It had only been a few minutes so far, but at the rate that David was smoking right now, the nicotine would probably kill him before any prison cell they threw him into could.
He put out his third cigarette and had to stop himself from reaching automatically for a fourth. His hand kept twitching back from the packet he’d placed on the table along with his book, a thick but tattered mystery he’d picked up on the trip. They were the only two things they’d let him take from the van once they’d searched him.
“It’s going to be a long wait,” they’d said.
The office he’d been ushered into at the border checkpoint was a large metal box in the car park, containing just a table, an ashtray, and two chairs. Metal seemed to be everywhere here – the furniture, the walls, the ceiling, even the fogged up windows were framed with it. He was caged in, despite the door not being locked. Everything was cold to the touch, and the air had the metallic taste of blood.
The sergeant who was now sitting across the table from him flashed a few yellow teeth in a lopsided grin.
“Don’t worry Dave. Can I call you Dave?” He asked, and continued on without a pause. “If this were serious, we would have started this little chat off with the lads giving you a quick kicking.”
He flashed a few more stained teeth at that, and David smiled back, weakly. He didn’t think it would be wise to show his own teeth to this man – he might just decide to redecorate this drab little room with them. David knew the routine though. This wasn’t his first ‘weekend getaway’ as his dealers called it, or even his first security guard trying the solo version of good-cop-bad-cop for that matter.
The sergeant’s grin vanished as he leaned across the table, “We’re not the bad guys here Dave. My lads are going through your stuff to make sure you’re not bringing anything illegal back into the country.”
Dave… He hated being called Dave. But somehow the fact that he drove a van made it alright for any and every guy to give him the nickname. He didn’t think he’d mention it right now though.
“You know what I’m talking about. This isn’t Australia, I don’t care if you’ve got a boot full of fruit and veg. Or a toad even.” The sergeant laughed at his own joke. “But I’ve got my own list of banned substances to look out for you know? Bags of powder, stacks of nudie magazines, unlicensed computers, even banned music on old CDs if you can believe it. The things people try and get past me Davey-boy, it would make your skin crawl.”
He picked up the cigarettes and slid out two, pocketing one and lighting the other before throwing the pack back onto the table, “You don’t mind do you?”
Stay quiet, that was the trick. Be meek, not a cocky little sod that rises to the bait. That was how all the others got caught, he was sure of it. David just shook his head.
The sergeant leant back in his chair and lit the cigarette. He puffed smoke into the silence. The rain started to fall, pinging off the corrugated iron roof.
David let out a sigh, he decided to change tactics, “Look-”
The door to the office squeaked open and the sound of the storm outside rushed in. Another guard beckoned the sergeant outside.
“Back in a minute Davey-boy. You hold that thought.”
The door slammed and David twisted in his seat to risk a glance out of the window behind him as the sergeant loomed past, dragging his knuckles towards the guards gathered around his van. No surprise that they’d opened the boxes and were having a good rummage around. They’d probably ruin his entire cargo in the rain – no respect for books, that was the problem.
He craned his neck to watch the sergeant chat with the group huddled around the dampening boxes they’d pulled out. He saw him pick through the top layer of one box with surprising care. Finally, he gave a few orders and turned back towards the office. David snapped his head back to face the door.
“Chucking it down out there,” he said as he threw his jacket over the back of his chair and sat down.
He leaned forward and picked David’s book up off the table, “Big reader are you?” He wasn’t even looking at the book, just pointing it like a loaded gun at David’s chest.
“You must be mate, all those books in that van. How long is it going to take you to read all them books eh?” He laughed at his own joke again, “I suppose you’ve bought into all that knowledge is power stuff, have you?”
Knowledge is power… David hated the phrase actually, it seemed like everyone was saying it nowadays no matter which side you were on. And what did it really mean anyway? True, the right kind of knowledge was power all right, but in this situation, here, now, power was power and David’s knowledge wasn’t going to change much.
Then again, he knew that he was hauling banned books across the border, and by the looks of it, the police knew too – but how much did they know?
The sergeant finally looked at the book cover, turned and read a few lines from the back and then dropped it casually onto the table between them both. “I hate mystery and whodunnit books, and I hate them even more in real life. So how long is it going to take the lads outside to find the banned ones eh? All you booksellers are the same, that’s why I pulled you out when I saw your occupation on the passenger list. None of you can ever resist smuggling a few in, am I right?”
He just winked at me, David thought, he actually winked at me.
“Now listen Dave,” the sergeant continued, “We make a little bonus from concerned citizens like yourself each month, you must know the drill by now. And the longer I have to wait, the higher my bonus will get.”
