2:1: “Nobody’s Car”, by Robert Hood

2:1: “Nobody’s Car”, by Robert Hood

At ten to six, just before sunrise, Allan Coachman rose from a troubled sleep and crept to the front window of his flat. The window looked out over an unkempt garden to the street — and as he squinted past rustling hydrangea leaves to the spot right under the streetlight where he knew the car would be, he felt a shiver of dread. Yes, there it was. Parked by the side of the road, as always. It was black, or at least very dark. Its lines were square and old-fashioned. Something straight out of an old law-enforcement melodrama — Dragnet or The Untouchables.

“I wonder what you want,” Allan muttered.

At two minutes to six the sky to the east began to lighten, and not long afterwards the sun itself rose into a sky decorated with only a few small clouds. Sunlight washed over the car. As it did, Allan used his binoculars in an attempt to see into the driver’s seat. But the light refracted, slithered across the tinted glass. Once again, he couldn’t make out an outline. Originally he had assumed this was because the driver had left the vehicle to visit a nearby house. But as always no one returned to the car. At the appointed time, it started up and disappeared into the morning haze.

The car had been there every night for the past three weeks, since Allan first noticed it. It was always parked just under the streetlight, whenever he chose to get up early and look — which he did every morning now. No one got out of it, no one got into it. Just after dawn it would drive away. That was it. It happened every night and Allan couldn’t help but fret, and wonder why.

His daytime work was suffering. He found it difficult to concentrate on the actuarial intricacies of delicately balanced company finances when his mind was full of worry and grim speculation. His boss regularly ticked him off for daydreaming and he’d developed an increasing tendency to mess up important calculations. Two weeks ago he’d lost his company identification card and was beginning to wonder whether they’d even bother making him a new one.

He couldn’t understand why this was happening to him, but had no one to discuss it with. His work colleagues were far too likely to make him the butt of tasteless jokes. He lived alone. And friends? He’d lost contact with his only close buddy back in 1986 when his summer vacation job at Hamburger Heaven had ended. As for family, his parents had died in a car crash when he was twelve, having left him with no siblings. It was because of this accident, perhaps, that Allan had never learnt to drive.

The next night, in an attempt to outwit his automotive stalker, Allan didn’t go home after work. Instead he booked into a hotel, taking a room with a street view. The hotel was far from his home and he’d never stayed there before, so he figured it would be difficult for his stalker to trace him. Early in the morning, he crept over to the hotel window to check, sure that the car wouldn’t be there this time. But it was parked against the gutter, under a streetlight, as always. Waiting. A cold shudder scratched over his skin.

Once his hands stopped trembling, he rang the police and told them that someone was following him. He was getting scared, he said.

“Do you have the vehicle’s registration number?” the desk sergeant asked.

Only the night before he’d used binoculars to check the plates on the car as it drove off in the early morning light. It had had none. When he told the policeman this, the man didn’t reply.

“Could you send someone around to interview the driver?” Allan asked. The policeman was reluctant to act on what he obviously interpreted as paranoia, but when Allan pressed the point said they’d check it out. At about four o’clock that morning Allan watched a patrol car glide along the empty street and turn right at the next intersection. When he looked back at the spot under the streetlight, he knew what he’d see.

“It was there,” he told the constable who rang him toward lunchtime. “It turned up after your patrol went past.”

“Are you sure you weren’t imagining it?” the man replied. “Perhaps I could refer you to a counselor.”

Allan decided not to pursue the matter.

Later that day he was fired from his job, a position he’d held, without advancement, for nearly ten years. “One of our clients complained,” he was told. “You cost them nearly ten thousand dollars, thanks to a stupid computational error. We were inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt, but they’re good customers, and you hardly seem interested these days.” Actually Allan had tired of the work years ago. But he hated being dismissed and, though he had a decade of savings squirreled away, disliked being deprived of regular income.

He blamed the car and its mysterious occupant. Bleary and unhappy, he slouched by his window staring at the quiet street and the unmoving car, and wondered for the millionth time what it could want with him. Was he under some sort of official surveillance?

I can’t take it any more, he thought. I’ll find out what’s going on, whatever the consequences.

He slipped on his loafers, fetched a coat and hat and walked straight out the front door, carefully locking it behind him. The car was in its usual spot, directly outside his front gate under the streetlight. Drawing in a lungful of chilly pre-dawn air, Allan strode down the path toward the car.

His approach provoked no response. That surprised him. If the purpose of the car was to watch him incognito, he’d figured going near it would make it drive away at once.

But nothing happened. Up close the duco seemed inordinately smooth and clean: no stone chips, no scratches, no insect smears. No dust, for that matter. Whoever’s car it was, they certainly cared for it.

“Hello?” he called.

