“Do you know how fast you were going, sir?”
The red fuel light blinked at me accusingly. I grimaced.
“I suppose it was a bit fast. Sorry about that. I’ll take the ticket and be on my way, shall I?” I tried to surreptitiously knock the pile of other unpaid vehicular fines off the passenger seat.
The police officer, a no-nonsense brunette with an impassive expression, pulled a notebook from her vest and wrote something down. I’ve always thought the attire of traffic cops somewhat comical. They have this severe high-vis on black thing going on, and it’s ruined by the silly white top on their police hats. Almost as if someone had said: ‘How can we make this intimidating uniform suddenly look like a children’s costume? Bam! White hat.’
Although, faced with the forbidding countenance of this unamused officer, I was re-thinking my stance on the issue.
Under the suddenly not-so-comical hat, her eyes surveyed me and my scruffy suit, then moved to the tattered maps spread across the dashboard and the half-finished bag of yesterday’s chips nestled in the open glove box. “I’ll need to see your license, sir.”
I groped in my pockets. “Of course. Right away.”
I hoped she wasn’t going to try to search the car. I really didn’t want her to find the body in the boot.
“Why were you in such a hurry Mr… Jones?” she said, staring intently at my license.
“It’s pronounced Joh-nes,” I said. I feel it adds a bit of authenticity. “I’m on my way to a party, running late. I didn’t mean to be careless, won’t do it again.”
I realised immediately this was the wrong lie to have chosen. Her expression said it all: I didn’t look fit to be seen pan-handling on the street, let alone attending a full blown social event. It occurred to me at that moment that I probably didn’t look like the kind of person who ought to even be at the wheel of a car. My hair still had twigs in.
And why on earth would I be going to a party at the crack of sunrise? As if on cue, the dawn chorus launched into a mocking tune from the nearest hedgerow.
The officer’s hard gaze fixed with mine and I’m ashamed to say my smile faltered.
“Could you step out of the car for me, sir?” she said, in no way meaning it as a question.
“No problem,” I replied, perhaps a little too cheerily.
And then I turned the ignition and slammed my foot down.
This was exactly the wrong time to stall the car.
She was quick to reach through the open window and grab me by the wrists. Yikes, tight grip. Her partner, who until this point had been busy eating a biscuit in the car behind, spat custard cream and frantically jumped out. I struggled as hard as I could against her grasp, but she held bloody firm.
There was nothing else for it. I yanked as hard as I physically could and pulled the police officer through the window.
It caught her by surprise and she landed with a yelp, sprawled half on the passenger seat, half across me, and one foot sticking out the window. Her partner made it close enough to slam his hands on the side of the car just as I floored the pedal once more. He rebounded off, stunned, while I tore away down the empty country lane.
“You maniac!” screamed my captive. Her head cracked against the dashboard as I sped round a sharp turn.
“Sorry,” I said. And I meant it. No one deserved to encounter me on a day like today. And I didn’t deserve to be having a day like today.
I shouldn’t have been speeding, I thought glumly.
Now, speed was the only option. And it was proving very difficult to steer with someone’s legs in the way.
Beside me the woman dizzily hauled herself upright in the seat. Out of the corner of my eye I watched her take stock of the situation.
Madman driving. Doors unlocked. But driving very fast. Jumping out not an option. No sign of her buddy in the rear view yet, but I could hear the sirens. She eyed my grip on the wheel.
“It’d be very stupid,” I said. “Y’know, if you were thinking about trying to take control of the car. We’d just crash, and probably die, or at least get very hurt, and neither of us want that.”
“What do you want, Mr Jones?”
“For you to fasten your seatbelt? If I have to brake suddenly I really don’t want to see you flying through the wind shield. Honestly it would ruin my day.”
Tall hedges flashed past on either side; they obscured every bend. I felt my gut lurch every time we turned a corner, certain it would be our last. It was a blur of green and tarmac.
She reluctantly snapped the buckle in place.
“I think you should calm down and consider your position, Mr Jones,” she said, with remarkable composure for someone who had just been inexplicably kidnapped.
“Mm,” I replied. I was rather more concerned with concentrating on the road. And the foliage I was driving into to avoid oncoming traffic. We swerved violently, narrowly missing a tractor.
“My partner won’t stop tailing you, and he’ll have called for back-up.” A sharp intake of breath as we bounced over a pothole. “They’ll have a helicopter on us in no time. And you’ve abducted a police officer, Mr Jones, so they’ll be calling in the big guns. Who have actual guns, Mr Jones. It would go a lot better for you if you stop the car now.”
“Shut up,” I snapped. The blue lights were now visible in my rear view mirror. But that was okay, because I’d just spotted our ticket home.
“Mr Jones, I can see you’re low on fuel. It really would be better for you to give yourself up now, rather than let this situation get any worse. My partner isn’t going to stop following you, Mr Jones.”
“Well, he’s not going to be able to follow us much further.”
“Why? Where are we going?”
“Over the bridge,” I said, grimly.
