For a moment, in Piccadilly, John thinks he hears his name being called. It rouses him briefly from the brooding slosh of his own thoughts, but ‘John’ is a common name, after all. He puts his head back down and doesn’t stop. These days, it’s too hard to get up the momentum to move forward again.
By the time he’s finished running his errands, his leg’s screaming like twisted shrapnel and his right shoulder is on fire. Bloody cane. And of course, no cab sees fit to stop for him. After about ten minutes of trying, John resorts to guilt trips, waving his cane to flag one down. Maybe pity will move them where the uninspiring financial promise of a second-hand coat fails.
When one pulls over for him only a minute later, he represses an impulse to use that cane to knock a dent into the bonnet. He doesn’t need pity. He’s not fucking weak. He got shot and he’s alive; he’s stronger than he’s ever been. He’s only short on things to live for.
But he still can’t walk another block, so he gets in anyway. “22 Gunterstone Road, please.” The cabbie grunts in acknowledgement and pulls away from the kerb. John rests his head on his fist and watches the world scroll by.
“Nasty limp you got there,” the driver says at length, in a Cockney accent so perfect John suspects he practices for tourists. “War injury?”
John lifts his head to look at him. “What makes you say that?” He can feel his face heating. Good god, the cabbie can tell? How obvious must he be? Does the whole world see him slumping around like some charity case wrapped in the tatters of his pride?
“Oh, lucky guess, sir. A man gets all sorts, in this job,” the cabbie says jovially. Honestly, John feels like he’s being chauffeured by a living stereotype. The accent, the driver’s cap, the ferrety face; did this bloke fight his way out of a period film? “Only you’ve got that military air about you. And that’s a solid tan you’re sporting. Didn’t pick that up around here.” He chuckles a little, inviting John to admire the wit in a crack about the London weather.
John can’t be arsed to fake a smile. “Yeah. Good guess.” Perceptive guess. John’s always enjoyed meeting intelligent people in unexpected places. The smartest woman he ever dated worked as a barista. But it doesn’t seem to have the spark it used to. Not much does, when all you’ve got waiting for you in the future is more rolling plains of grey.
He puts his chin back down on his fist, but the cabbie pipes up again. “Homecoming not going the way you expected, is it?”
John snaps upright. “What?”
The man shrugs an apology, obviously aware he’s trod on sensitive territory. “You’re looking a bit low, is all, sir. I hear the adjustment can be rough.”
It’s not a topic John wants to get into, particularly not with a total stranger. “Thanks for the concern,” he mutters, not particularly caring if the driver can hear him. “I’ve got it covered.”
He turns pointedly back to the window, but apparently this bloke can’t take a hint. “Not thinking of doing anything…ill-advised, are you, sir?”
John’s head snaps around. “Excuse me?” Did the cabbie just accuse him of being suicidal? John glances at the name tag on the dash and puts some thought into getting angry. “Look, Mr…Hope, that’s really none of your business, and I’ll thank you to drop the subject.”
When someone says they’d rather not talk, it’s usually a conversation killer. One would think. When the driver draws a breath to speak, John turns back to stare incredulously.
“I’ve a reason for asking, you see.”
John grits his teeth. God help him, if his cab driver is about to confess to impulses to self-harm, John will leap out of this car.
But the cabbie glances over his shoulder with a smug little smirk that doesn’t fit anywhere in the conversation so far. “Don’t think I’ve ever played this game with someone who’s suicidal.”
John’s instincts are shouting warning, and this—he whips around to pay real attention to the buildings streaming by them—this is not the way to John’s ragged little residential hotel on Gunterstone Road. The cabbie, calm as an evening snowfall, makes a turn and pulls up in a seedy stretch of empty commercial properties.
John twists back to stare at him. “What the hell-?”
There’s a gun pointed at his face.
The cabbie tips his head as if in apology. “Out of the car, if you don’t mind.”
John narrows his eyes. “Am I being mugged?” He can feel his heart rate picking up. His mind accelerates along with it, calculating angles and escape routes. He reaches for the door handle.
Hope smiles, and slides out in parallel to John, keeping the pistol on him. “D’you watch the news? Ah ah, leave the cane out here, please.”
John looks down at the cane in his hand; not enough clearance around the door to swing it. He opens his hand and lets it fall to the pavement, then begins limping obediently towards the peeling, graffiti-defiled door the cabbie indicates. There’s no point in running, not with his leg. The man’s got him dead to rights. Besides, if John’s brutally honest with himself, he might just prefer ‘lethally interesting’ over ‘rubbish bedsit’ at this point in any case. “I read the newspapers.”
“Recall anything about those ‘serial suicides?’”
Even if he hadn’t, the mocking emphasis on the last two words tells John pretty much everything he’d need to know. “Yeah, I remember. That was you, I take it.” So much for ‘suicides.’ It’d been an idiotic shot at fear-mongering from the press anyway. He has to wrestle the door open and then... “Oh, fuck me. Stairs? Really?” Good god, there are at least five stories in this building. How far is he expected to climb?
