“Thirty seconds to go, Mr Hazard.”
The voice on the radio was clipped and impersonal. Female, but as sexy as watching a pair of rutting pigeons. No personal relationships, not this close to showtime.
I run a diagnostic. There’s not a lot of point. The mechs have been over the car twice, and I went over it carefully only fifteen minutes ago. But it will give me something to do. Something to focus on other than the seven segment LEDs counting down to zero.
Why the hell am I doing this? What am I trying to prove? I’m not young anymore. When you are 18, you believe that you are invincible. I’m 38; I know that I’m not.
I have seen too many friends die. Watched too many accidents. Too many disasters. Too many mistakes. I’d done my share of killing too, but never like this. Never premeditated, never for sport.
Twenty-five seconds. Today there will be five drivers in the ring. I have met all of them. I shook hands, I wished them luck. In twenty-five seconds, I will be trying to kill them.
This is not what I do. I only fight for survival. A courier does not make money by starting firefights. Ammunition is expensive, repairs are more so. My job is, was, to get the payload from start to finish. If that means fleeing from every two-bit pirate, biker or adrenaline junkie, so be it. On the road, the first shot has never come from me. In the ring, will I be able to shoot first, or will I have to wait for my life to be in danger before my combat reflexes burst into action?
Twenty seconds. I reach up and flip down the sun visor. A couple of elastic bands hold a crumpled and fading photograph in position. In the picture, the sun is bright, giving stark clarity and sharpness to the image. A woman with shoulder-length red hair is crouched down. She smiles at the camera. At her side, a young girl wearing a yellow sundress waves. Her grin is broad, showing gaps where her baby teeth have come loose. The photograph was taken eighteen months ago. Caitlin was seven. She will be nine tomorrow.
I rub my eyes with grimy hands. I’m tired. Tired of trying. Tired of chasing an impossible future. I think I will sleep well tonight.
Fifteen seconds. Time to focus. Forget those are people out there. They’re just cars, just machines. Not flesh. I’ve just go to stop the machines. No need for bloodshed.
A memory of the pre-show briefing bursts into my head. Six of us in a
small conference room listening to a slim young producer. She was the
one who came up with the name: “Trip Hazard. Your real name is too
mainstream, too normal. Our viewers need excitement. That’s what
you must give them, Mr Hazard.”
We were a mixed bunch, the contenders. Young and old, four male, two female. No one looked confident, although the younger ones were trying.
“I want a clean show today. This is not a grudge match. This early in the week the ratings are will probably be low and the other network is just showing re-runs, so we’re under no pressure for deaths. No firing on pedestrians, no shooting to kill.” We all nodded, the young hopefuls and the grizzled pros. Then we left, heading to our vehicles with the briefest of acknowledgements.
Ten seconds. I wonder what’s on the vidbox tonight. I wonder if Marie will be watching. Hopefully there’ll be an old film showing. Something light. If I’m lucky, she’ll miss the show. She’ll never need to know.
I’ve pre-ordered Caitlin’s present. It’s reserved at that shop in London, the giant toystore. It’s a teddy bear. Enormous. Big enough to protect her when I am away. I have to collect it early tomorrow morning.
Five seconds. I think of Fred Wallace. My boss for fifteen years. Solid, reliable, always cheerful. The last time I saw him he was in tears, a broken man. “There’s nothing I can do, Charlie. The insurance company refused to honour the claim for the dust-up when we lost Max and his crew. I can’t meet the repayments. Wallace Wagons is over.”
That was eighteen months ago. Surely my record was impeccable. Then the rejections started piling up. Too old. Only worked for a second-rate firm. The roads are more dangerous than they were. Can you handle it, old man?
Three seconds. I’m 38, for God’s sake. Not 88. I’ll show them. I’ll win this contest. The prize money will keep us for at least a year. I can buy Marie the necklace we saw last week.
Two seconds. I think of Caitlin.
One second. I put the car in gear and ease forward.
Time to go.