by Rob Boffard | Jul 1, 2013 | Horror
It wouldn’t stop pulling to the left. Every time Langa thought he’d got it under control, in the lane, with the steering wheel humming in his grip, he’d find it drifting over. On the edge of his vision, the white line would slip under the bonnet and then the clunk-ka-clunk of the cats’ eyes would come rumbling up through the car.
Langa spat a swear-word in Xhosa. The car’s previous owner obviously hadn’t gotten around to checking the wheel alignment. Langa had a sudden vision of Ma-B, the gangster who ran the chop-shop in Soweto, demanding a roadworthy certificate, peering at it over the top of his horn-framed glasses.
He snorted, despite himself. In the passenger seat, Dennis looked up.
“What’s so funny?”
Langa shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Hey,” said Dennis. “Eyes on the road.” He was staring out of the window, the Johannesburg city lights reflecting off his shiny black leather jacket.
Langa pushed a stray dreadlock out of his eyes and gripped the wheel harder. Despite the steering problem, he’d liked the car from the moment he’d seen it, a midnight-black Golf resplendent under a suburban streetlight.
“Almost a shame we have to sell this one, hey?” he said to Dennis.
“How else were you planning to eat this month?”
“Ya, I know, but maybe we can have some fun in her first. Just cruise around for a bit.”
Dennis turned to stare at him. He was older than Langa by a good ten years, and the lines around his eyes seemed to stretch and elongate as the streetlights whizzed by.
“Awesome idea,” he said. “Let’s drive around Joburg in a stolen car at 3AM, in December, when every single cop is out on the roads checking for drunk drivers.”
Langa looked back to the road.
“You know she’ll have called the police, hey?” said Langa.
“So now you’re worried about the cops,” Dennis replied. He picked something out of his teeth as he spoke. “Stupid old woman.”
“You should have kept that gun in your pants.”
“I didn’t shoot her, did I? And say what you like, she was smart. Let the nice men take the car, go back inside, call insurance in the morning. It’s the smoothest business transaction you’ll find in this flippin’ country.”
Langa snorted, despite himself.
Dennis looked out the window. “She probably woke up half the bloody neighbourhood though. What was she yelling?”
“I don’t know,” said Langa. “I don’t speak Zulu.”
As they approached the turnoff to Soweto, a pair of headlights flashed in the Golf’s rear view mirror. The lights were so bright that Langa had to squint. He clicked his teeth, and muttered, “Jesus, turn your brights down.”
Without indicating, he swerved across at the last instant, on the verge of skimming the barrier. He turned his head a little, looking back at the lights behind them. “See how you like it when other people drive like idiots,” he said, and Dennis laughed.
Langa hit the offramp cleanly, dipping the clutch and changing down, then tapping the accelerator and feeling the car rev and roar underneath him as it zoomed downhill. The lights vanished, and his mirror cleared. He gave a small smile.
His smile vanished as the headlights crested the offramp, welling up in the darkness. There was something odd about the lights and it took him a moment to place it. They were yellow, like every other car on the road, but they were the wrong yellow. The colour was wilted, sickly, fading to an almost-green at its edges.
Langa realised he’d been staring at the lights in his mirror and shook it off, his gaze moving to the road ahead. The further out from the city you got, the more likely it was that someone would cross the street without looking. They were in an industrial area now. On one side of the street, the Municipal Driving License Department hunched, dark and silent. On the other, an Engen garage; with a lone car at one of its three pumps and no one in site. Ahead of them, the traffic lights, standing sentinel over the empty intersection. They were blinking red, indicating four-way stop.
Dennis turned down the radio. He’d seen the lights too. “Is it a cop?”
“How would I know? You’re supposed to be watching for them.”
Dennis turned around in his seat to get a better look. “It’s not a car. Lights are too high off the ground. Shit. It might be one of the big trucks they use.”
“Casspirs are for riots and strikes, not for finding stolen cars.”
Langa snuck another glance in the mirror. The lights looked even stranger now: green at the edges, with a creamy-white circle at the centre. To Langa, they looked like eyes.
He shook it off. He wasn’t going to let this thing sit behind him the whole way back to Soweto. He braked, swinging into the left-hand lane so the truck could pass. He slowed further, intending to stop at the lights and let it get ahead of him.