But the gun gestures, so up he goes, paint and splinters catching at his sleeve as he drapes himself over the grotty bannister to keep from collapsing. He rather likes the idea of falling on this wanker. It’d serve him right.
In the empty room—at the top, God damn the man—John stops and turns to face his captor. “Well? Now what?” He spreads his arms. “Going to shoot me? Bit obvious, that.”
Hope bobs his head. “That it would. That it would. But I’ve got another option for you, which I think a risk-taker sort like yourself will quite like.” He pulls two tiny bottles out of his pocket and holds them up.
John eyes the pills inside them. “Poison? Oh, good. Being shot’s such old hat. Poison, now, that’s much more interesting.” He really couldn’t care less if this maniac takes exception to his tone. What the hell is his life? He gets shot, loses everything, comes home to rot away in London, and when something finally happens to him, it’s being kidnapped by a serial killer. It’s just about enough to make him believe in a god, and that god’s got a shite sense of humour.
Hope grins a quirky little grin at him. “I know a depressed man when I see one. Been there myself. Been asking yourself, haven’t you, whether it’s all worth it? Whether you’d be better off putting yourself out of your own misery. So I’m thinking, this might even be doing you a favour. See, there’s nothing like coming face to face with death to make you discover you really want to live.” There’s a tiny rattle as he puts the bottles down on the sill of the window he’s standing next to. “This’s a game, see. One of these is poison. One isn’t. We each take one, and one of us dies, and one doesn’t.”
John stares at him. He thinks he feels vaguely let down that there isn’t more theatre to this. Spooky music. Hooks on the wall. Something besides an old man with a proposition that John’s pretty sure he plagiarized from a film about pirates. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. Why would I even agree to that?”
Hope waggles the gun. “Better’n being shot, innit?”
For a long moment, John feels paralyzed. He takes in the man, the gun, the pills…and then throws his head back and laughs. “Fine. Show me how the game is played.”
Hope’s mouth quirks. John can’t tell whether he’s amused or annoyed. “Oh, it’s simple.” He picks up one bottle, and sets it at John’s end. “Now, do I seem like the sort of man who’d put the poison closer to me, or closer to you?” He gestures at John’s lifted eyebrows, creepy blue eyes twinkling. “There, you see? Nothing like coming face to face with death to make you discover you really want to live.”
He’s right. John knows what Hope is seeing on his face, because he can feel it. At this moment, the world isn’t painted in grey. He doesn’t give a damn about the future. All that matters is surviving this and walking out the door. This is what he’s missed, and he’s completely fucked because there’s nothing, not even in London, that can give him this kind of buzz on a regular basis.
Apparently Hope can see that too, because he smiles. “Then again, maybe you don’t want to walk away. Which’ll make this particularly interesting. Time’s up, now, pick a bottle.”
John nods, and reaches for the pill bottle next to him with a hand that, he notices, doesn’t shake. He waits for Hope to pick up his.
And then he whips the bottle at Hope’s face, takes two steps to close the distance between them to wrench the gun out of the man’s hand and pistol-whip the tosser with it.
Standing square on two strong legs, he waits till Hope blinks himself back to awareness on the floor, and then aims the gun at Hope’s head and pulls the trigger.
Neither of them flinches.
“I’m a sodding veteran,” John says. “You think I don’t know what a real gun looks like?” He blows out the little flame coming from the barrel of the novelty cigarette lighter. “Besides, it’s a Glock. Even if it were real, with twiggy wrists like yours? The trigger pull on these things is so fierce you couldn’t hit the broad side of a building.” He pulls his phone from his pocket and dials 999. “Now hold still till the police come or I’ll singe your eyebrows off.”
It’s a madhouse when the police arrive. John obeys their every word to the letter, lets them take both him and Hope into custody, tells the entire story to the DI who arrives on the scene, and again back at the station, and then again to a pushy bloke who turns up in a coat too expensive to be acquired on any policeman’s salary.
After the tall git’s third insult, John interrupts himself to turn to the silver-haired DI. “Sorry.” He points at the gratuitously cheekboned sod. “Who is this? Is he with you, because I’m pretty certain I’ve never seen a policeman with hair that ridiculous, and this story is starting to get boring to me.”
The DI chokes on his coffee. The tall git scowls. “Afghanistan or Iraq?”
John stares at him. Oh, Christ, not again. “Afghanistan. I was a doctor in the RAMC, I was shot in the shoulder, but it’s my leg that doesn’t work except apparently when I’m in a life-or-death situation, and if one more insult comes out of your mouth, this might just become one.”
The DI actually, literally falls out of his chair laughing, coffee splashing all over his grey jacket. The tall git, inexplicably, grins as though John’s just paid him the best compliment he’s ever heard. “And you’re looking for a flatshare.”