The Devil’s Trade
A Spot of Bother at the Border
“Jesus, if we don’t get out of this fuckin’ van soon, I’m gonna fuckin’ melt.”
The driver, Dennis McAfferty, or Sledge as he was known to those who either worked with him or died at his hands, had been complaining about the heat ever since they left the ferry on the French Coast. Now, as they approached the Spanish border, his suffering hit a high. Fat beads of sweat ran down his forehead, cheeks and neck where they soaked the thin, badly stained, pink vest that struggled to contain his blubbery twenty-two stones of body weight.
“Well, I been trying to tell you, Sledge, if we just turn on the…”
Sledge slapped Zit’s hand away from the van’s dashboard. “Leave that alone. All we need is the window open. You turn those fancy air cunt things on, next thing you know, we’re out of gas and giving each other the eye; wondering what we’d taste like barbecued. Anyway, you just sit tight now. We’ve got to get through here first.”
Zit was a thin, hungry-looking youth with terrible skin and lank, greasy, blonde hair. He wore cut-off denims and an old Sum41 tee-shirt. He eyed the approaching border control with a mixture of fear and terror. “I hope there’s no trouble here, Sledge. We bin lucky up to now, I think. I hope nothing goes wrong here. The Spanish police, you know, they can be…”
“Not turning pussy on me, are you, Zit? Cos if you are, I might have to have a little word about your promotion prospects.” Sledge pulled up his jeans leg and pointed to the seven inch, bone-handled knife that he kept in a scabbard attached to his ankle. He grinned, showing four gold teeth. “You might have to have an appointment with my family heirloom.”
“No, no, it’s alright, I promise. I’m fine, Sledge, honest. Fine. No problem. It’s just, well, you know…”
Sledge pulled the van sharply to the right, skidding into the side of the road. He wrenched on the hand-brake and leaned across the gear stick. The tip of the blade scraped Zit’s throat. He hadn’t even seen Sledge take it from his leg. “I don’t carry no fuckin’ passengers. You understand? This is a serious business and I don’t want any pus-faced twat like you fuckin’ it up for me. I didn’t want to bring you in the first place but the boss wanted his retard of a son in on the action. I can’t argue with him because that’s where the old mahoney comes from; the big pile of fuckin’ dosh that’s going to set me up for life. Now, your old man made it perfectly clear to me that I don’t let anything, anything, including you, fuck up this transaction. There’s a lot of money waiting to be paid for what we’re carrying in the back of this van, a lot of money. It may be I had no choice but to bring you out here, but I sure as shit don’t have to take you back. You get what I’m saying?”
The knife pushed harder into Zit’s skin all the time that Sledge talked. There was now an impressive run of blood from the wound to his tee-shirt; the top part of the ‘S’ in Sum was already darkly stained. Zit nodded as delicately as possible.
“Good boy. That’s what I like to hear. Because, I’ll tell you one thing, it gets very hot out here and, a month from now, you’d be no more than a few white, picked-over bones in a ditch. A little adventure playground for the Geckos. You understand what I’m saying?”
Zit nodded again, almost imperceptibly.
Sledge heaved his huge bulk up straight and, without any warning, swung his arm around and punched Zit hard in the stomach. “I said, do you understand?”
Zit managed to wheeze out a rough approximation of a ‘yes’ as Sledge put the van into first gear and set off again towards the border. “Just keep it cool, kid. We’re carrying cheap olive oil to the Costas, that’s all. Nothin’ to worry about. Get your neck cleared up.”
As the ambulance neared the blocked off section of the road, two uniformed, Spanish officers came out of the small, glass-fronted building and stood by the barrier with their hands on their hips. Sledge let the vehicle roll up to them and pulled on the hand brake. He wound the window down and gave the nearest officer his best smile.
“Hola!” He waved his hand at his face. “Hotto,” he said.
The officer walked up to the window. “Documentación.”
Sledge fumbled about on the dash, produced a handful of crumpled, beer stained papers and handed them over. The officer scrutinised them carefully while the other walked slowly around the vehicle.
“What’s he doing, Sledge? Why’s he checking the van? They’re not going to cause us any trouble, are they, Sledge?”
The big man turned and gave Zit a fearsome stare. “Just keep it cool, okay? If not, you’re gonna have to put that shitty shirt through a boil wash to get it clean.”
The officer at the back of the van started pulling at the door. Sledge glanced in the rear-view mirror, saw the twelve, blue plastic barrels, all upright, all secured. The second officer walked around and stood next to the driver’s window and gave Sledge a sickly, rotten-toothed grin. “Iz a peez of sheet,” he said, tapping the side of the door panel with the butt of his gun.
“Sure is, Buddy,” said Sledge, maintaining his own strained smile. “Mierda,” he added, and both men laughed as the first officer lost interest in the back doors, came around and handed the crumpled sheets to Sledge. He waved towards the barrier with a single, sullen, “Movimiento.”
Sledge eased the vehicle forwards as the battered, wooden barrier lifted. He kept looking in the rear view as the border control buildings shrank in size. When he was sure that they had no nasty surprises up their sleeves, he floored the accelerator and disappeared from view in a cloud of dust.
“Wha-hoo!” yelled Zit, punching the roof of the van with his scrawny little fists. “We fuckin’ did it, man. We fuckin’ got through!”
“Shut the fuck up, Zit.”
The next half hour was spent in silence, sweating.
Twenty kilometres farther south, Sledge saw a small white vehicle parked at the side of the road. It had the word “Policia” written down the side. Sledge slowed, but not too much. It was local police, not usually a problem. He watched the police car in his side mirror as they moved away. When he was sure they hadn’t attracted any interest he glanced back at the road to see a large, green snake stretched out in front of them. He stamped on the brake as the animal disappeared into the scrub at the side of the road. Sledge knew he’d made a mistake. Fucking brake lights. He knew he should have sorted them out. He looked back in the mirror and saw the car pulling away and driving towards them.
