It was self defence.
Angelo swerved. The car skidded as it took the corner, engine screaming, and lurched forward onto the highway into oncoming traffic. Angelo flung up his arms as if to block a blow, as pain seethed through his muscles like venom. The wheel span beneath his grasp and he wrenched it to his right, wrestling the vehicle like a matador with a bull, until the wail of the engine subsided, and the car settled down to a steady pace, heading west.
Angelo shook his fringe from his eyes and glanced into the rear-view mirror, scanning the street as it rushed away and disappeared over the crest of the hill. The black Mercedes that had veered through the traffic over the bridge, almost perpetually bathed in the glow of his tail lights as it clung to him, had vanished. Angelo let out a deep sigh, coughed and ran a hand across his brow. His fingers came away wet. He was still bleeding.
Another glance into the mirror, this time to study his own face. His eyes were hollow, encircled by shadows, and dark bristles crept across his throat. The cut on his forehead was beginning to clot and he pressed his fingers to the bruising on his cheek, wincing at the pain.
He looked past himself, at the road behind. Still nothing.
The tires purred on the uneven concrete as Angelo took a right turn, followed by a left, then another left. The urban sprawl was unfamiliar to him, and each road – lined with signs he could not read – seemed disconcertingly similar to the last.
He might have been anywhere in Europe. There were no distinctive landmarks which might give away his present location. This part of the city contained no houses. No one lived here. Instead, vast office blocks loomed up from the pavements, glass and steel cascading upwards towards unknown peaks. The offices and factories were lit, but the light was static, still, dead.
The bundle that lay on the passenger seat occupied Angelo's every thought. It was all he could do not to stare at it. To stop the car, there on the highway, and peel back the silk in which it was wrapped. The idea filled him with nausea and he felt the bile rise in his chest, hot and painful. The package rolled drunkenly across the seat as the car turned another sharp corner. It disgusted him. Taking one hand from the wheel, Angelo tried in vain to wedge the object between the ridges of the upholstery, but it evaded his grasp.
He had only left the hotel fifteen minutes ago, but it felt as though he had been travelling for days. Would they be looking for him now? The carriageway plunged into a tunnel and Angelo wondered if he ought to make plans. A harsh yellow light strobed across his face as he drove beneath a string of street lamps, the unnatural glow reducing everything in the car to ghostly shades of grey.
In the absence of inspiration, Angelo took a right.
Every few seconds, he lifted his eyes to the mirror. With each stolen glimpse, his anxiety grew, twisting and squirming in his chest like a great caged animal. How long before they checked the room?
He shuddered and the car lurched a little as his right foot twitched involuntarily on the accelerator. The package had come to rest against his jacket on the passenger seat, but Angelo's mind was still drawn towards it with a dangerous magnetism. A morbid fascination washed over him, one which could not be quenched by these furtive, sideways glances. He wanted to fling it from the car window, sending out onto the highway to be crushed beneath the wheels of an articulated lorry. He wanted to drive until reached the sea and bury the sinister parcel beneath the waves. He wanted to open it.
He would try not to look again.
The glass and steel had gone now, replaced by neat rows of terrace houses and strips of neon light emitting from late night bars and betting shops. Here and there groups of men stood, talking animatedly and smoking cigarettes. They paused in their conversations to watch the strange car as it drove past their homes, in that disconcerting way that local people sometimes do. Angelo focused straight ahead, while the men stared. He felt their eyes on him as each man tried ferociously to recognise his face, distorted by the glass and the darkness.
Sweat dripped from Angelo's hairline. It bristled at the edges of his eyes and seeped into the deep lines around his mouth. The air in the car was acrid and as dry as tinder. He felt at any moment it might catch, and everything would burst into flames. Despite the stifling heat, he could not bring himself to open the window, not while there were men on street corners.
And a small, irrational voice had entered his head.
It had started in the hotel room, just after the white noise had cleared and the fog had lifted. After he had realised what he had done. It spoke with her accent, the little voice in his mind. An Irish lilt, with overtones of somewhere he could never quite place. Softly at first. Growing louder and stronger. Begging, pleading with him.
“No! Please! Stop!”
If he opened the windows, the voice might escape, and then everyone would know what he had done.
What had he done?
A sweeping curve in the road caught him off-guard and he was jolted from his reverie in just enough time to steer clear of the crash barrier. He felt a sickening thud as the bundle beside him rolled and slammed against the plush, leather interior of the car. It was a noise he felt rather than heard. Like the crack of someone striking him n the ribs with a pool cue.
Outside, the suburban landscape had fallen away, and in its place, hedge-hemmed fields and scattered farm buildings slipped past quietly, shadowy and grey-green in the darkness. There were fewer street lights out here, among the deep folds of the hills. But the glow of industry in the distance clouded the sky with a haze of red which obscured the stars.
Angelo checked the mirror again, but found that he was completely alone. The hotel room flashed uninvited into his skull and the scene flickered and stuttered across his mind's eye in sepia tones. It seemed like a thousand years ago now. In reality only a few minutes and a few miles separated Angelo from that room.
So much blood.
He changed into fifth gear and pressed firmly on the accelerator. There was nothing for it now but to keep going. The road had narrowed considerably, and was now only just wide enough for a single vehicle. Withered, spidery branches pulled at the bodywork as the car pushed through the flora along the track. Each time a leafy tendril struck the roof of the vehicle, Angelo felt his heart convulse. Even the smallest noise rang out like a gunshot.
A row of rosary beads hung from the rear view mirror, dancing an angry foxtrot across his field of vision with each pothole the wheels of the car encountered. Suddenly infuriated by their existence, Angelo reached up and ripped them down. The delicate brown wooden beads rained over the dashboard and into the foot well. Angelo cursed under his breath.
It was then that he heard it. Out there in the darkness, crouched beyond the reach of the head lamps. An other-worldly tattoo, low and accusatory, thumping against the metalwork of the car, as if the engine were trying to escape. The tone rising and falling in time with the rising and falling of Angelo's chest.
It stopped just as suddenly as it had begun. Each empty beat wavered in his chest, and he felt his shoulders loosen in time with the silence.
Angelo felt a shiver, despite the intense heat of the car. The knocking of the engine jarred uncomfortably against the ever-quickening beat of his heart. He swallowed and felt his throat constrict. His breath escaped in laboured gasps, wheezing across his over-large tongue. The noise of his own body resonated in his ears and deadened the external senses. His breathing was too loud. His heart too fast. He took a deep breath and held it. The wheezing continued, rasping like a saw through his skull.
Gripping the steeling wheel tightly, Angelo shot a look to his left. The package had fallen onto its side. A deep stain was radiating from a pin point, sprawling across the material, like a delicate crimson flower.
The wheezing continued. Long rattling breaths that caused the air in Angelo's lungs to vibrate. He slammed on the breaks and the shaking wreck ground to halt. Edging towards the door, he grasped for the release. But terror clung to him, stapling him in place.
The package lay, face up, on the seat beside him. A small triangle of material jutted out, in slight relief. As he watched, he was aware of a slight movement of the cloth beneath. As the breathing continued, the wrapping gently rose and fell.
He was dimly aware that he was screaming. He could hear it as if from far away and under water. He saw the material swell and undulate in time with the deep grasping breaths and felt the gaze of cold, dead eyes, swivelling beneath silk to meet his own.
The screaming grew louder.
As if through a fogged mirror, Angelo saw his own hands reach down and, through the noise of his own screams, he ripped off the material, and opened the package.