The stars seemed to be moving oddly. Some of them flew by quickly while others stayed still. One or two were circling around each other. Some of them were quite big and then quite small and some trembled and some wobbled. There were orange ones and purple ones and green ones and he thought that was odd too. There were smells: mothballs; petrol; blood.
He opened his eyes and saw a scuffed and scruffy wheel arch that was once white. It was now various shades of finger-printed grey. His face was on the floor of a vehicle close up against the metal of the wheel arch. It was so close that he could see little else apart from a dirty brown cloth or blanket that his head was laying on. He didn’t know what he was doing there. His mouth tasted bad. He tried to open it but something had been stuck across it and it pulled his skin when he tried to speak. He lifted his head and the stars moved even more oddly, dancing like flies in evening summer sunlight. He felt sick.
He tried to get up but he couldn’t move his arms. They were behind him. He felt something tight around his wrists that stopped him from trying to lift himself up off the floor. He tried using his legs but they’d been tied at the ankles too. His jaw hurt badly. He began to feel panic and to breathe heavily through his nose. He rolled onto his side and saw a man with hair spread out like a halo all around his head. The man leaned forward and punched him in the mouth. He punched him harder than he’d ever been hit in his life.
When he woke, the stars came back again and moved around even faster. He felt dizzy and even sicker. The hairy man leaned forward.
“Wanker,” he said in a whisper. “Listen to me, wanker. Every time you move I’m going to hit you. Do you understand? Every time you make a sound I’m going to hit you. OK? Do you understand me, wanker?”
He nodded and the man hit him again, on the side of his head, as hard as the last time.
“You nodded,” said the hairy man. “I told you I’d hit you if you moved.”
The man’s voice seemed to echo, as if it came down a tube or a drainpipe.
He lay on the floor of the van, his head bursting. He was trying to keep down the bile rising at the base of his throat, trying to stay still and to keep quiet. He closed his eyes and tried to work out how he’d got into this mess.
His name was Mark Burgoyne and he was a section leader in the head offices of a bank. He’d been working late on month-end processing. The input file had been corrupt and it had snarfed up the processing run. They’d had to re-start everything and it had taken hours. He’d sent everyone else in the team home once the run had been re-loaded. He’d stayed to make sure that it completed and that the results posted properly. He remembered checking the control accounts and then packing up and heading home. He remembered that it had been after ten and that he was cheesed off because he’d missed the mid-week match on the telly. He remembered that it was wet and dark when he left the office to catch the bus. He remembered walking for the ten-thirty bus from the High Street. And that was as far as he could remember. The stars came out after that.
Mark opened his eyes and stared at the roof of the van. He guessed that it was a transit van or something similar. It wasn’t moving. He could hear the hairy man near the seats at the front end of the van but he couldn’t see what he was doing. Whatever the man had used to tie his wrists had been fastened too tightly. They were hurting now but he didn’t dare move.
He could sense that the van was parked on an incline and that his head was pointing downhill. He knew this because, no matter how many times he gulped, the bile that he tasted when he first regained consciousness kept on rising. Mark tried to take his mind off the nausea by retracing his steps after leaving the office. He’d said goodbye to Charlie on security and swiped out and then scampered down the steps outside. He’d crossed the road and walked up the hill towards Paradise Square. He’d passed the almost empty pub on the right and reaching the edge of the square. And then it hit him. Or, rather, he did.
The man had stepped out from behind the blind corner of an old building that almost edged out into the pavement. The streetlights blazed through the mad mop of hair that made him look like some kind of biblical terror. He’d said something to him and then there was hurt and blackness. He remembered seeing one other thing before the blackness came. A van, the only vehicle parked in the sloping square; a battered white transit van.
