by Rob Harding
The woman on the street is making those noises as the shouting starts again, the raw-throat all-out hate that only hysterical men can shriek. I barely recognise what they’re saying.
The woman coughs and sobs again, and I hear a fleshy impact, like the sound of a shoe hitting a stomach.
And then there’s the wail of a siren, right around the corner, and the burglar-alarm scream of an LRAD blots out all other sound. A huge armoured police car with tires as tall as I am comes grinding down the street, a pair of armed officers walking alongside it. The turret on top is swinging to bring a grenade launcher to bear against the fight. Hopefully they won’t fire it. I like this jacket, and the stink of chemical riot dispersant is designed with a half-life of about fifty years.
It’s over in seconds. The police got very, very good at disappearing people into soundproof holding crates during the War (and, much as I absolutely hate to admit it, that was probably a good thing when they were screaming songs they learned off the internet that turned you into a serial killer). The hijacked DeepGrey drones don’t stand a chance. I lurk in the alleyway, staying very still as the fuss dies down. It takes longer than it should for the sudden, horrible realisation to kick in that I’m about to be arrested.
I freeze for a moment, lost in a horrible whirling mess of hopeless panic. I’m going to be arrested, and if I’m lucky I’ll get zombie DeepGrey officers and get infected off some grainy tactical smartphone in the back of a van, coming out the other end ready to wash off my eyeliner, put on a suit and catch the eleven o’clock call at the nearest halfway tech startup. If I’m not, I’ll get all of the above after a couple of non-DeepGrey police freethinkers take the opportunity to kick the shit out of me, or worse. Historically people like me have not got on with the police – there’s a reason the first thing my lost friend Laura did when she got DeepGrey’d was get her ACAB tattoo lasered off. Shame. It was a good tattoo.
I’m still thinking about it when there’s the scrape of a gate behind me and a hand grabs my shoulder. I scream, stifled, and nearly come up pepper-spraying, but someone’s wrapping a thick, scratchy scarf that smells like old carpet around my face and dragging me backwards, away from the street. It feels like they’ve thrown a duvet cover over me, and I’m instantly tangled, flailing against the material. A woman snarls ‘I’m trying to help you stupid fuck-’ in my ear, and then there’s hands on my shoulders and they’re pulling me sideways, around a corner and onto a rough brick patio. I find myself standing in the kicked-over remains of a pair of flowerpots, a brick wall against my back, folds and billows of scarf wrapped around me. The scratchy buzz of a quadcopter sounds mosquito-like nearby and I freeze – police, sweeping the area, it must be, and they’re going to see us hiding here.
‘Alright, stay really fucking still.’ The woman whispers, in my ear. ‘They can’t see us.’ I’ve had my eyes screwed shut in a panic, but now I open them. The fabric over my head is thick and heavy, oddly fluorescent, and I can make out the blurry outlines of a pattern on it, all thick angular lines and discordant shapes. It’s hard to get a clear look, because it’s still pretty dark and it still smells like it’s been at the back of a cupboard for a while.
A hand grasps my own, and squeezes tight. It’s a little clammy. Somehow, it’s good to know my rescuer is nervous as well.
The drone burrs and whispers above us, then there’s a sudden harsh whine of engines as it climbs away. The LRAD outside has stopped, and I can hear the police tank’s engine idling. They’ll be cleaning up, looking for witnesses. I nearly panic again as I hear the scrape of boots in the alleyway, and the clank of someone trying the gate, but they just rattle it about a bit, then walk away again.
‘I think we’re clear.’ The woman whispers. ‘Come inside, quick.’
She guides me up a back step and through a door, the crunch of an old mechanical handle lock and a waft of cooking smells filtering through the fabric. It’s got the oiliness of cheap fake fur, maybe, and it’s a little plasticy in places. I begin trying to pull it off before the door’s even closed.
I free my head, and Adil’s daughter helps me find my way out of the rest of the thing. At first I think it’s a big baggy sheet, but at some point during the process a definite hood appears and I realise it’s a cloak, big enough to cover me down to the ankles. I collect myself and realise she’s wearing one of her own, an eye-hurting dazzle camouflage pattern that breaks up her shape and silhouette. She’s still wearing the hood over her head, and I realise that she’s drawn a huge smudge of eyeliner across her left eye and down her cheek. There’s a scarf wrapped around her face, another smudge of jagged-edged rectangles scrawled across it.
She tells me to ‘fold it!’ and then starts stripping her own off, her movements quick and furtive. Hers has sleeves, and she gets stuck in one of them, so I reach out to help. Together we shift it off, and she bundles it up with mine then yanks a kitchen cupboard open, pulling out a drift of bin bags and empty shopping bags. With practiced hands she shoves the two cloaks into the back of the cupboard, then covers them with the bags. Once that’s done, she straightens up as the clatter of someone banging on security shutters echoes through the shop. ‘Upstairs.’ She says, bluntly, and I head through the kitchen door and up to the second floor.
Featured image CC0 Pexels
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