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CHAPTER 1

RALPH DA SILVA WAS DRUNK. He ducked involuntarily as another great dollop of dirty straw mixed with steaming cowshit and god knows what else came flying towards him and smacked wetly into the windshield of his recently gleaming BMW. He’d paid some filthy street urchin a few thousand pesos to clean it before he started out and now it looked like he’d taken a nosedive into a silage pit. Before long he’d be out of washer fluid too, and then what? He wouldn’t be able to see a damn thing. Not that anyone needed to see a lot at this speed. There certainly wasn’t anything worth looking at in this dusty shithole of a country.
Then there was the awful smell; little pieces of cowshit getting caught in the grill and sucked into the air vents; dropping into every little nook and cranny to fester away happily as permanent mementos of his journey. For the last twenty miles he’d been following a mini convoy of three worn-out old cattle trucks as they crawled up the endless mountainside, dung and debris spewing out between the wooden slats as they went.
They weren’t actually going fast enough for anything to get blown out, surely. There must be some retard in the back, throwing it out for a bit of fun—after he’d finished having a different kind of fun with the cows, or doing whatever else he’d been up to in there. How was it possible to move so slowly? The cows were pedalling, that was it! The lousy, cheapskate peasants had rigged something up and the cows were pedalling to save gas. Or maybe the trucks were running on all the methane coming out the back end of the frightened cows.
The three trucks were packed tightly together, slipstreaming, if it was possible to slipstream at this funeral pace. In the hour he’d been following them he hadn’t had a single chance to get past. One blind bend followed another up the never-ending hill. Obviously downhill hadn’t been invented in this dump. What’s more, every time there’d been even the tiniest chance of passing, some idiot had been coming in the other direction—despite being stuck in the middle of East Bumfuck.
Ralph wasn’t paranoid, of course, but he firmly believed there was some bored celestial being with a warped sense of humor and nothing better to do, sitting up there and choreographing the whole damn thing, just to antagonize him. Didn’t it have anything important to do, like cause a natural disaster for instance? He knew that the minute he decided to take a chance at passing, the first car in fifteen minutes would immediately come screaming round the curve at him.
Despite all that, he was going to have to make his move soon. He’d got another hundred miles to cover at least and would have been late even if he’d had a clear run. He’d spent far too long relaxing over the postprandial drinks to make it on time and now this. He was sure he smelled like a Mexican cowhand on a bender and he wouldn’t have time to shower. Not that he wanted to go to another dull party full of cardboard people, but his absence would be noted down in his boss Celia’s not-so-little black book, and anyway, he might as well take the opportunity to drink his salary up a bit. And the food was normally . . .
Suddenly, a chance to pass. Not much of a chance, but the best one yet – just a slightly longer stretch of straight road before the next curve. He reckoned he could make it, and who knows how long before the next opportunity. He couldn’t afford to wait any longer. Ralph swung the big Beemer out, gunned the accelerator and felt the big engine pick up immediately. As he pulled even with the last truck, he glanced quickly across into the vacant stare of the congenital idiot driver and flipped him the bird. Adios puta madre, eat shit and die! So, so childish, he knew, but it made him feel better.
He looked back to the road ahead and couldn’t believe what he saw. Son of a bitch, I knew it, I knew it, I just knew it. He’d only looked away for a split second, and now, coming round the bend above him, just as he knew it would be, the very first car in fifteen whole minutes. A ridiculously large Mercedes SUV, coming straight for him and coming fast too. Panic, quickly followed by horror, hit him as he realised he’d judged it completely wrong. Worse, he’d wasted vital seconds abusing the truck driver. He had to do something and do it right now. Right now!
He was alongside the middle truck, and knew that even if he braked hard, he didn’t have time to pull back in behind the one at the back. The trucks were tailgating so closely, there was no way he could nose between them. He didn’t have any options – all he could do was go for it. He stamped on the gas all the way to the floor and felt the kick down. Thank god he was on the uphill side of the road hugging the mountain and not the unprotected, downhill side. They didn’t run to Armco in this shithole country, so there was nothing to stop you flying straight over the edge. With any luck the lead truck would brake, so would the Mercedes, and he would squeeze through and be on his way.
The driver of the leading truck had seen the fancy black car following them impatiently ever since they had started their climb over the mountain, pulling out and back in again after every bend. No doubt getting more and more annoyed. In a way he was expecting something like this to happen and he was ready, or as ready as you can be for an idiot gringo to do something stupid. As it turned out he was far too ready, so when he saw the car start to pass the rear truck, the anticipation made him overreact and slam on the brakes so hard that the middle truck shunted right into him, sending the cows in the back sprawling all over the place.
As he passed, Ralph heard the squeal of braking tires beside him and saw the trucks concertina into each other. He could hear the cows bellowing in fear as they were thrown forward. He hoped the retard was still in the back with them. Christ, it would’ve been funny if it wasn’t a matter of life and death. What wasn’t funny at all was that the big Mercedes wasn’t playing ball, and just kept on coming, straight at him, horn blaring and lights flashing. Where on earth did the cabrón of a driver think Ralph was meant to go, now that he was totally committed?
As the trucks shunted to a halt, Ralph wrenched the wheel and swung the car sharply back to the right, but it wasn’t going to be enough. He gripped the wheel and closed his eyes and waited for the impact but all he felt was the car rocking wildly. At the very last second the Mercedes had swerved towards the edge and the two cars had passed with a few microns to spare. The side draft rocked his car and pushed him back into his lane in front of the lead truck, his rear fender just kissing it and then he was through. He straightened his rear end and, with the bend ahead approaching impossibly fast, hauled on the brakes. His heart was beating so hard against his ribs he could hardly focus, but he managed to grab a split second chance to look in his rear view mirror. The side draft had pushed the SUV the other way onto the gravel shoulder, where it was rocking and swaying and sending up clouds of dust as it frantically tried to regain the pavement. Then he was round the curve and it was out of sight.