He couldn’t see anything right now. The sickly yellow glow of streetlights seeped in from the front of the van. The fact that no light came in from the rear suggested that it had no windows apart from those at the front. Mark had never been knocked out before, not even during the karate he used to do as a hobby. He didn’t know how long he’d been unconscious but he guessed that it couldn’t have been too long. He guessed too that they were still in Paradise Square. That would explain the slope of the van. That would also explain why the madman was keen to keep him quiet. There wouldn’t be many people passing through the square on a wet Wednesday night in winter but there might be one or two. If they saw the van rocking or heard any odd sounds they might come over to investigate. He had to hope they would anyway.
The bile rose again, further up into his chest. It lodged at the back of his throat, its sour acid taste creeping into the back of his mouth. He knew he wouldn’t be able to hold it back for much longer. He groaned involuntarily as it inched up towards his mouth again.
The hairy madman stopped what he was doing and leaned over him.
“I warned you,” he said, softly.
He raised his hand to punch Mark again. Mark saw that it was a big hand, the hand of someone who made things, a builder or a steelworker. He noticed this in an almost detached manner as the vomit finally escaped his control. It shot up his throat and out through his nose, the only exit available. His air supply suddenly blocked by vomit, Mark began to choke and cough, ingesting the bile. He thrashed around, trying to get his body into a vertical position to cut off the supply of fluid from his stomach.
From behind him the madman grabbed Mark by the back of his jacket collar. He ripped the adhesive tape away from his mouth. The barrier removed, a belch of steaming sour vomit sprayed over and around the wheel arch. Mark was gasping. He retched and coughed continuously. He tried to clear his lungs and a second and third wave of stomach content tried to escape.
After a while the spasms subsided. Mark was panting, bit-spitting and kneeling on the floor of the van, facing the rear. An evil smelling oily rag suddenly covered his face and he began to struggle against it. The smell of mothballs came from the cloth. The madman smacked the back of Mark’s head.
“Keep still, silly twat,” he said. “I’m trying to wipe that crap off your face.”
Mark stopped struggling. The man smeared the cloth across his face, removing some of the foulness but not all of it. There was just enough of the juice of his stomach clinging to his face and lips to make him want to retch still. The neck of a bottle banged against his cheek.
“Drink,” said the madman, his voice as soft as ever.
Mark opened his mouth and the man forced the opened bottle between his teeth. Mark drank and coughed. He spat water and coughed and drank some more and then began to settle and catch his breath. As he knelt he noticed half a dozen jerry cans lined up in the centre of the van.
“Don’t move,” said the madman behind him. “Don’t make a sound. Don’t speak unless I speak to you. Any nonsense and the tape goes back on; the used one. And it stays on, even if you puke your ring up. Is that clear?”
Mark nodded. He leaned away from the man as he did so, just in case.
The madman began to do something behind him, rustling and shuffling. Mark kept as still and silent as he could. In the darkness at the back of the van he saw the light from the street lamps reflected by the jerry cans. The cans were joined together by a chain linked through the handles. The chain looped round each handle so that the cans wouldn’t slide backwards and forwards. One end of the chain was fastened to the rear door of the van. The other end was behind him. He couldn’t see it but he guessed that it was attached to one of the seats or some other fixed point.
“You got a mobile?” said the man from behind him.
He slid over and pulled Mark round by the shoulder. Mark noticed that he had eyes of such a vivid blue that they shone even in this weak light. Mark nodded and looked down at the front of his soiled jacket to show where it was.
“Better switch it off,” said the man, an odd smile on his face. “Don’t want anything going off unexpectedly.”
The man grabbed his lapel and reached inside his jacket and took his phone. He tried to switch it off but couldn’t work out how to do it. The man looked at Mark and then slipped the back off the phone and killed the phone by taking out the battery. He dropped the parts back in the pocket of Mark’s jacket.
“Best make yourself comfortable,” said the man. “Going to be here a while.”
