‘It’s an honour to have you with me, sir.‘ Detective Stevens banked the ground-car to the left and activated the siren. The sea of headlights ahead barely even moved in acknowledgement.
‘This isn’t the military, Stevens.‘ Chief Oakfield sighed. ‘Though I have to admit that it has a certain… gravitas.‘
‘Sorry, sir. I mean, Chief.‘ Stevens stuttered. ‘It’s still an honour.‘
‘Ah, if only they were all like you. But, if you must know, I got called out personally by the Mayor. I thought that I’d dodged the old bastard’s invitation to this shopping centre opening. But, they only bloody have to turn it into a crime scene.‘ Oakfield sighed and leant against the passenger window, watching the neon signs crawl past slowly.
Stevens glared at the headlights ahead ‘Do you want me to turn the siren up, Chief? I mean, they should be clearing a path for us. Section seven of the…‘
‘Forget it.‘ Oakfield waved his hand. ‘I’m still in two minds about whether this whole thing is an elaborate ploy on the part of the Mayor. But, for future reference, you don’t crank up the siren. Just keep it on low and, eventually, people get too annoyed by it to get in your way. Works every time.‘
‘But, what about emergencies sir? I mean, Chief? For all we know, there could be a hostage situation or a…‘
Oakfield let out a quiet laugh: ‘If it was an emergency, Stevens, they’d have called for the tactical squad or sky division. Not a rookie and an old man. But, again, for future reference – the bumper of a standard police car generally tends to be tougher than the rear of a civilian car. Just give ’em a gentle tap and they tend to get the message. No! Not now!‘
A loud mechanical clank and the furious bleeping of a horn echoed through the car. Stevens muttered an apology. Oakfield rubbed his forehead and smiled. The police car began to accelerate slowly.
By the time the Agora Shopping Centre gradually sailed into view, the crowds had already begun to disperse. Whilst Stevens honked the horn at the remaining pedestrians, Oakfield stared at the constellation of flashing red and blue lights ahead.
‘Gonna be a long night.‘ Oakfield sighed, before picking up the car radio and barking an order for a status update. Stevens almost jumped out of his seat. A second later, nothing but radio static filled the car.
‘I can check the maintainance logs when we get back, Chief.‘ Stevens stuttered. ‘I thought that the equipment got checked every..‘
‘Don’t bother. We’re nearly there anyway. Just pull in over there, and try not to hit anything.‘ Oakfield pointed into the mass of flashing lights.
Whilst Stevens nervously began to park, Oakfield reached for his hat and said: ‘Just leave the talking to me.‘
Oakfield had braced himself for the worst, but nothing could prepare him for what he saw. The Mayor actually smiled at him. Gaunt and huddled under a blanket, the old man rushed eagerly towards Oakfield: ‘Oh, thank god! I’ve never been more glad to see you.‘
‘What… What is going on here?‘ Oakfield said, hiding his trembling hand in his coat pocket.
The Mayor let out a rattling sigh and said: ‘Derren DeVor started acting strangely. We’d hired him to put on a show for the opening. But, after the first song, he started muttering something about the walls.‘
Stevens smiled enthusiastically: ‘Derren DeVor was here?‘
Oakfield glared at Stevens, before returning to the Mayor. He was leaning against a wall and had wrapped the blanket even more tightly around his shoulders. For a second, Oakfield could swear that he saw fear in the old man’s steely eyes.
In a trembling voice, he continued: ‘At first, we thought he was just joking. Or crazy. Then he ran off of the stage. A few seconds later, the walls started to crack. Like an earthquake, but without the tremors. There was mass panic, looting, violence. I saw someone literally bludgeon a man to death over a designer radio.‘
Oakfield nodded silently. Stevens looked dumbfounded. Finally, the Mayor said: ‘I know that your officers have probably started going over the place already, but I’d feel better if you were on the scene. The press are going to get here soon, and it’s only a matter of time before they find a way in. We need to show the public that we’re in control.‘
Standing up straight, Oakfield said: ‘Yes, sir!‘
The first thing that Oakfield noticed as he stepped inside the gloomy shopping centre was the smell of burning rubber. The next thing he noticed was the rust-coloured stains and smeared grime that covered every surface. If the shopping centre had been buried underground for a decade, it would still be in better shape.
Stevens followed hesitantly, before suddenly tripping over something. A wet squelch echoed around the cavernous hall. As soon as Stevens got up, a single glance downwards soon filled the hall with tortured retching.
Finally, coughing slightly, Stevens said: ‘What the hell happened here?‘
Without saying a word, Oakfield walked over to a cracked information stand and pulled out a pamphlet. He handed it to Stevens. Squinting in the gloom, Stevens looked at the pristine photograph on the cover. The immaculate white walls, the sparkling fountains, the verdant palm trees and the shiny storefronts. Stevens looked at the centre, then at the pamphlet again.
Finally, Stevens muttered: ‘Hard to believe it’s the same place.‘
‘Not really.‘ Oakfield sighed ‘It’s this city. It just can’t have nice things.‘