It was just past midnight when the young man in the jet-black suit left the wedding hall and stepped out into the cool night. A light rain had just fallen and the road under the streetlights gleamed wetly, and there was a fresh smell of moisture in the air. George inhaled greedily, embracing the clean odour and willing it to clear his head. He had been careful not to consume more than two glasses of beer, aware that he would be riding home on his own after the reception.
He had even eaten two helpings of ice cream, hopeful that it would interact with the alcohol and nullify any potential effects on his brain. He felt clear-headed now, and in any case, his apartment was only four miles away, on the other side of the town. At this time, there would hardly be any traffic around. Even then, he decided, he would ride slowly: in this part of the world, there were other things like stray dogs and cattle lounging on the road that one had to be alert for.
He wiped the rain water off his motorbike seat and pulled out a rag from the basket and sponged off the extra moisture. He was wearing an expensive suit, and he didn’t want to put it through any more rigours. He wasn’t planning on sending it to the dry-cleaners for another six months at least. He donned his helmet and sat.
The engine started on the first kick and he revived it, grinning at the sound cutting through the night air. There was a slight chill and he was glad for the extra layer provided by the suit jacket. The side light winked brightly as he took off, cutting onto the main road which was virtually deserted. Headlights glowed in the far distance, very likely other guests returning from a long night of dining and dancing.
The wind rippled through his hair, and he suppressed the urge to turn the throttle and surge ahead through the empty roads. That was how accidents happened, he thought grimly, and in his line of work, he knew all about stuff like that.
A few minutes later, he gave the right-hand signal and went off the main artery and onto a narrower road. This road led out of the city and was lined by trees. George saw in the gleam of his headlights that the road surface was dry; it had not rained here. He slowed his speed, aware that there were no street lights along this stretch. He was probably being over-cautious since this length of the road was one-way, but that was his motto in life.
A dog rushed out from one of the houses at the side of the road, barking a challenge, and George slowed down and passed it. The mutt retreated, growling. The motorbike chugged along. George knew he would reach home in the next several minutes. And ten minutes later, he would be tucked into bed, the alarm set for an early hour.
Some sixth sense warned him that all was not right. It was enough of a feeling that he instantly pressed down on the brake pedal, lowering his cruising speed drastically as his mind tried to assess what had assailed his senses, leading to that feeling of uneasiness.
And at that moment, his headlight which was cutting a swathe of illumination far into the distance, lit up a large object ahead on the same road – something that was clearly moving toward him. George was stunned: it was a vehicle, and it was coming along his road in the opposite direction – without lights…
His initial shock was swamped by a feeling of pure fury as he realized how disaster had so narrowly been averted. A driver who had been less alert and travelling at a greater speed would have headed straight into the oncoming vehicle, resulting in a collision.
The swift realisation prompted his next actions, and he brought his motorbike to a halt in the middle of the narrow road, and with his thumb turned his headlight on the highest setting, aiming the powerful beam directly ahead.
The other vehicle had no choice but to stop, and George could see in the wash of his lights that the driver – a male in his thirties or forties – was raising an arm over his eyes, clearly blinded by the light.
The two vehicles were separated by a gap of just four meters. George got off his motorbike and removed his helmet. He was careful not to get in front of his headlight until the other man turned off the car engine. He didn’t know the condition of the person behind the wheel, and the idiot might just panic and try to run him down in an attempt to flee when George took out his identification.
The car was a light-coloured BMW and the driver stuck his head out the window and yelled at him. “Hey, what are you doing blocking the bloody road?”
George willed his blood pressure to go down, telling himself to count slowly to ten before responding. He dug a beefy hand into the pant pocket and took out his wallet and opened it, holding it up so the driver could see. “Get out of the car!”
“What?” The BMW driver sounded shocked.
George shouted at him: “I’m holding up my police badge! Now turn off the engine and get out of the damn car!”
This produced an instant result. The engine died and the door jerked open. The driver almost jumped out and then stood beside the open door, staring uncertainly at George who was approaching slowly. “Are you drunk?” demanded George.
The other man looked startled. “Drunk? Me?”
“You’re driving on a one-way road in the wrong direction – and what’s worse is that your lights are off.” George tapped the headlights, arching an eyebrow at the driver significantly. “Let me see your license.”
The driver shook his head and searched for his driving license. “I was supposed to get the lights fixed but I forgot. And I was just returning from a wedding reception, and I thought there wouldn’t be much traffic at this time.” He shrugged. “I’m really sorry, sir.”
George scowled at him. “Sorry won’t make things better, Mr. -” He peered at the laminated card. “ – Gupta. If someone less alert than me had come down this road, it would have ended in an accident. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. It was very lucky that it was me. And even more lucky that I’m a cop. I can set matters right.”
Gupta looked morose. “I’ll fix the lights tomorrow, Inspector. I guarantee it. I have learned my lesson. I’ll do it without fail, sir.”
George fixed him with a tough stare. “You and I both know that the only way that you will be persuaded to do the repair is if you are penalized. And that’s what is going to happen: we’re going to drive together to my station-house for a proper procedural report.”
Gupta’s mouth fell open. ‘What, now?” George nodded. “But – look at the time!” This time, George shrugged. “Can’t you excuse me this once, please?”
“You now I can’t take that chance: what if you hit someone on your way out?” He snapped his fingers sharply. “Let’s go to the station. You will follow me.”
Gupta looked like he was about to cry. “Sir, please don’t do this! My wife is alone at home, and she’s waiting for me. She – she’s on medication and if I don’t reach in time, as expected, I don’t know what might happen. She will freak out, and might even try to harm herself in her panic.” His words made George hesitate, and Gupta seized the moment. “I assure you this will never happen again!”
George seemed undecided, and it showed in his tone. “I would not be doing my duty if I simply let you go. What if you don’t fix your lights tomorrow?”
“Sir, I will give you my address. You can send someone to check. By tomorrow evening, it will be fixed.” He scribbled his address on an envelope. “Here, sir.”
The cop stared. “You’ve just wasted the last ten minutes of my life, Gupta. And I am not happy about it. If I take you to the station for this traffic violation, I get a citation, and that goes on my record. It helps my chances for promotion.” He stared pointedly at Gupta. “I hate to see an opportunity like that go to waste…”
Gupta nodded eagerly, almost wringing his hands. “Sir, I feel bad. If I can anything, anything uh, helpful…”
George nodded. “Show me your wallet.” He took out two five-hundred notes. “You need to go home directly. Your wife is waiting.”
“I’ll go straight home. You don’t have to worry, sir.”
“Turn the car around and drive slowly.”
Gupta leaped into the BMW, reversed and drove away.
The next day, the man called Gupta was with his colleagues. “You can’t believe my condition: there I was, in a car I had just stolen, and this cop was threatening to haul my ass to the station. And then, just like that, he’s pulling cash from my wallet and I’m free to go. I wanted to laugh out loud. He was droning on about getting a citation for hauling me in on a traffic misdemeanor. If he had brought me in and found out I was a car thief – they would probably have made him Chief of Police…”
Many miles away, George was also seated, with his friends, drinking beer. “And then I said, give me your wallet and I took out the money. You should have seen the look on Gupta’s face: sheer, absolute relief. I almost felt sorry for the guy. I mean: the twit actually thought I was a cop…”