The lights kept coming. The vehicle came up alongside the Golf as they approached the blinking traffic lights. Dennis couldn’t see the cab from his side of the car, but Langa could, and as he glanced across, all the air in his lungs seemed to freeze solid.
It was indeed a truck – the kind where the body extends out over the cab. The word swam up from somewhere deep in Langa’s memory: pantechnicon. That was what this type of truck was called. A complicated name for a furniture removal truck. Its sides were a dark green, with no lettering or markings. Rust scalloped the edges, and here and there it had dug great pits out of the side, with nothing but blackness behind them.
But none of that had caused Langa to feel the cold flash of fear, or for his hands to grip the wheel so tight that the blood fled his knuckles. The cause was the cab of the pantechnicon. It was almost squashed under the weight of the enormous rectangle that formed the truck’s storage. Langa could see into it from where he was sitting.
There was no-one in the cab.
Dennis was saying something. He seemed very far away. The tone of his voice was puzzled, then urgent. He gripped Langa’s shoulder.
When you’re a professional car thief in South Africa, your body becomes accustomed to escaping danger quickly. Langa had popped the clutch and slammed the accelerator down even before he realised he was doing it. The back wheels of the Golf let out a terrific screech, popping up little whirlwinds of smoke. The car lurched forward, powering into the intersection. Langa was almost clear of the pantechnicon when it too leapt forward and tagged the back of his car.
The right brake light smashed – Langa heard the crunch and crackle of the glass – and the back of the Golf jerked to the left. Dennis swore loudly, pulling the gun from his jacket. Langa fought the wheel while it juddered under his grip, trying to force the car back under control. He could hear the truck now; a distant rumble under the whine of his own engine, like an earthquake.
“What the hell is he doing?” shouted Dennis.
The pantechnicon might only have hit the back right corner of the car, but it had been an enormous hit. For a long moment, Langa thought that he was going to lose control, that the Golf was going to spin. Then the wheel rammed itself back and they were speeding through the intersection, the car’s engine screaming.
Scrabbling for the stick, Langa shifted up a gear, his breath coming in quick gasps. Behind him, the pantechnicon roared, and charged after them.
“There’s no-one driving it,” said Langa. His voice had gone curiously high.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” said Dennis. He was still twisted around, looking over his shoulder.
“There’s no-one there.”
“Kak, man. I’ll put a bullet in his engine.”
“Stop being a moron.”
“You start shooting here, and it’ll bring the cops. I can get us away.”
The headlights loomed in the mirror again, spreading their gruesome light. Langa forced himself to think, to push his terrified mind back into gear.
He could cross onto the oncoming lanes, separated from his side of the road by a small island of grass. He could turn himself around somehow. A handbrake turn, yes, he could do that now, he’d been practicing; then speed back up the onramp to the highway, back the way they came, towards the M1. Whatever that thing was, it was big and heavy. Handbrake turning probably wasn’t something it could do.
Just as the thought crossed his mind, there was an enormous boom from behind them – as if the earth had cracked in two – and the headlights surged forward. The pantechnicon slammed into the back of the Golf.
Both Dennis and Langa screamed. The little car was pushed forward, and Langa could feel it straining to turn sideways. He put the pedal to the floor, redlining the engine, teeth gritted, only just managing to get the car under control. Half a second later, the pantechnicon hit them again, sending a rolling shockwave through the car that turned Langa’s arms to jelly. He didn’t have to look to know that the boot was a crumpled mess. The car was starting to judder, the back wheels flicking and jittering against the bent wheel arches.
No point selling this one now. May as well keep it, he thought, and nearly burst out laughing. If he didn’t get this thing on the highway soon, they were going to be crushed to pieces.
Somehow, he made the car go faster. The lights slipped back, just a little. “OK, listen,” he shouted over the roaring engine, and quickly outlined his plan. Dennis just nodded. He was fiddling with the gun, his finger darting in and out of the trigger guard
Langa saw the onramp back to the highway, rushing past him on the other side of the road. He gave it three seconds – just enough to get clear – before he swung the Golf towards the grassy island. The car crested it, bouncing and complaining, the bottom scraping on the concrete edges. It might have been his imagination, but Langa could swear that the pantechnicon roared in anger. The bass note of its big engine seemed to split the night.
