She waits with impatience, feet tapping a restless flamenco, in the queue outside the airport for renting a car. The evening sun’s rays scorch her face increasing her annoyance just that little bit more. She whips out her Prada sunglasses and slides it over her aquiline nose, making few heads turn her way. The attendant takes an eternity to get her licence photocopied and registered. She thinks molasses would take lesser time to drip over a rock than the time the attendant takes to hand over the keys.
She flips the bird at the general vicinity of the counter and wheels her suitcase towards the parking lot. The past week hadn’t been kind to her. It began with her luggage being misplaced, which directly led to her botching her job. To make things worse, her organization had lost the contract to one of their fiercest rivals. For an experienced professional, the incident had become a huge black mark on her career.
She throws her carry-on on the back seat and starts the car. It’s a well maintained sedan, almost three years old, just the way she likes it. She lowers the window once she gets out of the city and hits the countryside. The pleasant breeze that wafts in does nothing to assuage her present mood. She pings through the radio channels and switches the sound system off with a huff.
The sun is almost down and she is in a state of near torpor. She was comfortable in this state, where her muscle memory kicked in and more than made up for the inertia of her other senses. She contemplates stopping for a quick bite before the next stretch through the unforgiving desert when she hears the thump.
Her senses overrides her muscle memory and she clasps the steering hard and pulls the car over to the shoulder of the highway.
‘Bloody flat tire!’ she mutters, rolls her sleeves and gets out of the car. She is puzzled to see that all the four tires are in perfect condition. She uses the toe of her shoe to poke and prod at the tires, and then she hears it again. A low, rhythmic thumping noise coming from the trunk. She takes a step back and contemplates her further course of action.
She could leave the car here and ask the car rental company to bring her a replacement car. That would be the safest option, but it would also take a long time. It was getting dark and she is in the middle of nowhere, the nearest town at least a hundred kilometres away. Her other option could be calling the cops and they could open the trunk and see what was making the noise from inside.
She decides to call the cops and inform them. She pulls her mobile out and realizes that it is out of charge. She lets a loud expletive out and is rewarded with a feeble ‘Hello’ from inside the trunk. She looks around, spots a stone with a jagged edge and picks it up. She circles around the car and uses her left hand to smack the trunk with repeated thuds.
The voice from the trunk immediately pipes up, ‘Hello? Please open the trunk. I’ve been stuck inside for the last seven hours and I need to pee.’
She grips the stone with firm determination, ‘Are you armed?’
‘What? No! I don’t have anything other than my wristwatch on me. Please let me out. I won’t harm you. I promise.’
‘Promises aren’t worth the air they come out of the person who utter them. Why are you inside the trunk?’
‘Ma’am, please let me out. I’ll answer all your questions once I’ve answered natures call first.’
She grins despite herself, ‘What if you are a psychopath?’
‘No! I’m just an insurance salesman. I beg you, please let me out. I’m diabetic.’
‘Listen! I’ll walk away around twenty meters and then pop the trunk open with the key fob. I need you to come out hands first, alright? I have a gun and I assure you I know to use it.’
‘Yes, Definitely! Thank you very much.’
She walks away back first and presses the key to release the lock. Time freezes as she waits for the trunk to open and the person to emerge. The trunk opens and two hands, sheathed within white shirtsleeves, emerge followed by a bald pate and then a rotund figure falls with an awkward plop on the asphalt.
She watches with a mixture of curiosity and amusement as the man gets up and, with a muttered thanks and a smile that resembled more of a grimace, runs with his hands on his trousers’ zipper to the opposite side of the road. The man waddles back after finishing his business with an apologetic smile.
‘Thank you, Ma’am. I’d shake your hand, but I guess you’d prefer if I wash my hands before.’
She grips the stone a little tighter, ‘Alright, guy! Take a hike. You are out of the trunk and free now.’
He looks at her as if she has sprouted a second head, ‘But, this is middle of nowhere. I don’t have my cellphone or wallet on me. Trust me, no one will stop their vehicle to give me a lift. Please, I implore you, let me ride with you till the next town. Look at me, I cannot survive for more than an hour in this wilderness.’
She gives him the once over. She estimates that he is around fifty, very much on the short side. He is clad in a stained white shirt and navy trousers. The horrible pink and purple tie around his neck is loose and askew. He looks innocuous, but her senses are wary. As a single woman traveling a lot, she has learnt not to take anyone on their face value.
‘Why were you in the trunk?’
‘That’s a pretty funny story. I’ll regale you with my story on the way to the next town. I guess we’d have two hours to swap whatever information we want amidst us.’
‘Buddy, you are not getting within ten feet of me without telling your story. Start talking or start walking.’
‘Alright, alright! You young ones are not trusting of others at all. Whatever happened to decency and kindness?’
She shrugs and walks towards her car, all the while keeping him in her eyesight, ‘Suit yourself.’
‘Ok! I’ll talk. Do you have some water? I feel dehydrated.’
She tosses him a can of soda, ‘That’s all you get. Now, talk.’
