Turning a corner, the path wound past a line of rundown houses, strung along a ridge a few metres above the track like a thread of antique beads, then continued for a few hundred metres more before crossing the top of the ridge and dropping back down again, towards where Blake thought the road they’d crossed earlier should have been, as if the path inscribed the shape of a question mark.
Following Manolo, Blake walked towards a cleared area in the middle of the scrub. As he crossed the periphery, he felt uneasy, sensing the circle of dusty gravel had witnessed some kind of unpleasant history. It reminded him of an arena. There was only one way in. He looked about. The clearing was enclosed by thorny bramble. On one side, a low makeshift shelter had been erected hard against the scrub. The small structure was shaped like a pup-tent, a bivouac. The edges of the ragged steel-sheet cladding scraped in the wind. Blake shuddered.
Manolo was sitting on a rough block of concrete, waiting. Scuffing the gravel and hiding his face from the sun, he told Blake the site had been a sand and gravel depot when the highways and flyovers were built. It had been abandoned. The old roads weren’t used any more.
Blake past him and knelt beside the shelter. At the front, the steel sheets had been blackened by fire. Where the flames had touched the metal, below the residual soot, the rust was flecked with blue and violet and pale yellow, as if a great heat had been applied which disturbed the metallurgy. Extraordinarily, the lower third of the walls, before they met the ground, had been decorated with odd motifs cut through the metal. He peered inside. Lines of sunlight streamed through the perforations and flickered on the ground like broken shadows.
He squatted, his camera in his lap, his back to Manolo. This was what he’d been hoping for, he told himself, an example of naïve art arisen in the wilderness for whatever reason, a level of aesthetic awareness elevating it above the norm. He could already imagine the photographs he would take, the whole and the detail caught on different days in differing light conditions. He snapped a few reference shots then reframed and refocused. Noticing a minor drop in the light levels, he kept working, resting his weight on his knees and ignoring the cloud cover scudding across the sun, the shadow encroaching from behind. He took a few more shots to document his find, then lowered the camera. Sitting on his heels, he clipped the lens-cap into place. His legs felt stiff. ‘Manolo,’ he said, as he pushed himself up, ‘You know, I must thank you for bringing me here. How did you know this is what I’ve been looking for? It’s perfect.’
Manolo didn’t answer.
Blake brushed the dust from his pants and turned round, squinting against the glare. Four figures were standing side-by-side a few paces away, silhouetted by the western sun.
‘Welcome to the wasteland, Senhor Photography,’ one of them said, in stiff, possibly intentionally cowboy-inflected, English.
Manolo jumped to his feet. Taking his hands from his pockets, he shuffled towards them, dummy-punching the one on the right and feinting sideways.
‘What is this?’ Blake blinked, tightening his grip on the camera.
‘This is nothing. This is very simple. Not to look so worried.’
Blake raised his arm, shielding his eyes.
‘Hands down, please. From your face.’
He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. His mouth felt suddenly dry. He thought he recognized one of the youths from the street-art shop, but he wasn’t sure. He rubbed his eyes. He couldn’t make out their faces.
‘Now hands down, please, you listen.’
He did as he was told. He searched the line of youths, but saw only silhouettes. ‘Manolo?’
‘Yes,’ the speaker said, ‘you know he is here. But is he the one doing the talking?’ The question hung in the air for a moment. ‘No. Listen. Please, relax. Think of this as a brief holiday, a diversion before you go back to your hotel.’
Blake clutched his camera with both hands. He straightened his back and squared his shoulders. He tried to gauge how serious they were. Five against one, he didn’t have much of a chance no matter what happened. He raised his chin and told them in as even a voice as possible to stand aside and let him leave.
A wave of titters spread down the line, then the speaker’s voice rang out again, telling him to relax. ‘You will leave. We let you, I tell you not to worry about that. But not yet, okay?’ The speaker paused, coughing once. ‘Tao.’ A pair of hands clapped sharply. “Acqui nos vamos.”
‘I don’t know what you want,’ Blake said quickly, ‘but if you’re after my camera, you’ll have to kill me first.’
Their laughter grew louder. A cloud of dust rose around their boots as they kicked their feet back and forth, scattering stones, waiting for their leader to repeat the signal.
‘Manolo,’ a different voice called out, less urgent, less gruff. “Peca o homem a carteira.’
Doing as he was asked, Manolo stepped forward with his hand out. He stopped only a few centimetres away, waving his palm beneath Blake’s face. Blake felt his body clench. Protectively, he raised the camera and stared at the boy’s paint-encrusted hand. Neither of them said a word.
‘Senhor, take out your wallet, now.’ The speaker sounded impatient.
Manolo raised his hand to immediately below Blake’s chin. Still saying nothing, Blake raised his head and stared hard at Manolo, hoping to detect an apology of some kind beneath the boy’s neutral expression. He wondered if Manolo had been coerced. Would he stop him if he ran, should he take a risk, what would be in it for him? He peered into the boy’s eyes, but he turned away.
‘Senhor! Please! Take out your wallet. Now!’ The first speaker had returned. A stone came spinning across the clearing and skittered past Blake’s feet. ‘De para o Manolo seus cartoes! Your credit cards. Todos seus cartões. Forget your camera, SenhorPhotography. Your camera is nothing. Nada. We do not want your camera. Your credit cards, now; nothing bad will happen; you have my word.’
Blake remained stationary. Then, slowly, he shifted his camera to hang behind his back and reached inside his jacket. As he pulled out his wallet, Manolo stepped closer and wrenched it off him, pulling out the bank cards, and various phone cards and travel cards Blake had collected since he’d left New Zealand.