They hit the tarmac on the other side. At this hour of the morning, there was no oncoming traffic, just an empty road lit by the flickering street lamps. Langa couldn’t see the pantechnicon anymore, and he didn’t look. He yanked the handbrake and spun the wheel, accenting the turn with work from the accelerator and the clutch, playing the car like a musician fighting through a difficult solo. He couldn’t come to stop. No matter what happened, he had to make sure the wheels kept spinning, so he could power away.
The engine screeched so hard that Langa was sure it would blow, but he kept his right foot flat, feeling the wheels grip the tarmac underneath him. Dennis was yelling something. With a final shudder, the car lurched forward, the rev needle first dropping, and then settling. Langa hit the onramp at speed, flying onto the highway.
There was another car ahead of them – Langa could see its back lights gleaming – but the road behind was clear. This time, he did laugh out loud. Dennis stared at him for a moment, then joined in, his laughter coming in nervous starts. Langa had been holding his breath, and his chest ached. They’d shaken it. Whatever that thing was, it didn’t make the turn on time, it –
Langa’s laugh turned into a horrified moan as he saw the pantechnicon rise over the onramp behind him. The yellow in its headlights had vanished entirely: they were now completely green. The shape behind them was a black monster, hardly a truck at all.
“Langa, what is it?” said Dennis. His voice was strained.
“I don’t know.”
“You really think there’s nobody driving it?”
“I didn’t think, I saw, OK?”
They came up to the other car on the road, a Toyota Rav4. The driver had on a Stussy cap and was smoking a cigarette; Langa could see the tiny glow of the tip. His friends were in the passenger seats: a woman in the front, and two guys in the back, laughing about something. Their windows were down.
Langa and Dennis sped past them. The Rav4 was now between them and the pantechnicon. The thought reassured Langa somehow, made him feel a little safer, but then he saw the truck bearing down on the other car and his breath froze again.
In his rear-view, Langa saw the man in the Stussy cap look in his own mirror, first in annoyance, then in alarm. And then the truck was on top of them. In the passenger seat, Dennis sucked in his breath. His face was the colour of flour.
The Rav4 hadn’t accelerated or done anything to get out of the way. The pantechnicon simply swallowed it, pulling it under its wheels as if it were nothing more than a sheet of newspaper. The monster rose briefly over the obstacle – Langa heard the horrifying screech of tearing metal – then thumped back onto the road. It hadn’t even slowed down.
There was no sign of the Rav4. Its crushed body might be out of sight behind the pantechnicon, but somehow, Langa didn’t think so.
The road ahead turned to the left, swooping into a section known locally as the double decker, where two highways ran on top of each other. Thier current path would lead them to the bottom level. Langa’s terror wasn’t alone now. A sense of hopelessness had joined it, like an unwelcome passenger. How could he shake something like that? It seemed to have huge power, had followed their handbrake turn like it was nothing, had eaten the other car.
He heard an enormous bang to his left. It filled the car, setting his ears ringing. Dennis was leaning out the window, the gun held tight in his hands. The entire top half of his body was in the open air. He fired again, but he couldn’t hold the gun steady in the buffeting wind. He pulled himself back inside the car, glaring at Langa. “You gotta slow down. I can’t aim.”
But Langa ignored him. He could abandon the car. That was it. No job was worth this. And once they were on foot, he could go somewhere far away, where there were no roads and where the passages were too narrow for it to get through. He’d go all the way back to Cape Town if he had. Let the damn thing try get up Table Mountain, see how that worked out.
But he couldn’t just jump out on the highway. If he slowed down for even a second, the thing would be on them in moments.
On his right, the lights of the city shone brightly. The central business district. It was a clogged mess of thin roads, set out on a loose grid but difficult to follow. But Langa knew the roads. And there were alleys, parking garages. Places they could ditch the car.
That’s where he would take it.
What the pantechnicon would do to the people, or other cars it encountered in the city didn’t even cross his mind. He could see the off ramp to the centre of town, a little way ahead. He pushed the accelerator, willing the Golf to go faster still. He could do this. He could beat it.
Langa glimpsed the little sign on the highway barrier with three horizontal lines on it. The Carr Street offramp to the city was three hundred metres away. Out of nowhere, the pantechnicon materialised on his right side, accelerating until the cabs of the two vehicles were level.
It’s going to ram us off the side of the highway.
The thought didn’t scare him as much as it should have. He had a plan now. He braced for the hit, ready to relax into it and let the wheel absorb it before spinning it back. Dennis let out a yell of triumph, and pulled himself out of the window. He took aim across the roof of the Golf, and fired. Once. Twice. The bangs shook the night.
But the pantechnicon was unfaltering. Instead, something began to happen to its side.
What Langa thought had been metal plating began to warp and change. Little ripples sped through it, as if it were a glass of water on an unsteady table. With an awful fascination, Langa saw that it had begun to push outwards, a tiny bubble forming on the surface. More bubbles appeared. They turned into questing tentacles, dozens of them, spiraling through the air and seeking out the Golf.
“No, no, no, no, no” Langa breathed. The off ramp was less than a hundred metres away. Could he brake? It would get them away from the tentacles, but Dennis was still hanging over the outside of the car. If the Golf braked, he’d fall. Langa yelled for him to get back inside. His reply was another gunshot.
The tentacles brushed the side of the car.
Langa heard a sharp sizzle of burning metal. There was a horrible smell, like something from a dumpster that had sat in the South African sun for a week. He felt the Golf being gently pulled sideways, the steering wheel fighting his grip. The glass in the driver’s window became a spider web of cracks as one of the tentacles pushed through it. Before he could think to move away, it brushed his cheek. The pain was an instant, searing stab, and he pulled back with a gasp. The tentacle that had touched him flailed, arching towards him, its tip gleaming green in the wash from the headlights.
He heard Dennis screaming and saw his body jerk once, then begin to spasm. Langa glanced upward to the top of his window, and with a kind of dull horror he saw that some of the tentacles had reached across the roof.
Dennis was pulled out of the window, his legs sliding out of sight. The screams stopped abruptly. The gun went off once more, and Langa saw the side of the pantechnicon ripple again. A moment later, Dennis’ body, cocooned in a writhing mass of tentacles, was consumed.
Langa didn’t know if he was at the off ramp yet, and he didn’t care. He yanked the wheel to the left. The tentacle retracted, vanishing out of the cracked window, and he felt the car lurch to the side as they lost their grip. Then he was riding down the off ramp, and he could see the truck speeding away above him, the little tentacles from its liquid side waving in frustration. The roar of its engine began to recede into the distance.
Langa lifted a hand to his cheek. His fingers touched tender, blistered flesh, and he pulled back, whimpering. His face had been burned from just under his cheekbone to his jaw line in a single thin strip. Dennis…Jesus Christ.
Out of nowhere, Langa remembered something. When he was child in Gugulethu, he’d had been told stories of the Tokoloshe. None of his elders took it seriously. It was, after all, a Zulu myth, and his family was proud Xhosas; but they’d still relished in scaring the children. The Tokoloshe was a creature you could summon when someone had offended you. It was supposed to be a short, hairy demon, with gouged-out eyes, but it could take many forms. It would toy with its victims, terrifying them into madness before killing them or taking them away forever.
The pantechnicon hadn’t just appeared from nowhere. Someone had sent it. A sangoma maybe, a diviner. Someone who wanted revenge on Langa and Dennis.
Someone like the old woman who they’d stolen the Golf from.
It didn’t matter if that was the case or not. He’d lost it. The Tokoloshe, pantechnicon, whatever it was, hadn’t made the turn. By the time it got itself turned around and back onto the offramp, he’d be gone.
But he didn’t laugh with relief. Not this time.
By now, the Golf was a juddering, sputtering mess. Red lights blanketed the dashboard. It trundled down the offramp, which swooped around to the left, circling a small hillock dotted with scrub. On the right, the train tracks, running past the offramp until they went under the highway.