CHAPTER 2

RALPH WAS SWEATING; his hands were slick on the wheel. Jesus Christ, that was too goddamned close. He needed to stop and let the adrenaline rush subside. Take some long, deep breaths to slow his racing heart and get his blood pressure down. The trick was not to panic, try to focus. As relief swept through him he felt his strength leaching away, his legs starting to shake uncontrollably – if he didn’t stop soon he’d risk going over the edge himself.
He knew he should stop and turn around. Go back and see what had happened. He didn’t know for sure that the SUV had gone over the edge but he didn’t like the way it had been rocking and bouncing all over the place. The amount of dust and stones it had kicked up just proved how unstable the dirt shoulder was. Thank god he hadn’t been on that side of the road. Turn around. Go back and help.
But if he did that he was finished. Everyone knew what the Police in countries like this were like. He couldn’t recall anyone ever accusing them of being overly tolerant or too lenient; nor did they exactly overflow with the milk of human kindness. Even Ralph would have to admit – not to the Police of course – that he’d drunk far too much at lunch. One of his drinking buddies in the office had spent a very unpleasant night in the local lockup for DUI and he hadn’t caused an accident involving an SUV, three cattle trucks and fifty hysterical cows; and potentially one or two dead bodies.
Besides, the only people who could afford expensive cars in this shithole of a country were the local drug barons. Who knows, it might have been Pablo Escobar Jnr. in there, and Ralph had just done the world a great big favor. It was probably stuffed full of cocaine too, which was better off at the bottom of the ravine along with its degenerate owners. That kind of lowlife certainly wouldn’t involve the Police. He didn’t want to think about what they might do to the stupid gringo who just forced them off the road. If they’re still alive that is.
He pulled to a stop at the side of the road and rested his head on the wheel. He felt sick; he didn’t know if it was the Tequila or his near-death experience or both. He decided to wait for a few minutes. If the SUV hadn’t crashed, the cattle trucks would soon be coming round the bend. If they didn’t appear in the next ten minutes, it meant the Mercedes had crashed and the farmers were helping out – unless they’d decided now would be a great time to have a late, roadside lunch. They would have called the emergency services, who would already be on their way. In which case, he’d rather not be around.
He got out to take a look at his rear fender. It wasn’t too bad. There was the tiniest smear of dirty green paint but it rubbed off easily enough with his finger. It didn’t look like he’d left any of his paint on the truck’s fender, so that was good. He contemplated walking down to the bend and peeking round to try and see what had happened, but the thought made him feel like a naughty schoolboy. Besides it would be difficult to stay hidden unless he climbed down from the shoulder and he wasn’t going to risk that. Adding his body to the pile that might already be at the bottom wouldn’t help anyone.
He waited a quarter hour, but there was no sign of the trucks. He knew with a stomach-turning certainty what that meant. Deep down he’d known it all along. Things had just got a whole lot more serious.
Just my goddamned luck, he thought. What have I ever done to deserve this shit?
He didn’t know where that left him; he realized he hadn’t thought it through. All he’d really done was waste another fifteen minutes. There wasn’t any point going back to help now. What could he do? How would he explain what he’d been doing? Looking for somewhere to turn? For fifteen minutes? He hadn’t turned around immediately so he was in the shit whatever he did. He couldn’t change that now. His decision was made – the quicker he got going, the quicker he’d be back. Once he got to the cocktail party he was sure he’d feel a whole lot better and if no-one saw him arrive he might be able to build some kind of an alibi. The way his luck was going, he would need one.

END OF EXCERPT

© JAMES HARPER