The roads were quiet. He always found it problematic to drive at night. Occasionally drunk pedestrians would wonder adrift in front of his car, as if they were just strolling along the pavement, and would just wave their hands moronicaly, thanking him for not running them over. They were a nuisance, but he was mostly afraid of the crazed drivers who tailgated him until he either moved aside or speeded away. Those thugs left so little room for manoeuvre it was almost a miracle to evade them without incident. But that night everything was all right. He put the radio on and just rolled along a route he knew too well, by heart. So much that he could almost turn, brake and speed away automatically, like the scripted movement of an assembly line. After a couple of straight greens in the empty expressway, he turned left into a narrow, undivided suburban lane flanked by parked cars, and gently cut down the speed, as the path was full of wondering foxes and headlight-struck cats. The junction ahead made a sharp, short Z shape, one that required him to turn all the way to the right and then, almost instantly, back all the way to the left. It was there that he first hear the jarring, sharp thump, as if something had been torn from the steering train and hit the body of the car. He was immediately alarmed but tried to dismiss it as something of no consequence – “I must have hit the kerb when turning” – The car continued at its usual pace for a while but when he next applied the brakes the noise came back, now accompanied by metallic grinding, and never left again. The helm started to shake and pull to the side, and it became increasingly difficult to control movement. Instinctively, he slowed to a halt and then, with great difficulty, as if the power steering had given up, turned as much as he could to the left into one of the side roads, coming to a rest by the corner, badly parked but at least not blocking the road.
He tried to look behind the wheel with the little flashlight from his phone, but could not make much of it. He was no good at fixing things, despite his father owning a garage and him growing up surrounded by mechanics and playing with discarded spare parts. Given how late it was, the best he could do was to call the recovery service and try to sort out the problem tomorrow. After giving his location to the operator, he hang up, rolled down the window and checked the Internet on his phone while he waited for the towing truck to arrive. – “It’ll be here within 30 minutes” -, he repeatedly thought, like if learning by rota, knowing full well that it was going to be a long night. From time to time, he would raise his head and look around. It seemed like a quiet neighbourhood at first, but something was not quite all right. In a corner two blocks up there was a guy resting on a brick fence, seemingly doing nothing. He tried to look away, but his eyes kept coming back to the guy, waiting to see if he made a move. Nothing happened for a while, as the guy continued frozen into position, his legs straight at an angle and his butt firmly pressed against the short brick fence. Both hands tucked inside his black tracksuit jacket. Then, after a few more minutes, the right hand came out of the guy’s pocket, holding a luminous sphere. – “A phone?” – he thought. It would have been reassuring if the guy was just outside his home making a long, romantic call to his girlfriend, away from the curious ears of his parents or perhaps even his siblings. But from the distance he could not be sure, and he did not have any intention of finding out.