He finishes of the soda in three long swigs and wipes his mouth with his tie. ‘As I said, I’m an insurance salesman. We have pretty stiff targets this quarter and in my over-exuberance to achieve them, I might have sold life insurances to some gentlemen, who on my later reflection, I shouldn’t have.’
‘Gang members. They realized that killing someone might get them a tidy little windfall. Unfortunately, I had falsified some information about their occupation and the company refused to pay. So, they were a member short and empty handed. I managed to escape them for a month, but they spotted me today at the airport. I ran away as fast as I could and then hid inside the trunk of this car. Well, there’s my story. Now, can I please get a ride?’
Despite her radar screaming in the negative, she consents. ‘Get in. I need to see your hands at all times, understood? Don’t try any funny business. I’m a trained martial arts expert.’
He nods in the affirmative, gets in and wears the seatbelt. She eases the car into gear and starts driving. They travel in silence. He turns a few times to look at her and start a conversation but holds his tongue. She sighs in exasperation, ‘What?’
‘Ma’am, I know this is most inconvenient for you and I really don’t want to impose. But as my old man kept harping, time is precious, why waste precious few minutes of it in this uncomfortable and forced silence? I’m sure I can learn a lot from you and maybe, just maybe you can too.’
She groans in frustration, ‘Guy, if you want to talk, talk. Don’t expect a reply from me. I’m in no mood to buy what you are selling.’
‘Famous last words of all my customers,’ He chuckles. ‘But they all cave in at the end. Give me a chance.’
‘For a guy hiding in a trunk, you got some bravado going. I get that you talk a lot, right?’
‘Oh, yes! Talking and breathing are almost the same to me. You look frustrated. I understand that I’m one tiny part of the reason. Do you want to talk about that?’
‘Well, that was awkward. I look at you and see a successful and strong woman. You have no time for family or friends, right? You travel a lot. But, I guess you’ve faced a setback recently. Maybe even a first?’
‘Alright wise guy, shut up.’
‘My, my! Think I hit a nerve there. Want to let some steam out? You can vent all you want. My customers have said that I’m as good as a punching bag. I can take it.’
She groans and hits the brake, ‘Yes, you are right. I’m successful and lonely. Yes, I’ve had a setback recently. Now, get out.’
‘Tut, tut! You are many things, but I guess you are not a patient woman. I also guess that your job requires you to be patient. By any chance, are you a photographer?’
That puts her off balance, ‘What? Photo? Well, yeah. I shoot for a living.’
He contemplates her answer in silence. She gives up and starts driving again. He pipes up after a few minutes, ‘You know, I think I have some sage advice for you. For you, the profession is something which gives you money and success. But you don’t enjoy doing what you do, right? I say, flip the script.’
‘Yeah. In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and—snap!—the job’s a game! Get it?’
‘Who comes up with such crap?’
‘Eh? Julie Andrews. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard the song.’ He starts singing the song from Mary Poppins. ‘Quite famous song, you know?’
‘I have no time for music.’
‘Oh! That’s too bad. I say make some time for music. Its food for soul, you know?’
‘No one has a soul. Especially none in my line of work.’
‘Dare I say, your line of work is very cut-throat?’
‘Still, make some time for music. Trust me, it’ll help you. And, find the fun element in every job. You’ll see that you’d be enjoying doing it.’
‘Not maybe, definitely! Hey, a fuel station is up ahead. Do you want to grab a bite?’
‘You don’t have you wallet. Do you expect me to pay for the grub?’
He turns to her with a sheepish look on his face, ‘If you don’t mind. I promise you, I’ll pay you back before we part tonight.’
She shrugs and drives the car into the fuel station. He makes his way to the convenience store as she picks the nozzle to fill the tank. Ten minutes later, he walks back with packs of chips and cans of soda. He dumps the lot on the back seat and gets in with a triumphant smirk.
She starts the car and he passes her a can of soda. They drive in silence for the next ten minutes. She looks at him and grins. They start laughing together.
‘Very. Thank you, dear.’
‘Two. Man and his wife. Cheapos didn’t even have CCTV. I mean, give me a challenge.’
‘I don’t understand your weird obsession with knives, Dad.’
He pulls out the bloody knife from his trouser pocket and runs a loving finger over its sharp blade. ‘You won’t get it, dear. Same way, I will never get your fixation with guns. They are effective, yes. But knives are more intimate. You get the satisfaction to see the person’s eyes up close as you stab them. You’ll never get that with guns.’
‘Now, don’t you dare say whatever to your old man.’
‘It’s alright, sweetheart. I know you are feeling down after your botched job and I know that your competition gunned down your target. But, think a little bit about what I said. In any job, it is important that you find the fun element. Now look at me. I hid inside a bloody trunk for few hours and did a little role playing with you. It put me in the right mood for my little adventure at the convenience store. Now tell me that there is no merit to what I said.’
‘You are still very young, dear. You’ll get more opportunities to redeem yourself. There are lot of people waiting to be killed in this world. For you, it’s a job. For me, it’s a way to relax. I’m sure that you’ll enjoy the job once you make it a game. Remember how the cat always plays with the mouse before striking it down?’
‘Exactly. Now, how about some pizza?’