He pulled another dirty blanket out from behind him. He dropped it on the floor of the van beside Mark, away from the pool of puke and water that Mark had created near the rear doors of the van. Mark inched backwards onto the blanket and then swivelled so that his back was against the side of the van. He brought his legs forward so that he was in a sitting position. He wasn’t much more comfortable than before though. The cold metal floor of the van hurt his buttocks and the bindings on his wrist still chafed. The smell of vomit and petrol and mothballs had begun to make him feel lightheaded. It was perhaps because of this that he broke his silence.
“Why am I here?” he said.
The madman glared at him for a moment and then became thoughtful. After a while he nodded.
“Fair question,” he said. “I’ll think about an answer. I’ve got something to finish off first though, so in the meantime keep your mouth shut. Not a sound. OK?”
Mark nodded. The madman turned back to the jerry cans and took the cap off the nearest one. He picked up another dirty rag from a pile behind the seats. He twisted it into a sausage shape and then doubled it over and forced the doubled end into the can. He picked up another rag. He repeated the process with the next can, and repeated it again until all the cans were primed with rag fuses. From the way the man handled them, Mark could tell that one of the cans was lighter than the others. Mark guessed that it had fallen over and that it had spilled inside the van. It had probably leaked out through the back doors and into the square. The fumes in the confines of the van drowned the stench of the vomit and cloaked the smell of mothballs. But they had become almost overpowering.
Mark watched the man preparing his explosive collateral with a sense of detachment, as though he wasn’t really here in the van with the madman. He imagined he was at home, watching these events unfold in some engrossing television drama. He had no sense of danger, no feeling of imminent threat. The whole thing had the quality of a dream sequence, a hot, sticky nightmare that existed only in his mind and from which he would wake at any moment. He closed his eyes and tried to conceive of a way that this might truly be a dream. He tried to find some evidence that the stink of the van and the pain in his jaw and the rancid yellow light from outside were just imaginings. He opened his eyes and saw a tiny spider hanging from the roof on a thread of silk made golden by the street lights. It dropped and paused and flexed its legs and dropped again. Mark realised that the fumes had disturbed the creature and that it was trying to get away from them, looking for a way out. He watched as it descended to the floor of the van, landing near his right foot on the filthy blanket. The spider settled and debated its next move. The hairy madman finished what he was doing and came towards Mark. He knelt on the spider.
The casual death of the spider woke Mark from his foul dream. It was no longer unreal. He was here, in the moment, and deadly, deadly scared. He realised that he was sitting inside a firebomb with a lunatic. He still didn’t understand why this had happened.
“The answer,” said the madman, his voice not much more than a whisper. “The answer to your question is this; you’re here because you’re already dead.”
Mark couldn’t think of any kind of response to the man’s assertion. His heart hammered as he waited for the man to speak again. The man looked at him. There was a placid, unconcerned look on his face, as if he’d just told Mark what he’d had for lunch or that it was going to be a sunny day tomorrow.
“OK?” said the man, splitting the word into a three syllable question that implied there was no more to be said. He began to turn away.
“What?” said Mark. “Wait. No. No, it isn’t OK. What the fuck do you mean, already dead?” His voice had risen in pitch and in volume and the man turned quickly to face him.
“You’d better watch your mouth, boy,” he said, sliding towards him and bringing his face up close to Mark’s. “You’d better keep it down. I’ll shut you up if you don’t. You know I will. I’ll shut you up for good.”
Even through the heavy petrol vapour Mark could smell the man’s breath. It smelled bad, like rotten meat. He pulled his face away from the man and nodded.
“Sorry,” whispered Mark. “I’m sorry. It’s just that… all this… I don’t understand what’s happening.”
The man was still close to Mark, watching him, waiting to see what he would do next. After a few moments of silence he relaxed and moved away from him. He sat opposite Mark, one arm resting on a raised knee, his other arm braced on a tatty sleeping bag that lay open on the floor of the van.
“Do you smoke?” asked the madman.
“No,” replied Mark, shaking his head.
The man took a lighter out of his jacket pocket.
“Me either,” he said, staring at the lighter and turning it round and round in his hand. “Think I’ll start soon though.” He gave a soundless laugh.