Now this was going to take some doing. Crossing a bridge takes time, and focus. I didn’t have the luxury of time, and all my focus was currently on steering. So let’s turn all that focus into steering across the bridge, into the space beyond space beyond it. It’s an old bridge made of stone, only wide enough for one vehicle at a time. And there was already a car in the way – there was already a car in the way.
“Stop,” said the officer urgently. “Stop, you’ll crash!”
So what we have to do is focus on steering around the car in the way, squeezing into that tiny gap, squeezing through that gap-
“Stop!” she shrieked. “Stop the car!”
-into that space where the shape of reality warps and bends, with a screech of wheels and a scrape of metal-
-and through the other side, across the bridge.
I allowed the car to trundle to a halt.
I turned to the officer who, white-faced, was clutching the sides of her seat.
“Sorry about that,” I said, a tad shakily. “All over now, promise I won’t do it again.”
She was trembling. So was I.
“What,” she said, her voice coming out as a hoarse whisper, “was that?”
“That was us crossing a bridge. Now look, Miss…?”
“That was incredibly dangerous,” she said, composure suddenly back in place. Then before I knew it she’d lunged and grabbed me by the collar. She cursed as the seatbelt locked in place; I took my chance and gave her an elbow to the jaw. I wrenched myself out of her grip and gracelessly fell out of the car.
“I shouldn’t run if I were you, Mr Jones!”
“I don’t intend to.” I fought to regain my breath and held out a hand in a placating gesture. “It’s Hansard, by the way. Jack Hansard. And I should look out the window. If I were you.”
Her lip curled with suspicion, but she looked anyway. The blanket of thick rolling fog had its desired effect. Her jaw slowly dropped.
She twisted in her seat and stared out the back window. One end of the stone bridge could be seen, the rest of it stretching away into a thick grey shroud of mist.
Before I could stop her she’d flung herself out of the car, and stood staring in bewilderment at the foreign surroundings. Gone were the trees, the grass, the sky, the sun. All was fog.
“Please don’t move, miss! It would be a really, really bad idea!”
“What happened to everything?” she said, stupefied.
She started towards the bridge. I dashed around and grabbed her by the shoulders.
“Let go! Or I’ll–”
“Please listen to me,” I implored. “I’ll explain everything, but you mustn’t move away from the car. You’ll get lost in the fog.”
Her eyes seemed to come back into focus and her mouth set into a hard expression. In moments she’d thrust both my wrists behind my back and roughly shoved me against the car. Ouch.
I dimly noticed there was a horrific gash in the paintwork. We’d nearly crashed. Just another second, just another millimetre, we’d have been smears on the road…
I came back to earth with the sound of her reading my rights. “Mr Jones. Hansard. Whoever you are. You are hereby under arrest. I would advise you to remain still–” I heard the clink of cuffs.
“Won’t you hear me out?” I pleaded. “Look, I know this is all very strange, but trying to arrest me isn’t going to solve anything.”
“I think otherwise.”
I resisted, but she had a good hold on me. I tried to kick behind me, and she evaded it with ease.
“If you don’t stay still I’ll be forced to use, well, force!” she snapped. “So stop struggling and– What is that?”
She stiffened. So did I. For we both heard the low, menacing growl rumbling out of the fog. We peered into the wall of white, which suddenly seemed more solid than it had before. The fog started to move. Or perhaps ‘writhe’ is a more appropriate description. Indistinct, stumbling shadows seemed to be forming in the murk.
“I think,” I said, voice a whisper, “that we should get back in the car.”
Wordlessly, we did.
Outside, the growling turned to a kind of sighing moan. Tendrils of fog snaked towards us, like outstretched limbs.
My unintentional captive turned from the window to me, cheeks pale.
“You said you had an explanation?” she said, though it was through gritted teeth. I nodded.
“This might take a moment to sink in, but I’ll try and keep it as short as possible,” I began.
“Don’t patronise me.”
“I’m not! I won’t. Look, imagine… imagine there are lots of different planes of existence – let’s just call them other worlds for now, shall we? – and they all exist at once. And let’s say that it’s possible to cross into these other places at very specific locations. Bridges, for example.” Her eyes narrowed. I ploughed on. “Literally, a simple bridge in our world can act as a bridge to a whole other place. And so, knowing that all these other places, these other worlds exist, then there has to be something for them to exist in. There has to be something, sort of around them, to make sure they don’t go bumping into one another.”
“You’re going to tell me that’s where we are now.”
“Yes. That’s where we are now. Most people call it the Nether. Horrible foggy place of nightmares. But you can think of it as being a sort of reality-cushion. Hardly as scary, being inside a cushion,” I added brightly.
I watched her digest the information. She seemed to be taking it remarkably well. Though I suspect the constant unearthly moan was providing a lot of support for my story. As if on cue, a howl rolled out of the fog.
She closed her eyes for a moment, breathed in deeply, exhaled, and when she opened her eyes they were sharp once more.
“How did we get here?” she asked grimly.
“Funny story,” I said. “There was this copper who tried to search my car and–”
“The bridge,” she said impatiently. “How does that work? I thought we were going to crash.” Another thought apparently hit her square in the face, as her next question had more than an ounce of fear to it. “Are we dead?”