His voice echoed strangely in the empty street. There were no lights on in any of the neighbouring houses. Anything could happen to him, and no one would know.

“Is there anyone in there?” he yelled, tapping lightly on the rear curbside window.

He couldn’t see anyone in the car. Even this close the tinting of the glass blocked clear vision. All he could make out was some very broken evidence of dim light coming through from the other side and shadows that may or may not have been a driver and passengers. The car seemed empty, though it might have been packed with watchers.

This time Allan rapped quite vigorously on the glass then started back quickly as though something might leap out the window at him.

Sighing, and gaining some further bravado from the lack of response, he moved around the rear of the car, heading for the driver’s side door. For a moment he stood little more than arm’s length from whoever might be sitting behind the steering wheel, and waited for something to happen. When nothing did, he reached out and knocked on the glass. Tap. Tap.

“Excuse me!” he said and tapped again.

After a moment, fed up with being ignored, he reached for the door handle. He gripped it. Turned the lever. The door wasn’t locked. Should he open it, he wondered, almost simultaneously with doing it. Before he knew what he’d done — while the consequences of doing so were still taking shape in his head — he was staring into the empty driver’s seat, feeling strangely deflated.

Nobody. An empty car.

Allan huffed. Did they think they could hide from him?

Angry, he leaned into the car’s lush interior and whispered, “Where are you hiding, damn it?” Shadows seemed to shift and draw away in the back seat, but it was just a trick of the light. Had to be. There was nowhere to hide.

Disgruntled, he slipped down onto the driver’s seat. It felt very comfortable. The seat was padded, worn in ways that suited his build. The headrest and back adjustment was right for him. The wheel felt comfortable in his hands. Keys were dangling in the slot at the base of the steering column.

I could wait here, Allan thought. Wait for the driver to return. He would have to do so sooner or later. Dawn was the crucial moment and he’d come back by then.

Yes. I’ll wait.

He reached out and closed the door. Darkness wrapped around him.

It was very close, very intimate in this car. Although at first he felt considerable anxiety sitting there in the dark, the feeling of having violated someone else’s place soon passed as he breathed in the interior’s leathery warmth and watched the time on the digital display tick over. Finally, as the sky lightened, the numbers changed to 6.00. Then 6.01. 6.02. No one came. The digits climbed higher. It was dawn and time for the car to depart. But no one had come to drive it away. The owner must have seen Allan climb in and had decided to take off on foot.

Okay, thought Allan. Okay. Be like that. But I’m not licked yet.

He reached up and toggled the switch on the overhead light. The resulting illumination was dull and yellow. It would be enough. Carefully he searched through the glove box, ran his fingers over the back seats, checked along the dashboard. He accidentally switched on the radio, which blared out a rock song that seemed to be about espionage: “Are you on routine assignment?” the singer sang. Allan punched the OFF button and silenced him. Continuing his search, he found nothing to identify the owner, sank back, disheartened, about ready to give up.

Check again. A draught seemed to whisper in his ear. Check again.

That’s when he caught sight of a flat object on the floor over on the passenger’s side — square and white, half hidden under the seat. A stray beam of daylight caught on it and it glinted. Plastic. Allan reached down and picked it up.

A photo ID. Belonging to Mr Harold R. Lumbeck. Financial consultant with a stockbroking firm. The picture showed a badly lit phantom, but it was clear enough to allow for identification.

“Why have you been watching me, Lumbeck?” Allan asked it.

Naturally the photo ID gave him no answer, but the possibilities were so raucous in his own mind that Allan almost heard voices whispering their responses from the rear of the car.

“You think I’ve lost him, do you?” he whispered back.

He checked the ID for an address then put the card in his coat pocket. Calmly, thoughtlessly, he positioned the gear stick to NEUTRAL and turned on the ignition. The engine purred.

“I know where he lives,” he said. “Let’s go there.”

Allan put the gears in DRIVE, eased off the handbrake and depressed the accelerator. The car moved away from the gutter.

Easy, Allan thought. It’s like I’ve always known how to drive.

That made him smile.

Later that night he parked outside the house of Mr Harold R. Lumbeck and waited for him to appear. When dawn came, he drove away. He didn’t go home, he just parked somewhere shadowy and inconspicuous, until night fell once more. Then, determination refreshed, he returned to the place and waited. Voices whispered to him from the back seat, encouraging him. Keeping him company.

When dawn came and nobody had emerged from the house, Allan wasn’t concerned. He could be patient. Smiling grimly, he drove off into the morning light.

But he knew he would be back, no matter how long it took. Night after night the car would be parked there by the side of the road, waiting. Sooner or later Lumbeck would see it. He would creep to his window and look out at the silent vehicle.

And then it would be his turn to worry.

His turn to wonder why.

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