The man fell silent, deep in thought. Mark shifted his legs to ease the discomfort in his buttocks. He bent forward and tried to flex his arms. The man didn’t seem to notice. Mark’s mouth had gone dry. He could taste the lingering flavour of vomit and it made him feel sick again.
“Can I have some more water?” asked Mark.
“Yes, sure,” said the man absently, as if a diner in a café had asked him to pass the salt. He picked up the bottle of water and held it out to Mark. Mark looked at him.
“Sorry,” said the man. “Forgot.”
He took the cap off the bottle and held it to Mark’s lips and poured until Mark coughed. Without wiping the lip of the bottle the man took a swig himself. He replaced the cap and put it on the floor of the van. The light from outside sparkled on the surface of the water in the bottle. It reflected on to the ceiling of the van. The angle of the water level and the tilted bottle showed the gradient of the hill. The man saw the reflected light on the ceiling and watched it dance. Mark watched the man.
“Why are you doing this?” asked Mark. “What’s the crack with all these cans of petrol? Why am I here? I think I deserve an explanation. It’s only fair.”
The man kept on looking at the little patch of light on the ceiling.
“Nothing so calming as water,” he said. “Even this little bit here; just the reflection from it calms you down. Wonder why that is. Do you know?”
He turned his blue, blue eyes to Mark. Mark shook his head.
“Me either,” said the man. He looked at the reflection again. “I’m past calming now, though,” he said. “Well past that. Well past it.”
He picked up the bottle of water and threw it into the shade behind the van seats.
“I’m already dead too, see,” he said, turning to face Mark again. “Just like you. Done. Finished. Dead.”
Mark narrowed his eyes, his face a portrait of incomprehension.
“In a few hours,” said the madman, “I’m going to put you in the passenger seat and I’m going to get in the driving seat. I’m going to start this old beast up. I’m going to drive her out of the square and down the hill and up along that little access route. I’ll drive through the glass doors and right into the reception area of the building you came out of. Right into the bank.”
He paused. He reached out and patted the jerry can nearest to him.
“And then we’re going to sit there, you and me. I’m going to have a lighter in one hand and – oh, forgot.”
He turned and reached under the head end of the sleeping bag behind him. He turned back and there was a gun in his hand and he placed the barrel of the gun against Mark’s head.
“Yes, a lighter in one hand and this in the other. And we’re going to sit there. And I’m going to tell the people in that building, the other wanky little bankers like you, I’m going to tell them what I need to tell them. And when I’ve done that I’m going to blow us and them all the way to Hell.”
The man saw that Mark was trembling and looking at the gun pressed up against his forehead.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said the man, lowering the weapon from Mark’s head and dropping it on the sleeping bag. “It’s just a replica. There’s no bullets in it. You’re perfectly safe.”
Mark was breathing hard, sweating. His nose had started to run. “Perfectly safe?” he said, his voice rising again. “You’ve just told me that you’re going to crash this van and burn me alive inside it and I’m perfectly safe? How’s that work then? You’re off your box, mate. You’re a fucking nutter.”
The man moved close again. “Keep your voice down, wanker. Last time I’m going to tell you.”
“I’m dead already,” said Mark. “What else could you do?”
The man reached out and gripped Mark by the throat. His huge hand almost circled around his neck. The man squeezed hard and Mark felt his tongue being forced up into the roof of his mouth. His epiglottis was being forced back into his windpipe. He knew that the man could easily choke him to death.
“I could kill you now, boy,” said the madman.
He squeezed a little harder and then let go of Mark’s throat. Mark began coughing again and couldn’t stop, his throat irritated by the strangulation. The man picked up the bottle of water and took off the cap and held it to Mark’s lips. Mark slurped and coughed and slurped again until the coughing stopped. He sat there, panting, looking at the madman, wondering what he was going to do next.
