It’s dark by the time a detective has taken my dealer and I’m back in the car with Lavender.
“Charlie, never seen you wearing a skirt.”
“Trousers were ripped fighting with that dealer.”
“Assault on police or criminal damage?”
“Not bothered. Grazed knee. Part of it.”
Lavender glides us out onto Walworth Road.
“There are good detectives,” I say. “I know them both.”
“Don’t tell me. You had to do their job for them.”
The evening traffic is heavy. “Not really. More their attitude – lording it.”
“Remember, Charlie, if something’s more than ten minutes old, we’re no longer friggin’ interested. We trample the scene, kick doors in, pick our arses, contaminate evidence and upset witnesses. Then, when the teccos arrive, we all fuck off. They ain’t lording it, they’re friggin’ jealous.”
Lavender stops by a coffee shop. I take the hint and, on returning with two lattes, a call comes in. “Mike-Three, Mike-Three. Camberwell New Road, junction Vassal Road, serious RTC. Petrol tanker overturned. Mike-Three.”
Tanker overturned? Shit. “Received by Mike-Three.”
We open our doors, place our steaming coffees on the road, and we’re off, doors slamming, blue lights flashing, sirens wailing, we’re a minute away. Other units are answering up. Fire Brigade on way. Ambulance on way.
As we approach, I hear a poomph and a broiling fireball rolls up into the London sky.
Craning forward, I watch it rise as Lavender swings us around stationary vehicles.
“Did you see that?”
“See friggin’ what?” Lavender brakes to avoid a pedestrian.
Everyone’s running, away from where we’re heading. A man clangs into a lamp post and falls. A woman looks back, stumbles but keeps going. A little girl in a red coat cries. A small dog runs with the crowd.
We’re stuck. I leave the car and barge through the mass of people swarming towards me.
The crowd’s thinning. Building line. From there, I’ll be able to see. I push on, clear the crowd and reach the building’s edge.
Flames reflect in shop windows.
I take a peep and feel the heat. The tanker, engulfed in flames, is on its side, its rear wheels turning. Nearby vehicles are consumed by the spreading fire. A burning woman collapses, her flames rise as she falls.
I break cover but a man throws himself on her and is consumed as well.
I’ve never felt heat like this. After the stampeding crowd, there’s an eerie calm.
Dark mounds of bodies are clustered near the bus stop.
A burning man erupts from a building and pounds at his flames before falling. I move towards him but he’s too far. I crouch again.
A car screeches backwards out of the fire, sparks across the pavement and through a shop front.
My arm is grabbed. It’s Lavender.
“Charlie. Too close. We must get back.”
To my left, there’s movement. “Just a…” Can’t speak. Cough. Spit. There’s that movement again. What is it? Lavender’s pulling my arm.
A car, on the edge. The driver’s jerking. Flames are creeping up and around the bonnet. The front tyres burst. The car sighs.
I twist away from Lavender. “You go,” I shout and sprint towards the car.
All around me is crushed thunder. Heat prickles my cheeks. Oily fingers scratch my lungs. Squinting through barely open eyes, I make it to the car. The flames reach for me from under the front wheels. I rip the driver’s door open. It’s a woman. The flames have her. Her face is moving. Blisters bubbling. Silent screams yaw from her blackened mouth. She moves her chin, an indication, I follow. In the back is a small boy, arms out, eyes pleading, mouth wide.
The woman’s gone still. Flames are creeping from the far side towards the boy. I grab his arm. He’s strapped in. The flames draw closer. I must reach into them to release the belt. I can do this. I’m in, hands following the belt down. I’m holding my breath. The catch. It’s in my hand. It won’t release. My eyes are scrunched. My skin’s popping. Despite all my nerves and muscles pushing me away, I keep my hands there. I can do this. The catch won’t release. I arch my head back. Bright stars. Must get away but my hands stay there. Pushing. Pulling. Tugging. Twisting. It won’t release. I keep my mouth shut tight so my scream can’t escape. Won’t release. Won’t release.
Strong hands grab me. One more go at the catch. I’m reeling back from the car. Flames have me. They’re climbing. Nothing left. Can’t move. A fire extinguisher roars. I’m dragged backwards, fast, away from the flames, away from the car and I have hold of the boy.