“No! Far from it,” I assured. But not necessarily for long.
I held a hand to my chin and pretended to think. “Well, I’m not really one for philosophical discussions, but if we follow Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ line of reasoning…”
“Enough.” I got a little kick out of the way her features scrunched in frustration. “Fine. If we’re not dead, then take us back. Now.”
“Back isn’t really an option for me. I have a horrible feeling I’m going to get shot if we go that way.”
She took another deep breath. “Mr Hansard, are you sane? Do you understand that you have taken a police officer hostage?”
“I have bigger problems,” I said quietly. Then: “Look, we should at least be on first name terms. I’m Jack. Who’re you?”
She considered me sullenly for a while. Then she pulled out her little black notebook again, and I’m pretty sure she wrote my name in it.
“Age?” she said.
“You’re kidding. I’m not telling you anything else.”
“How dare you! I’m thirty-” I caught myself. “I don’t look forty.”
“Have you seen
what you look like?”
what you look like?”
“I’ve had a rough week,” I grumbled. “Would you put the pen down, please?”
She didn’t, but she told me her name. “Officer Riley. And we’ll keep it at that.” She watched me fumble with the ignition, stalling the car again. “If we’re not going back, then where are we going, exactly? What’s got you so spooked, Mr Hansard?”
I leaned my forehead on the steering wheel for a moment. How many hours ago had I set off on this mad race across the country? How could I explain the reason I was pelting down a quiet Lancashire lane at eighty miles an hour at six o’ clock in the morning?
I decided I would have to show her, to try and get her on my side.
“Lift up the blanket on the back seat,” I said.
She did. At first she recoiled, mouth twisted in a mix of confusion and astonishment. Then she leaned in, inspecting the small quivering thing under the covers.
“What is it?” she asked.
“A friend of mine.”
Her eyes turned to me, brows knitted together. “It looks like a goblin.”
“How would you know what a goblin looks like?” I replied, sourly. “Her name’s Ang, if you care.”
“She?” She tried to shake away the disbelief. “All right, but what is she, then?”
“A coblyn. Her kind like to live underground in mines and other dark places.”
“Like a goblin.”
“Well, yes. But don’t let her hear you say that.”
“What’s wrong with it– her?”
I hesitated. How much could I say without breaking the poor woman’s mind? Just because she hadn’t suffered a nervous breakdown yet didn’t mean she wasn’t going to. She already had that distinctly frazzled look of someone approaching the edge of their ability to cope.
“She’s… dying,” I said slowly. “I’m trying to get her to someone who can help. At least, I hope he can help. I don’t think she has much time left… Look, that’s why I was driving so fast. I’m sorry you got caught up in all this, but you didn’t really give me a choice.” I studied her face as I spoke. She seemed to be coming round. “And that’s also why we can’t go back, you see. I might get shot, or at the very least people are going to want to ask a lot of very serious questions, and Ang might not survive. Forward is the only way. But I promise, once we’re out of the Nether, you’re free to leave, and we’ll be on our way. You don’t have to see us ever again.”
That last bit was more of a hope on my part. I hoped she would decide to leave us alone.
She considered this while staring fixedly out the window, where dark shapes still moved in the fog. She seemed to reach a conclusion.
“How about you get us out of this fog, Mr Hansard?” she said, her voice carefully level. “Forward, or whichever way you need to go.”
“Gladly.” I smiled, though she didn’t return it.
“But I’d also like you to answer some questions.”
“Ah, yes. I thought you might.”
“Starting with exactly who you are, and how you know about these…” she waved a hand in a gesture that broadly encompassed everything around us, “…things.”
“That might take a while.”
“How long will it take to get out of here?”
“Uh. A while.”
“Then get talking, mister.”
I refrained from explaining that I actually had no idea how long we would be stuck here. As I started the ignition, successfully this time, I finally acknowledged the thin thread of worry winding its way round my own thoughts. I had never meant to end up in the Nether, you see. No one ever does.
I’ve never seen it in such detail before. It’s a world that you glimpse as you’re passing between worlds – a curl of fog and a fleeting suggestion of shadows. Perhaps crossing the bridge had been a stupid idea. I knew it was reckless, but at the time it seemed like the only option. You need time to unfocus, to aim yourself in the right direction – and at the time, I hadn’t really thought about what I was aiming for. And that’s how you end up lost in the Nether.
Lost. Now there’s a horrible thought.
Still, I thought, with momentary pride, I did manage to pull not only myself across the bridge, but two other living bodies as well. Not to mention an entire car. That was pure skill, that was. Even if my bones now ached and my head pounded from the exertion.
I peered through the fog, trying to make out the shape of the road. Not that it was a road: more like a space where the fog was thinner, and hopefully safer to travel through. The fuel light blinked at me.
What a mess. Trundling through the Nether with a near-empty fuel tank, one abducted police officer in the passenger seat, and a dead body in the boot. At least she hadn’t found out about the body. I hoped it would stay that way.
Worst of all, I was sure she was still going to give me the speeding ticket.