“Last time I’m going to tell you,” the madman said again, and returned to his place sitting on the sleeping bag.
Mark gulped and then spat into the congealing pool in the corner of the van. He was still breathing hard.
“So now I know what you’re going to do,” he said. “I don’t know why, though. And I don’t know what I’ve got to do with it. I’ve never met you before in my life.”
“That might be true,” said the man. He lay back on the sleeping bag and looked up at the ceiling of the van. “You haven’t met me before. You don’t know me at all. But somebody in that building does. Somebody in the bank knows me. Not personally, not enough to recognise my face or anything, but somebody in there knows me. A few people do; you lot never make decisions on your own, do you? Yes, a few of you wankers will know my name. But that’s all they know about me; my name and my credit rating. They don’t know what I’m like – what I was like – or how hard I’ve worked or how much I love my family or anything like that. They just know my name and my credit rating. And one day somebody somewhere in that building decided that they didn’t like the look of my credit rating. Somebody in there decided I was too much of a risk. Just like that. No warning or discussion, just decided that I was a risk and that was that. No more credit. No more money.”
The man put his forearm over his eyes and said nothing for several minutes. Mark wondered if he was crying but the man’s face was in shadow and he couldn’t see. When he spoke again his voice was horrible; it was the sound of hatred, of an anger that was on the edge of control.
“What made it worse was that all this time they’d been using my money. Money from ordinary people like me to get rich with. Betting my money on these get rich quick schemes. The riskiest schemes they could find, so that they could earn the sort of bonus that would set them up for life. Didn’t matter what happened afterwards. They couldn’t lose. If the gamble paid off they earned more money in one year than ordinary people like me will ever see in a lifetime. If the gamble failed, the bank lost the money, not them. And these are the people who thought I was a credit risk. Me! Not them! The bastards!”
The man sat up and glared at Mark.
“I’d built up a good, solid business over the years. Left school with no qualifications. They couldn’t be bothered with me and I couldn’t be bothered with them. Conned my way into a joinery firm and watched what they did and how they did it. Talked them into putting me through an apprenticeship and did well. Got married to the only woman I’ve ever loved and we had a couple of kids and bought a little house. One day the firm went bust and so I decided to start my own business. I got into home improvements and it took off like a rocket; grew turnover every year for almost ten years. Bought a bigger house, took on people and premises and stock and just kept growing. Then the banks got their fingers burned and credit dried up. I couldn’t afford to pay wages or to buy stock. Ended up owing more than I could pay. Lost the business, lost the house; lost the family. Lost my family.”
The glare was fearsome now, the blue eyes made white by the amber glow from the streetlights.
“I lost my family because of some wanky little bankers like you; because of what they did, not what I did. Not right, is it? Not fair. They need to understand what happens when they do something like that. So I’m here to teach them. And you’re the lucky man who’s going to help me. As soon as I saw you bouncing out of the building, all enthusiastic like, working late, dedicated, I knew you were just the man I needed. A company man. First of all I needed to hit you though. I’ve never needed to hit someone so much in my life as I did when I hit you. It felt good. Thought I hit you a bit too hard though. You went down like a bag of spuds and you’re face is a bit of a mess. You OK now?”
Mark didn’t respond immediately. He sat and stared at the man.
“Am I OK?” he said, finally. “You mean am I fit enough to be burned alive? Is that what you mean? Yes, I should be fine for that. No problem. Don’t worry about me. Thanks for asking.”
He slumped back against the side of the van, shaking his head in disbelief. The plastic ties around his hands tightened as he slumped.
“These fucking things around my wrists are killing me though. They’re cutting into my skin. Can’t you take them off? I’m not going anywhere, am I?”
The man laughed again, that soundless laugh that was empty of any feeling or hope. He thought for a moment and then reached into a pocket inside his jacket and took out a pair of pliers. He grabbed the lapel of Mark’s jacket and pulled him forward. He reached behind Mark’s back and used the pliers to cut the tie wraps that held his hands together.
