was a woman, clutching at the leader’s arm. She knew her route to power. She drawled out to Mz Gregory. High on something. “Come on, give us some money. You don’t want my boyfriend to fuck you up…”
The leader flicked out a knife. It wasn’t fancy, looked like a kitchen knife – worn, thin and evil.
“What? I don’t…” Mz’ expression switched from faint annoyance at their rudeness to realisation when her eyes dropped to the knife. I think it finally dawned on her what the hell was happening. She looked from the faces of each, and then quickly turned to look at me, quietly cornered by the rear of the car. I concentrated all my thoughts, do whatever they want, as if telepathy might somehow work.
“Fine,” Her voice had gone from irritated to calm, quiet and gentle. Non-confrontational. Perfect. “What do you want?”
I relaxed a fraction. They didn’t appear to have noticed Beth, the rear windows were tinted and she hadn’t made a noise yet.
“Glad that’s settled. Let’s all be gentlemen about this. Cash. Hand it over.” He waved his knife. This was just another day at work for him.
“Sure… I’ll just get my handbag.” She was about to turn and reach in the car but short guy grabbed her.
“Whoa. We’ll get that if you don’t mind.” I watched as guy-in-command moved close to her, too close. He pressed up against her as he reached inside and grabbed her handbag off the seat. She winced. “Let’s see what we have here.”
He ripped it open and started picking pieces out of it, throwing them aside as he judged them worthless. He handed the money, credit chits and a few odds and ends to his girlfriend.
“Well, what do we have here?” He said waving something I couldn’t quite see properly. Mz Gregory glared at him, calmness gone.
“Come on, why are you so shy?” He raised the knife to her chin. This wasn’t going well… A bad feeling was rising in my chest. The situation felt off. Their casual air – it wasn’t just a normal mugging. I’d been through a few. Normally they get the stuff and gun-it. Get out of there before anyone spots you. If you’re unlucky they might give you a punch in the face to remember them by. Especially if they were high and panicked, or you couldn’t give them what they wanted. But they don’t waste time talking… You only do that if you real interest isn’t in getting a quick profit.
He lifted the knife to her chin, glint in his eyes.
Those eyes… I’d seen them before.
“Go on, tell me.” He said.
“They are sanitary… products.” Mz Gregory said, flatly.
Haley. He reminded me of Haley. They wanted to do more than just take our money, they wanted to humiliate us. The guy in front of me… He wasn’t watching them anymore, he’d gotten distracted. He’d been watching me. His eyes, that hunger… He was waiting for the go-ahead. I’d read him completely wrong. Maybe he had chosen this particular part of the job for a reason. I felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold.