By Fungai Chigumbura, Zimbabwe:
Hell probably feels a lot like this. Searing heat, no breeze to speak of, air so dry it could shear off a baby's skin. It is the kind of weather that those old detective stories are set in—a summer heat wave that makes everything leaner and more dangerous. You lose your mind in the blaze, and find something else entirely. The true, visceral ugliness of the human spirit comes to life in these conditions. The scorch burns away all pretence, and leaves only the truth of what we are on the inside, a creature of falsehood now perceptible in its most genuine form. Is that why this cop is being a particularly grating asshole today? Has the heat cooked his brain and left only the greedy bits?
This stop is, remarkably, only two miles before and three miles after two routine blocks. The traffic cops, ever the avaricious bunch, are in full force today, checking vehicles for every possible misdemeanour. The faults range from the significant to the most ludicrous. There are urban legends of drivers being fined for driving with their sunglasses on, or their windshields too dusty to allow unobstructed view. The absurdity seems lost on these officers of the law, however, and they execute their duties with all the zeal they can muster. It probably does not hurt that roughly 100% of the fines issued on the spot do not make it into the government's proverbial wallet. The sums are really a rite of passage on these dear roads, that last bit of initiation into the cult of greasing palms preceded by buying your driver's licence and paying off your instructor. I really do not want to be here, but I really do not want to pay, either.
“Your licence is a little faded, my friend. They don't make them like they used to.”
Ah yes, the customary small talk before the laughably unsubtle hints at the necessity of payment. Something—maybe a cultural vestige of politeness, or a misplaced sense of professionalism—always makes them pre-empt their shakedown with chitchat about everything under the sun. Heck, on days like this, the chitchat is usually about the sun.
“Why was I pulled over, officer?”
“Have you never been pulled over before?”
“I have—I was, in fact, pulled over just a few minutes ago. They checked everything, said I could go on. I'm curious as to what about my car or me has changed enough in ten minutes to warrant my getting stopped again.”
“Erm…” he struggles. ”That was a different check. Theirs is a regulatory procedure, not traffic.”
“Good to know.”
My sarcasm is not lost on him, but he maintains the oily demeanour that is such a rigid standard for his kind. He wipes his sweat on a very damp sleeve and undoes yet another button on his soaked, mud-brown shirt. His chest hair is on full display now, only thickening as it descends down to a rotund abdomen. The study of my licence continues. As does the banter, unfortunately.
“Your last name is unusual. Where were you born?”
“How can you bear to be wearing all black in this weather?”
“It suits my eyes.”
Why can't he just move on and say what—how much—he wants. He loses patience with my terseness, it seems, and instructs me to stay here whilst he checks something. A thud comes from my boot, faint but discernible. A second bump this one louder. My quarry is stirring. I really do not want to be here. The officer is bent over his patrol car, speaking into his two-way radio. I watch as he mouths the individual letters of my surname and nods his understanding of whatever information is relayed back to him. Another thud, clearly audible. I need to be done with this
The officer waddles back to me, a slightly puzzled look on his face. His countenance is different; less sleaze and more…cop.
“Traffic Central doesn't have your registration number in the database. No record of your licence, or your car. We even cross-referenced with other departments—nothing.”
Damn. I wanted to avoid this.
“Well, that is strange, but it happens sometimes. I got my licence quite a few years ago, and usually it's really just a matter of records not being digitised.”
He considers me, weighing my explanation in his mind. I decide to change tact.
“Look, officer, I'm sure you don't want to be out here all day with me. It's just too hot for that, and you have bigger issues to deal with.”
“'Bigger' issues? Are you calling me fat?”
“I…no, officer, I am not. What I meant was that someone like you is obviously busy, and I am sure you would like to get back to policing our fine roads. So, what can I do to make this go away?”
“I'll be back.”
He turns and goes back to his vehicle. This tactic is well-documented: they let you stew in your car long enough to reconsider whatever objection might still be simmering in your mind. Another thud comes from my trunk as he walks away, but he doesn't hear it. Four more come before he returns, in shorter intervals. When he makes his way back to my car, his expression has changed–more compliant, I hope.
“You're probably right about the licence. However, you still crossed a stop sign. Plus, I'm not sure your window tint is legal. And your car rims might be too large for your vehicle weight and class. Normally, I'd have to impound your car, but I just talked to the guys at the station and no one is available. So, what we're gonna do is—“
He turns his head sharply in the direction of my trunk.
“What was that?”
“What was what?”
“That sound from your trunk. Like someone is knocking on it and trying to get out.”
“I didn't hear anything. I'm sure it's just my car expanding from the heat. These old steel sheets are—“
I curse to myself. He takes a step back, hand on gun.
“Sir, step out of the car and open your trunk. Slowly!”
This is spinning out of control.
“A thousand dollars and we forget about this.”
His features soften slightly, the tight furrows that had formed on his forehead unknot, and bunched-up sweat rolls down his face.
The expression shifts again, back to the cop and not the shakedown artist.
“Two thousand dollars,” I offer.
The thuds become a chorus now, a continuous assault. Shut up already. The last string of sounds is punctuated by what sounds like a low, muffled scream.
“Step out of the car, man!”
The instruction is relayed with a hastily drawn weapon pointed fixedly at me. I comply, slowly, and start to walk to the trunk. At the back passenger door, I stop, and make my last gamble.
“Alright, officer, you caught me. I ran over a deer and threw it in my trunk. I know it's illegal, but I can offer you three thousand reasons to let me be on my way with my road kill.”
“That didn't sound like no deer, man.”
“Five thousand dollars and I bet it will sound just like a big elk. What do you say?”
One furtive glance at the trunk and another back at me.
“You have the cash on you?”
“I wouldn't offer if I didn't.”
The perspiration is absolutely running off him now, rivulets of anxiety and discomfort.
“Why do you move around with so much money?”
“I'd tell you, but the answer would probably cost me more money.”
My attempt at levity fails. He motions for me to get the money, weapon still drawn. I step back into my car and retrieve a thick envelope from the glove compartment. I count out the bills in front of him, noting his fixed gaze on the notes that do not make the transfer from the envelope.
“What's to stop me from just taking all your money?”
I look at the trunk and back into his eyes, steeling my glance. No words are necessary.
“Go,” he orders.
I nod my compliance switch and drive off. I catch him in my rear-view mirror, looking down at the wad of cash in his hand. When he looks up at my car, I cannot quite discern the look on his face. As I drive off, tyres rolling on the scorching tarmac, the thuds resume. I smile to myself and turn on the car A/C, and soak up the cool air.
“Don't worry, my dear,” I say to my friend in the trunk. “Hell is only a short while away.”