“Thanks,” said Mark, rubbing each of his wrists in turn. “At least now I’ll be able to cover my eyes when the time comes. I won’t have to watch when you kill me.”
“Feeling sorry for yourself, are you?” said the madman. “My heart bleeds. At least it will be quick for you. Taken me a long time to get here; months of seeing everything I had taken away from me bit by bit. Watching my daughter try to hide from her bankrupt father when I went to pick her up from school. Seeing my son crying his eyes out when his father fell down pissed in front of him. Seeing the look on my wife’s face as they threw us out of our house. Watching them leave.”
“Feeling sorry for yourself, are you?” said Mark. “My heart bleeds.”
“Be very careful,” said the man. There was no emotion in his eyes.
“Or else what? You’ll kill me now instead of later? Let me think about that. No, I seem to end up dead whatever happens so fuck it; I’m not going to make it easy for you.”
“I could hurt you,” said the man. “I could really hurt you.”
“And have me scream my head off?” said Mark, anger sharpening his voice. “I don’t think so. That would spoil your plan. And it’s a stupid plan anyway. It won’t work. Even if you manage to get the van past the concrete bollards that you don’t seem to have noticed, all that will happen is that there will be a bit of a fire. The sprinkler systems will come on and douse it. Then the decorators will come in for a few days and everything will be back up and running again by this time next week. I’ll bet that the bank will have found a new section leader by this time tomorrow. I’ll bet your wife will have found a new man by this time next year. Your kids, in the times that they actually bother to think about you, your kids will just be annoyed with you for not being there. Nothing will be different apart from the fact that we’ll both be dead. Not a great plan, is it?”
“I’ll have had my say,” said the man. He seemed almost defensive.
“But who’s going to take any notice of what you say?” said Mark. “You said it yourself; you’re an ordinary person, an ordinary man. Who is going to care what you say? Who’s going to do anything about anything you say after you’ve fried yourself and poor innocent me? Just so that people could see how upset you were? And I’m an ordinary man too, a good man like you probably were. I’ve got a nice mum and a lovely girl I’m going to marry – was going to marry. Whatever you’re hoping to achieve isn’t going to be more likely to come about because you’ve sacrificed me and fucked up their lives too. Throwing me on the bonfire would be the most pointless protest in the history of pointless protests. People will use it in the future as an example of how not to make a point. That’s how good your plan is.”
“You’re a banker,” said the man, “One of the wankers who fucked up my life and the lives of thousands of other people. Somebody’s got to burn for that. Just happens to be you; nothing personal.”
“Well that’s all right then,” said Mark. He leaned back against the side of the van. “I feel much better knowing that there’s nothing personal in the fact that you’re going to kill me.”
There was a knock on the passenger’s side window. A face pressed up against the glass. Mark could just see the badge on the front of a police helmet.
“Hello,” said the policeman. “Someone in there?”
The man scrambled to his feet and moved to the front of the van and waved at the policeman.
“Hello officer,” he said. “Just a minute.”
He turned to Mark and held out his hand, palm upwards. The lighter lay there.
“One move; one word,” whispered the man. “Just one squeak.”
He slipped through the gap between the seats and opened the driver’s side door and slid out.
Mark listened as he tried to think of a way to get out of the van. He heard the man say that there was a problem with the van’s fuel system and that he was waiting for a friend to come and see to it. As he listened, Mark tried without success to break the tie wraps around his ankles. He needed a blade or some clippers to get them off. He heard the policeman ask who else was in the van. The madman said it was just a colleague. He said that they were contract cleaners on their way down to London to do a big job in an old factory that was going to be converted into trendy apartments. The policeman said it was a funny day to start a job and the madman laughed and said tell me about it. Mark heard another voice say something. He watched as two policemen in hi-vis jackets walked away up the hill.
The madman got back in the van. He sat half turned in the passenger seat so that he could see into the van and out into the square at the same time. He watched the policemen leave the square.