‘Okay,’ the speaker’s voice said. He stepped forward and snatched the credit cards from Manolo, letting the rest fall to the ground. For half a minute Blake saw him clearly, his torn jeans and t-shirt and baseball cap, though his face remained hidden behind aviator sunglasses and a heavy beard. He cleared his throat and spoke in a reasonable, even tone. ‘You see, my friend, nothing more happens than this. Except you stay here. Voce entende?’ He clapped his hands. ‘Manolo, Dom, you stay here too. Make sure nobody moves until we come back. Okay?’
The two youths nodded. Blake nodded too. The rest of them stepped backwards three or four paces before they turned and walked away. When they’d nearly cleared the wasteland the speaker suddenly stopped. Turning, he barked at Dom to get the passwords, and to smash Blake’s phone.
Dom produced a flick-knife and, picking up a dead leaf, demonstrated the sharpness of the blade. There was only one PIN for both cards. And the one he had, he realised, was far too easy to remember.
‘And Manolo, Dom, listen.’ The speaker raised his voice. ‘No camera alright? And no killing.’ He doubled over, slapping his thighs and convulsing with laughter. He unleashed a spitball as the others hooted and high-fived.
Blake swung the camera round to his waist and flicked it on. The one called Dom shouted something unintelligible and struck him hard on the shoulder, the heel of the knife in his fist. Blake cried out, grabbing the strap before the camera fell to the ground.
‘No photos,’ Manolo said. ‘No more photos.’
His shoulder throbbed. He glanced down; his jacket was torn. Pushing his hand through the tear, he felt his skin wet and sticky. ‘The bastard’s stabbed me,’ he said quietly to Manolo, between clenched teeth. ‘He’s fucking well stabbed me.’ He jabbed a bloody finger at Dom and shouted, ‘How do you fucking well say that in fucking Portuguese you fucking little fucker.’
Dom simply grinned. Manolo offered to look at the wound but Dom pulled him away, muttering something coarse, then planted himself on the lump of concrete and kicked at the dirt, spraying pebbles. In English he said slowly, one word at a time, ‘So. Now. We. Wait.’
Darkness fell, the background chatter of insect clicks and birdcalls eventually dying away. The boys sat cross-legged a few metres away, both of them texting on their phones, the display screens illuminating their faces and chests. One of the phones was probably his, Blake thought. He tugged his jacket tightly around his neck and zipped it up. He rocked on his heels, the shelter right behind him. His shoulder ached but Manolo had been right, the wound was superficial. He pressed through his jacket, not that the cut needed staunching, but for whatever comfort the pressure provided.
Crawling into the shelter, Blake lay on his side and cradled the camera with both arms in the hollow of his sternum. He’d put his wallet back in his jacket pocket, underneath, on the side he was lying on. As the temperature dropped, the structure’s steel sheets pinged and creaked. The wind rustled through the grass and from time to time a bird or rodent scratched the undergrowth close by. Rolling onto his back, he listened to the tidal wash of distant traffic. He tried to guess the different types of vehicles the way he used to when he was a child lying awake at night, whether he was listening to a car or a van, a truck or a motorbike, or a scooter, and how fast they were going, which gear they were in, and what type of person sat behind the wheel. He closed his eyes and continued to press his shoulder.
Long before the first glimmer of morning light, Blake woke. Manolo and Dom were still on the ground, undisturbed at the mouth of the shelter. Even though the pressure in his bladder was building, he waited until well after sunrise before he felt brave enough to make a move. He lay there fantasising about making a dramatic escape, though there wasn’t enough room to slip past without waking his guards. Besides, there was a chance his cards would be returned, he didn’t think Manolo and Dom wouldn’t have stayed, otherwise. He would have woken to an empty clearing and his boots and his camera gone. He daren’t think how much money the youths would’ve extracted from his accounts by now.
He sat up. His mouth felt like it had been turned inside out. He wiped his face with his hands. Crusts stuck to his eyelashes. His hair felt dusty and matted. If there’d been a mirror, he wouldn’t have looked. The boys were still asleep, but he couldn’t wait. He manoeuvred himself as best he could into a crouching position and stretched his back. His shoulder ached. He lifted his elbow and moved his arm like a damaged wing then, once the pain subsided, he shoved the boys aside, pushing his way out backwards, spinning onto his feet and slipping down beside the shelter to empty his bladder.
Dom produced a chocolate bar from one of his pockets and broke it in three. The chocolate was soft, but Blake ate his piece, licking his fingers clean. Dom told Manolo to go and find something they could drink over at the housing towers. He dragged the concrete block closer to the shelter and sat on it, facing the grassy ridge.
Blake squatted on his heels a safe distance away, stroking his sore shoulder. Dom was short and stocky, his face scrunched around the nose and eyes as if he was permanently irritated with the world. His moustache looked out of balance, sparse below his nose but thick at each end, like a length of frayed rope. His cheeks were heavily stubbled, more than they would have been after just one morning without shaving. His sideburns flared in much the same way as his moustache, nearly obscuring the steel piercings in his ears. Dom turned his head and glared at Blake. Blake looked away. He’d seen enough.
Manolo returned with a couple of dented beer cans filled with water, and a plastic bag of tomatoes and pears he’d presumably picked from one of the gardens they’d passed the day before. The food kept them going, more or less, but time stretched on interminably. Blake tried to keep out of the sun, but there were few options outside the tiny shelter. By mid-afternoon, and still no sign of the other youths, Blake began to doubt they would return. By the time the sun dropped closer to the ridge it dawned on Blake that the others could be double-dipping, waiting long enough for his daily limit to renew.