There was a traffic light at the bottom of the offramp. Beyond it was a police car; a Metro cop unit, clad in lurid white and orange and cruising slowly through the lights. Langa brought the Golf to a stop at the line. It caused him an almost physical pain; he didn’t know where the pantechnicon was, and visions of it roaring around the turn filled his mind.
He was so scared that it took a few moments for him to realise that the cop was looking at him, giving him a piggish stare from behind the wheel.
Surely he couldn’t be pulled over. Not now.
But a scruffy guy with dreadlocks in a wrecked Golf wasn’t news in this part of Joburg, and he certainly wouldn’t be able to offer a decent bribe if he was stopped. The cop turned away, and the police car sped off. Langa let his breath out in a thin hiss.
He knew where he’d drop the car. There was a little alley off Henry Nxumalo Street, just under the highway. It was around the corner from a club called OST. Langa didn’t think they were open tonight, which meant that the alley would be deserted. The buildings locked up tight. Perfect.
It took him twenty minutes to get there. The area was almost empty of both cars and people and it wasn’t more than a few streets away, but he drove with terrified caution, barely getting out of first gear. He wanted to keep the engine quiet. If the thing appeared, if the Tokoloshe came around the corner, if he saw even a hint of green light, he wanted to be able to get away, to jump out the car and run and not stop until he was back in Cape Town.
The loss of Dennis was beginning to become real, and he felt sorrow settling over him, like a heavy blanket.
Dawn was just beginning to prick the sky behind the buildings when he arrived at OST. The club was positioned under the massive concrete pillars that held up the highway, giant totems covered with graffiti. There was no-one around and the club’s scratched wooden doors were locked tight. Langa felt his grip on the wheel relax, just a little. He wouldn’t be satisfied until he was as far away as he could get, but at least he could ditch the car. Let the sangoma have it back. Would insurance cover assault by Tokoloshe? he wondered.
And had the monster been after him and Dennis, or just the car? What would satisfy it? Langa didn’t know and, right then, he didn’t care. He pulled the Golf around the corner into the alley, bringing it to a stop by an overflowing concrete bin. The car sputtered with relief as he killed the engine. The only sound was a distant siren, echoing into the Joburg night.
“Man,” Langa said, exhaling the word in one long, thin syllable. He opened the door. When he looked up, there was a gun in his face.
The hole in the barrel was enormous. For a moment, Langa couldn’t see anything behind it. When he did snap out of the barrel’s hypnotic pull, he saw that the gun was being pointed at him by a youth with a black beanie. He had a single gold tooth. It caught the streetlights across from the alley.
“Hamba,” said the youth in Zulu. Go.
Langa was already half-out, but he didn’t feel he could argue the point. He didn’t know why the hijacker would even want the wrecked Golf; maybe he just needed some transport and Langa happened to come along at the right time.
Very slowly, with his hands raised, he stepped out of the Golf. The youth jerked the pistol to the side, waving Langa away.
“Get on the ground. I just want the car, my friend.”
Langa nodded, but then he realised that if the hijacker drove the car away, the Tokoloshe would find it, and probably eat the youth alive. He opened his mouth to say this, but the hijacker suddenly whipped the pistol round again, forcing into his face.
“Hey! I said, on the ground.”
Langa got on his stomach. The dust swirled around him, tickling his lips and the inside of his nose. The hijacker got into the Golf, and forced it to life.
His face inches from the concrete, Langa could see the mouth of the alley. It was bathed in green light. Distantly, he could hear a low rumble.
The wheels of the car squealed as the man with the gold tooth backed out of the alley. Langa closed his eyes.
There was an enormous crunch. And then, another noise; Langa could swear it was the sound of something chewing.
After a long time, he looked up. The sun had crept over the horizon, sprinkling the alley with light. There was nothing but the distant rumble of traffic. Slowly, Langa got to his feet. He walked to the alley’s entrance, and peered around it.
There was no Golf, and no Tokoloshe. The street was completely empty. In the distance, Langa saw a minibus taxi pull up and begin to disgorge its early-morning passengers.
His hands were shaking.
He was about to leave when something caught his eye. Something on the ground, glinting in the early-morning sun. He walked over, and picked it up.
It was a single gold tooth.
He put it in his pocket, and began the long walk back to Soweto.