“Doesn’t believe a word,” he said. “Not sure what he thinks we’re up to but I’ll guarantee they’ll both be back soon. Need a change of plan.”
He looked at Mark and raised his eyebrows.
“You can’t be serious,” said Mark after a few seconds. “You want me to suggest a new plan for you?”
The man looked at Mark. “No,” he said. “I was just thinking about what you said; about whether this was going to make a difference or not.”
Mark stayed silent, waiting for more.
“It won’t, will it?” said the man, staring out into the night.
Mark shook his head. “No. It won’t make any difference at all.” He tried to think of something else to say. “Sorry,” he said.
They were both silent for a while.
“It’s a shame, really,” said Mark. The man gave him a puzzled look. “I mean, I actually agree with you about the banks. The government are as much to blame, though, for allowing them to do what they did. It’s obviously something you feel passionate about. And because you’re passionate, you’re quite good at telling the story; you know, from the sharp end. It’s just a shame that nobody will get to hear what you have to say. I don’t suppose you’ve left a note or something have you?”
He looked at the man. The man was still staring out of the window. He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Just something that says sorry and goodbye to my wife. Not much good at writing.”
They fell silent once again.
“Actually…” said Mark.
The man looked at him. Mark was lost in thought.
“What?” said the man.
Mark was nodding, to himself more than to the man. “There is a way,” he said. “Yes, there is a way.”
“A way to what?” said the man.
“A way for you to have your say, and to more than just this bank,” said Mark. “There’s a way for you to get your message out to a bigger audience, and to stay alive, and to not kill me. You might even…” he paused as more possibilities occurred to him
“Yes?” said the man.
Mark turned his head towards the man. “You might even get something out of it,” he said. “If you play this right you could become a spokesman; the voice of the people or something like that. It could be a whole new career. And your family could end up respecting you again. Even loving you again.”
The man’s lips had tightened. “If you’re trying to con me…”
Mark shook his head. “No, honestly, you could do this. Listen,” Mark hitched forward a little and dropped his voice. “Those coppers will probably be coming back soon to see if the dodgy white van and the mad bloke have gone. When they do, you tell them what you’re planning.” The madman looked at him. “Yes, tell them what you’re planning to do. Explain that you’ve got me held hostage back here. Show them the jerry cans and the lighter. Tell them that you want.” He paused. “What do you want?”
“What do I want?”
“Yes, what do you want?” said Mark. “What did you hope to get out of all this?”
The man thought for a moment. “I want to teach them a lesson,” he said. “I want to show them that they can’t just shit on people like me and not expect comeback.” He paused. “I want to make a point.”
Mark stared at the man. “You want to make a point?” he said. He sighed and flopped back against the side of the van. “You’ve no idea, have you?”
“Of course I have,” said the man.
“Tell me, then,” said Mark, his voice sounding raw and tired.
The man fidgeted in the front seat. “I just did,” he said. “I told you. I wanted to teach them a lesson.”
“You’ve got no idea what you wanted to achieve,” said Mark. “You haven’t, have you? You were going to kill yourself and me and a few other strangers. And you didn’t know what you expected to happen as a result of those deaths.”
“I’d have told them when the van was parked in their reception area,” he said. “I was going to say my piece right there in front of them.”
“You would never have got that far,” said Mark. “The first spark from anywhere and this heap of petrol soaked junk is going to go up like something from the bad old days of Belfast. Imagine how many sparks would fly if you tried to push it through the bollards or past the metal door frames. Just starting the bloody engine will probably set it off.” He held his head in his hands. “Unbelievable. It wasn’t only going to be the most pointless protest ever; it was going to be pointless and unjustified. You were going to commit murder and nobody would ever know why you did it.”
The man slumped back in the seat and leaned against the door of the van. He stared into the darkness of the footwell as if it was the entrance to hell. He nodded.