David had to fight to keep the smile from his face, it was like trying to suppress a yawn when talking to someone at a party. This wasn’t a setup! Nobody had tipped them off, it was just a scam to get beer money. And the sergeant was right too, book dealers like him always brought across a few blacklisted titles with them – even when not on business. The demand was so high, and the risks had always been so low until recently.
He could remember the time when he’d filled his suitcase to bursting after finding a trove of banned history books in a shabby used bookstore on the continent. His wife had been furious when she’d found out he had jettisoned her clothes to make more room for the books. She’d never understood, she even said so when she’d left.
“Okay, you got me,” David said finally.
A wide grin spread across the sergeant’s face, “I bloody knew it!”, he said as he playfully smacked the table.
The smile was a good sign. This guy wasn’t an idealist, he just wanted cash.
“Under the passenger footwell, you can lift the carpet right off. There’s a little compartment in there with two books in it.”
“No, I’ve got a buyer – and yes, he paid fifty per cent upfront.”
David even laughed a little as he said it, he couldn’t help himself. The sergeant’s face lit up with greed. “The cash is in with the books, it’s safer in there while I’m travelling.”
That got his attention. The smile vanished and his eyes darted over David’s shoulder and out of the window to the van parked outside.
“Nothing you’ve heard of I imagine, two obscure biographies of two even more obscure politicians.”
He tried to bite back the last word as he said it, but the sergeant was still looking out the window, he wondered if he was even listening.
“Fair enough,” he said, finally bringing his attention back to the room, “this is how it’s going to work Dave. Me and the lads are going to find the books and give you a slap on the wrist. You’ll get an official caution this time because you kept me hanging around like an idiot in the rain, got me? And you obviously won’t be keeping the books, those will be impounded.”
“What about the money?”
The sergeant stood up and swung his jacket back on, showering David with droplets. He strode outside and David watched him walk towards the van like a conquering hero. He shouted something that got lost in the roar of rain on the roof. He could see that he’d got a laugh though from the other guards poking through the books strewn around the van. They all moved to the passenger door where, after a moment or two, there was a lot of back-slapping.
David turned back to the table and pulled his discarded book back towards him. Everyone likes a good mystery, he thought, although they always just read it once and throw it away.
He finally lit his fourth cigarette and started to trace the outline of the book’s title with his finger.
God, he wished he’d kept the history books from that holiday, they were worth their weight in gold nowadays. But he’d sold them for hardly anything at the time. People were obsessed with them now – with owning something real. But why? It really irritated him, he was always getting into debates – well, arguments – with Alex back at the shop. Who knew which version of the truth was real? Did it even matter who had fired first anymore?
But the truth was what people wanted, that’s for sure. The government had banned pretty much anything that contradicted their version of events. And that was what was taught in schools too – so it was already becoming what had happened.
He wondered how much this book would be worth if he just kept hold of it for another few years.
The door opened again and the sergeant swaggered in, his top pocket noticeably bulging. The money, or maybe even one of the books, David decided. They really were valuable if you knew the right buyer.
The sergeant stood over him as he straightened his jacket, water dripping steadily off his hair and nose onto the floor. He still hadn’t said anything, he looked like he was waiting for David to do something.
“You said I’d get an official caution? I’m sorry, I’ve never really done this before, what do I do? And can I go? Is there some paperwork I need to sign or-”
David went to stand up and the sergeant quickly rammed his fist into David’s eye socket and launched him backwards off the chair.
“More of a warning than a caution mate, don’t make me wait again.”
And then he stamped once on David’s chest, not hard enough to break anything, but enough to make him squawk involuntarily as the air in his lungs rushed out of his mouth. He supposed that was what made it an official caution, the sergeant’s stamp of approval.
The sergeant dropped the van’s keys on top of him and walked back out the door.
Lying prone on the floor, winded, and feeling his eye starting to swell, David just lay there wondering why anyone had bothered to put carpet in this little room. At least it cushioned his fall. Every cloud has a silver lining he supposed, even if it is just cheap lino.
It was a full hour later when David pulled away from the final border checkpoint. Half his books were ruined, his contraband had been taken away, he’d lost a wad of cash thicker than his fist, and he had a black eye that was slowly closing his vision off on the left-hand side.
But he had a stupid smile plastered across his face.
He kept reaching out and touching the worn book he’d been carrying all along, now resting safely next to him in a waterproof carrier. He couldn’t help it, he had to keep reminding himself it was still there.
A dust jacket and some misdirection. Every book dealer knew you couldn’t get away with that old trick anymore. But that’s why he loved mystery novels, they’d taught him that if you throw in enough red herrings, you could still surprise people.