“What is it, Sledge? What’s up?” Zit twisted around in his seat. Hung his head out of the window.
“Get your fuckin’ head in, you moron,” said Sledge, slapping at the youth.
The police car drew along side them, put on his flashing lights and indicated for them to pull over.
“What now, Sledge? What can he want? We got past them two back there. What does he…”
Sledge slowed the vehicle, stopped, and watched the police car as it pulled in a few yards in front of them. The police officer, dressed in blue, got out of the car, drew his gun from his holster and walked towards them.
“Jesus, Sledge. What’s he gonna do with that gun?”
“Shove it up your arse and keep pulling the trigger ‘til it goes click, I hope.”
That sounded vaguely familiar to Zit, but he couldn’t remember where from.
Sledge watched. The officer was young, very young, nice neat uniform and big gun – just the sort of heady mix that could spell trouble. But then he thought, so what? Trouble, no trouble, it was all the same to him. All in a days work. He leaned out of the window and fixed his best winning smile onto his beefy features.
“Documentación,” the officer spat, predictably.
Sledge reached for the same mess of papers on the dash. As he did, the young officer raised his gun.
“Jesus! Sledge! He’s gonna shoot us, man. I never shoulda come out here.”
“But, Sledge… Look at…”
Zit’s words were cut short by a sharp smack in the mouth. His bottom lip split and started a rivulet of blood on the other side of his neck from the knife-point wound.
“Fuera!” the officer shouted from ten feet away. He waved his gun at the two men inside the ambulance. “Fuera. Rápido.”
“What’s he sayin’, Sledge? What’s he sayin’?” Zit had lost all fear of being hit again. He could only see the small black hole at the end of the pistol.
Sledge flipped the door catch and started to ease himself from the seat. “He wants us out. Best do as he says. He’s not very experienced and he’s alone.” He turned to face the bleeding Zit. “Don’t say anything. I mean it this time.”
Sledge stepped out into the baking sunshine. He shielded his eyes from the glare with his left hand.
“Fuera!” The officer shouted over Sledge’s shoulder. Sledge looked around and saw Zit still sitting in the passenger seat.
“Get out, Zit. For Christ’s sake. You’ll annoy him.” He passed the officer the documents and then kept his hands out where they could be seen. The kid looked terrified. “Documentación bueno,” Sledge said, then pointed back the way they’d come. “Frontera.”
The young officer looked back up the road also but made no sign that he understood what Sledge was trying to say. He walked around the back of the ambulance, the papers clutched tight in his fist. Sledge watched him inspect the tyres, and the number plate, and the bumper that was held on with electrical cable. He then stood back a little, lifted one leg and kicked the door. “Abrir,” he said. “Abrir.”
“What’s he sayin’, Sledge? What’s he sayin’?”
Sledge glared at Zit until he shut up and then, with hands first raised, he reached into the cab and took the keys in his fingertips. He walked around to the back of the vehicle and unlocked the doors. The young officer pulled them both wide and stood looking at the twelve, four foot high, two foot wide, blue, plastic barrels. He looked back at Sledge, waved his gun in the direction of the barrels and said, “Abrir! Abrir!”
“Can’t,” said Sledge, shrugging his shoulders.
“Por qué ?”
“I can’t. Despoyo.”
“Sledge! For God’s sake!” Zit was coming towards them now from the other side of the ambulance.
“Just stay there!” Sledge shouted.
The officer pulled his gun up and pointed it at Sledge’s head.
The gun spun then to point at Zit as he moved around the back of the vehicle. He and Sledge were now either side of the officer.
“Zit, just cool it, man.”
The gun swung back.
“Sledge! No! Lookout! Oh, shit! No!”
The fear in the young officer’s face registered with Sledge and he knew they’d passed a point of no return here. He saw the gun swing back to his boss’s stupid son and he saw the change in the face of the officer. He heard the loud crack as blood spurted from Zit’s right arm, up by the shoulder.
Sledge switched to auto.
His right foot came up fast and made perfect contact with the officer’s wrist. There was a sickening crack as the gun flew in an arc over the screaming Zit to land on the parched ground. Sledge’s left hand scribed a wide, horizontal semicircle and then his fist buried itself in the officers stomach. As the man doubled over, Sledge’s right hand came around the other way and placed the seven inches of fat steel neatly into the exposed throat. He turned it slightly, then took it out again, watching the thick spray of arterial blood that followed. He finished the movement with a powerful kick to the head that sent the officer sprawling backwards, the blood describing another neat, red arc in the white heat of the day.
“Get back in,” he barked, snatching the keys from the back door and slamming them shut. “Get in and sit tight.”
“Or you can stay here. Makes no difference to me, pal.” Sledge heaved himself into the cab, twisted the key in the ignition, revved the engine three times and then sped off with Zit desperately trying to shut the door with one arm.
“Sledge, I’m hit.”
The ambulance was speeding down the road at over ninety miles an hour, even so, Sledge twisted in the seat to face Zit. “I don’t care, do you understand? This is not Reservoir Dogs, so don’t play to an audience that isn’t there. Sit tight and squeeze your fingers over the top of where you’ve been hurt. Even someone as stupid as you must realise we can’t stop for help now. Jesus!” He turned back to face the road, swerved the van to avoid driving into the ditch. “Pity he hadn’t aimed a bit farther over. Splashed on the road is about the best place I can think of to keep the shit that passes for brains in your head. Now, shut up and let me think.”
Zit sat trembling in the passenger seat, his face ashen grey, as Sledge pressed the accelerator to the floor and headed south.