“So,” said Mark, after watching the man for a few minutes, “I don’t particularly want to die yet. If I can show you how to get something out of this, um, situation, will you let me go?”
“Not going to happen,” said the man. Mark couldn’t tell if this was an answer to his question or if the man was speaking to himself. “Been stupid. Didn’t think it through. Again.” He raised his hand and looked at the lighter. “Fuck it,” he said. “Might as well go now.” He placed his thumb on the trigger of the lighter.
“No no no no no!” said Mark. He waved both of his hands at the man. “Don’t do that! You need to hear me out. Listen to what I have to say. It will work. Believe me. Don’t touch that thing!”
The man didn’t move.
“I’ll tell you anyway,” said Mark. “You don’t have to promise me anything. Just don’t press that trigger.” He held his hands out in front of him, palms facing the man. “OK. OK. So the new plan, the thing you should do, it goes like this. Like I said, you tell the police what you were planning to do. Sorry, what you are planning to do, because we need them to believe that you’re serious, that you mean what you say. You tell them about blowing up the bank. You say that they’d better not come any closer because the van is full of petrol and you’ve got a lighter and a hostage. You tell them you want to… speak to someone in authority because you… you… want someone to put things right. To sort your credit out, so that you can get your business back. And your house and family back. And you want an apology. That’s it! That’s what you want! An apology! From the banks! To the people. That’s it! You want the big cheeses from the banks to stand there outside the door of this van. You want them to say sorry to you and to everyone else they’ve fucked over, or you’ll blow the van up and we’ll both die. Yes, that’s it. That’ll work. They’ll report that there’s a madman with a bomb in the middle of Paradise Square. The whole place will be surrounded with police and press inside ten minutes. You say that you want to make a statement to the press. They’ll ooh and aah for a bit. Then you offer to let me go in exchange for being able to make the statement, or getting the big cheeses here, or maybe both. And then you give them the spiel you gave me earlier on. How the wanky bankers caused you to lose everything and you need them to say sorry and that’s it; you will have had your say. If you can get the press and the bankers here this story will go worldwide, I’m telling you; international. Everybody on the planet wants to see the bankers given a kicking. Can you see it yet?”
The man nodded. He took his thumb away from the trigger of the lighter.
“And then when you’ve got what you want, you hand yourself in. The press will be all over you and you will have your day in court. Okay, maybe you have to do a bit of time, but when you get out it will be like Robin fucking Hood all over again. You’ll be the man of the people, like Joanna Lumley with stubble. And you can sell your story to the papers or write a book or something. You’ll be back on your feet in no time. You might even make a career out of it, get on the telly or something. Your wife won’t hate you and your kids won’t be ashamed of you and you won’t be dead. And, most importantly of all, nor will I. Win-win. Absolute win-fucking-win.”
The man was smiling. Mark realised that he hadn’t seen him smile up to now, not even when he did that dry dead laugh that he did. He had good teeth. Mark wondered how he could have good teeth and bad breath. As he watched the man smile Mark saw from the corner of his eye two figures in hi-vis jackets enter the top of the square.
“Quick,” he said to the man. “They’re back. You need to make me look like a hostage. Stick some tie-wrap around my wrists again. Quick!”
He pushed back into the darkness of the van. The man scrabbled in the glove compartment and then squeezed into the rear of the van. He lassoed Mark’s wrists, pulling them tight but not as tight as before.
“OK,” said Mark, “You know what you’re going to say?”
“Yes,” said the man, settling into the gap between the seats, his back to the oncoming figures. “I’ve got it.” He finished tightening the long plastic strips and then took Mark’s right hand in his own. “I think this is going to work,” he said. “I’m going to get my family back; my life back. I owe you, man. Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
Mark felt a tightness at the back of his throat. He leaned back and smiled. He looked out at the two figures walking through the little square towards the van. He saw that they were only a few feet away now. He saw too that they were not policemen. They were security guards, walking towards the bank. Beginning their night shift.
They were both smoking cigarettes.