He was on a Silver Line train through B Zone. It was late, gone one o’clock. He’d been out for dinner with Imran, an old university friend. They’d got through several bottles of wine, red and white. He didn’t normally drink, but they’d been celebrating Imran’s promotion. And now K was heading home to his apartment. He was listening to music on his headphones. Ich will dir mein Herze schenken. Its beauty overwhelmed him; his soul dipped and rose on the soprano’s voice.
He was sitting by a window, alone in the car – the final car, at the rear of the train. In the glass, he saw a mirror-image world, a perfect inversion: his twin passenger, in three-quarter portrait, in a parallel seat. Through his face, he watched the city moving backwards through the night. Passing monoliths of blue, grey and black. White and yellow neon dragging comet tails of light. Windows into kitchens where people sat, alone, staring at their hands. Dimmed glass on which computers threw quick grey slideshows. Spinning violet beacons that slashed the faces of taxi drivers. Groups of teenagers sparking vintage metal lighters. It all moved away from him, streaming over his retinas. He felt he were underwater, safe in a diving bell, observing strange life forms that had evolved in darkness.
He heard a clunk, followed by a slam. The shock shuddered up his seat, his spine. He twisted round. With drowsy eyes, he looked over the seats behind him: three boys had entered from the car in front. All were young, slim, with closely cropped hair. None of them spoke. Two sat down, apart, hands in their pockets. The third boy stood by the door, gripping an overhead strap. K turned round again.
Adrenalin entered his blood; it washed away a layer of drunkenness and filled his muscles with vigour. He remembered what Imran had said about the Silver Line earlier. But whatever line he was on, people who walked between cars always made him nervous. It took a certain kind of character to do this.
For several minutes, nothing happened and his nerves began to settle. The music was pouring through his headphones. Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen. He turned to the window. The train was approaching a suburban station. He blinked out at the cityscape: an omnicoloured galaxy of animated billboards. Calmer now, his drunkenness was making a comeback. It was almost at perfect pitch. He craved just one more drink to halt the backslide to sobriety. Confused for a moment, he wondered if there was a drinks car onboard. No. This was a suburban train, not an intercity.
He twisted from the window, head unsteady, to check on the boys. He froze. He felt his scalp contract. Two of them had changed position: they were now sitting just a few seats behind him. When had they moved? He’d seen and heard nothing. One of the boys was staring straight ahead of him. The other, arms folded, was looking through the window. Or is he? thought K. Is he really using the glass to watch me? The third boy hadn’t moved. He was further up the car, standing by the door. Guarding it, K feared. He met the boy’s eyes; the boy averted his face.
K looked straight ahead. If he turned slightly to the window, he could just see the boy behind him (or the boy’s reflection, a wan simulacrum). His heart was beating faster now. The train rocked as it changed tracks. Gerne will ich mich bequemen. Through his music, he heard the screech of metal on metal. Sparks lit up graffiti on a passing wall – a vision of colour, like coral flashed by torchlight.
Once the light had died from his eyes, he studied the car in the glass. He watched the nearest boy’s face for signs that they had plans for him. But he saw none. Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit. He turned off his music, but didn’t remove his headphones. He didn’t want the boys to know he was alive to them. Without moving his head, he looked up. In the window, he saw a lever for the passenger alarm; it would stop the train immediately. But it was behind and above him, near the foremost boy. Had he sat himself there to defend it?
Through his fading drunkenness, K sensed a change. A new smell had entered the car: the chemical smell of spray paint. By the time he’d identified it, he sensed something else – that he was being touched. The touch was cool, cooler than human skin. The sensation was delicate, almost tender. He couldn’t decipher the nature of the contact. He looked to his side in the glass. He saw an arm above his shoulder, a knife against his neck. It was the knife’s touch he’d felt. The blade’s jags reminded him of shark’s teeth. He tensed. He felt the blade’s pressure increase, as if sending him a message: do not fight back.
One of the boys, he couldn’t tell which, sat down opposite. His eyes were dull, heavy-lidded. Was he on something? He couldn’t be older than fourteen. Because of his acne, his skin would be pockmarked later. K felt a tang of pity for him.
‘Turn off your music.’
His voice was strange; it didn’t suit him. Its whole timbre was wrong. K realised why: it was a girl. Her hair wasn’t cropped, as he’d thought, but pulled back tightly from her temples. Her face was plain, unadorned with make-up.
Hands trembling, he reached for his music player, even though he knew it was off already. He removed the phones from his ears. Instantly, the world became louder, harsher. A new reality.
‘Done,’ he said.
He felt as if he’d read from a script, as if he were on a film set. Was this real? Or were they just actors playing roles? Was he the director? Could he bring this to a close at any moment?
The girl held out her hand. ‘Now give it to me.’
He took the music player from his jacket. In the girl’s grimy palm, it looked pearl-like, a thing of beauty.
‘Open your briefcase.’
K could feel the knife biting into his neck, as if psychically controlled by the girl in front of him. How well-drilled this threesome is, he thought, how well-rehearsed. None of them is missing their marks, all are playing their parts. One is guarding the door, another is holding the knife, another is giving instructions. Hunting in a team of three. Highly evolved predators.
‘Of course,’ he said.
He took his briefcase from the seat and laid it on his lap. He held his thumbs to the readers; the case unlocked with a click. Inside were paper documents and his company computer. He heard a voice behind him, the first time he’d heard the boy speak.
A hand appeared from behind him and reached inside the briefcase. It tugged out the documents and tossed them to the floor. It swiftly removed the computer; K watched it rise out of sight. All the while, the blade didn’t move; its pressure was unrelenting. Was it being held there by someone else – a fourth boy he hadn’t seen yet? He felt warm liquid run towards his collar. Somewhere inside him, his body registered pain, but it barely pierced his numbness. He felt a spasm of anger that his shirt might get ruined. He’d bought it on a business trip a year ago. He wondered if dry cleaning could save it. The girl held out her palm again.
K was struck by her fearlessness, her arrogance. She was getting exactly what she wanted. They all were. He took his wallet from his inside pocket and passed it over. He felt the blade pressing harder into his neck, no longer cold but warmed by his flesh.
‘Anything else?’ asked the voice at his ear.
He shook his head.
‘Sure?’ asked the girl.
He was calmer now, almost cheerful. He felt a growing affinity with those who were robbing him. It was matched by the deepest assent, the keenest cooperation. What they were doing was what he deserved, what he wanted. The blood from his throat was congealing on his collar, welding the silk to his skin.
The girl gave a subtle nod to the boy behind him. K felt a hand move down his torso, like the frisking hand of a security guard. He watched it as if it were disembodied. After searching his right side, it moved to his left, shimmying down his lapel and patting his heart. It pushed a hard object into his chest: his phone. He closed his eyes, furious with himself. He’d forgotten about it. The hand stopped and gripped the object through the fabric. Then it scurried down inside his jacket, like a starving creature burrowing for food. It pulled the phone from his pocket, ripping the lining. The hand held the phone up in front of him.
‘Just forgot about this, did you?’
‘I did. I’m so sorry.’
The hand tossed the phone to the girl. She caught it and turned it over.
‘Then how lucky that we found it,’ she said.
The phone rang. The girl stared at its screen.
‘Who the fuck is that?’ asked the voice at his ear.
‘It says “Imran”,’ said the girl.
‘That’s my oldest friend,’ said K. ‘Probably checking – ’
‘Fuck who it is,’ said the girl, letting it ring. ‘Why the fuck didn’t he tell us about it?’
She rose from her seat; K’s eyes followed her upwards. She was taller than he’d thought, broader-shouldered. The change in her mood astonished him. Her face, suddenly, was contorted with anger. Her arms were taut at her sides. He noticed a metal object attached to her fist. His stomach turned over when he realised what it was.
‘Why the fuck didn’t you tell us about it?’
She was standing over him now. K looked up, bewildered. ‘I completely – ’
‘Why the fuck didn’t you tell us about your fucking phone?’
The boy behind him was pushing him forwards. Unconsciously, he must have been pushing back; recoiling.
‘I just – ’
But before he could finish his sentence, the girl struck. With the agility of a boxer, she hit him hard in the nose. He heard a crack, like the snap of balsawood. He imagined his nose punched back under his skin. His ears rang. He saw nothing but starry greyness. Warm liquid pulsed over his lips.
He was sucked back through time. He felt the sun’s warmth on his face. He was sitting on the rockery, beside the pond, at the bottom of his childhood garden. Apple blossoms were scattered over the water. He watched himself, suffering, in the pond’s dark mirror.
He was back on the train. He saw the furious face of the girl, mouthing silently, as if shouting behind glass. The glass melted. He heard her voice again, but could make no sense of her words. He shook his head, uncomprehending. He could still feel the knife at his throat. The girl struck a second time – not flat in the face as before, but across it, in a backhand motion. A sharp object connected with his jawbone. He heard a crunch, felt his skin burn. He tried to close his mouth, but his teeth wouldn’t align.
He sought the rockery again, the flower-strewn pond. He saw himself there, staring at its surface. This time, he was aware of another presence. He turned and saw a heron standing on the rockery. It was watching him with a yellow-black eye, its expression strangely human.
A surge of pain wrenched him back to the carriage. The pain flowed out of his nose, out of the damp centre of his face. His jaw felt flayed, as if bone were exposed to the air. He’d lost any sense of past or future; there was only this – this train, this gang, this punishment. A perpetual present. He tried to speak; he wanted to say: ‘I’m so sorry I forgot about my phone, but I’m begging you not to kill me.’ But the words wouldn’t come. A glue-like liquid had gathered at the back of his throat. Heavy-headed, he raised his eyes to the girl. She was smiling at him now, blood flecked across her cheek. Then her expression changed to one of absolute hatred. She struck him hard across the face. Pain. Blackness. He felt more blows to his legs, chest, stomach …
Then came a blow that stood out from the rest: a blunt, angular object rammed beneath his ribs. The wind went out of him; his torso turned into a vacuum. He sucked blindly at bone and blood. His lungs retched for air, but there was none. He wanted to pull open his shirt, send buttons flying, bury his fingernails under his skin. He saw blossoms, reflected sunlight in black water, the eye of the heron calmly watching him. Then only blackness itself. This is it, he told himself, moments before losing consciousness. This is the moment of my death.