Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing: homeFiction


Voluntary assumption of risk

A short story

Photo by Eduardo Enrietti on Unsplash

To start with the obvious, not everybody who fantasizes about killing another road user would follow through, even when they were certain they could avoid liability. It can’t be the fear of getting caught that holds them back, since it’s so easy to make sure that no criminal responsibility attaches to oneself. Nor can morality be the effective deterrent, when you consider the height of fury to which the reckless imbecility of others can raise even the mildest motorist. I can best explain the extraordinarily peaceful and law-abiding state of our roads as the result of natural laziness and inertia.

For, while it’s certainly possible to end the life of a pedestrian or cyclist while remaining blameless in the eyes of the law, it requires a certain degree of care and planning that not everybody is prepared to put in. In short, if you’re a person who habitually travels on foot or on two wheels, sharing the road with motorized vehicles, you owe your survival to the understandable human inclination to avoid inconvenience and to postpone any action requiring a little more care than usual.

I’m certainly not in any position to criticize the procrastinators. Until four months ago, I was one. Not that I hadn’t mentally planned, many times, how the fatal circumstances would be brought about. There’s nothing new under the sun, and the method I had in mind had already been well tried. It was not, you understand, guaranteed to be effective, in the sense that one could be sure of ending up with a dead or gravely injured body. In that sense, the success rate was actually quite low. But, if carried out with adequate care and a basic level of skill, it would multiply the target cyclist’s risk of death by a factor of several hundred, all without placing the instigating driver in the slightest jeopardy.

If I had any misgivings about the plan, they centred its unsuitability for deployment against pedestrians. Not all drivers whom I’ve spoken to on the subject agree with me about this but I’ve always found pedestrians even more infuriating than cyclists. They potter around at best oblivious to their surroundings, calmly walking among powerful vehicles that could crush them in an instant, yet paying no attention to how difficult they are making it for those vehicles to avoid them. Cyclists ignore the rules but at least most seem to be aware of what’s happening around them. Still, this method works only against cyclists. And while they may be generally less blameworthy than pedestrians, they’re far from being entirely innocent. I’ll take what I can get.

I believe that the method was developed by London taxi drivers. They have more reason than most to hate cyclists and their vehicles are higher than the average car, so a hunched cyclist might easily be hidden behind one. Add to that the fact that they have an economic incentive to keep moving and working, and therefore to avoid a collision which would probably mean having to give a statement to the police. So, from their point of view, it’s an interesting technical problem: how to cause an accident, preferably a serious one, without being directly involved or delayed.

Luckily, a majority of cyclists play straight into their hands. Otherwise the manoeuvre might never be used. It can be carried out only on a particular kind of road layout, one which is becoming increasingly rare.

First, you need a busy road with slow-moving traffic at least in your direction of travel. Ideally, there shouldn’t be a cycle lane. Next, you need a junction with a minor road that isn’t controlled by traffic lights. Those are the fixed parts of the scheme. The moving parts are a cyclist coming up on your inside, passing the slow-moving traffic, and a vehicle coming in the other direction, waiting to turn right into the junction. When you see a cyclist in the right position, and an oncoming vehicle waiting to turn, you stop to let the other driver go. If you’re driving a high-roofed vehicle the other driver won’t even suspect that the cyclist is there.

The only time I put this idea into practice the result were, I think it’s fair to say, mixed. I was on a road near Clondalkin that I didn’t know very well but which fit the requirements: no cycle lane, no traffic lights, an SUV waiting to turn right. And a helmeted cyclist bent over his drop handlebars to reduce wind resistance (and visibility) starting to pass me on my left. Without pausing to overthink it, I braked, allowing a gap to open between the SUV and the junction its driver wanted to turn into.

The SUV was moving fast when the collision occurred but the bike hit it broadside on and didn’t get the full force. The cyclist had been paying attention and braked as soon as he’d seen that I had, so that by the time he hit the SUV, his speed was down to single figures. I could tell by instinct that no serious damage had been done, but I didn’t want to wait around. The road was narrow and the back of the SUV was still sticking out but I was able to pull out and get around it. (The driver who had been behind the SUV, possibly shocked into immobility, hadn’t yet moved forward.) The traffic was still almost stationery but I continued as if nothing had happened, at the same speed as the vehicle in front.

A couple of months passed without my hearing anything about the collision. I knew from reports in the paper that the injuries were not life-threatening.

A few weeks ago, shortly after lunch on a Friday, I was sitting on my own in the Caffè Nero in Donnybrook, concentrating on my toasted panino and not paying much attention to my surroundings, when the chair opposite me was pulled out and an attractive, dark-haired woman in her mid-30s sat down. The cafe wasn’t crowded. I glanced around at the empty tables.

“Sorry to interrupt your lunch,” the woman said. “I’ve something quite important to say to you.”

“You’re not interrupting anything,” She didn’t look like a threat.

“I’m the wife of Liam Gilmartin. I see you recognize the name.”

“Um, no. I used to know a — ”

“Let’s not waste time. A little over two months ago, you tried to kill him. Unfortunately, you messed it up.”

“I — ”

“Shut up. I need to know why you did that. Were you hired by someone?”

“I don’t — ”

“All right. I see I’m not going to get anything useful from you unless I fill in some context. For whatever reason, you tried to kill somebody on whom there was already a contract. That’s how I know it was you, by the way. The hitman I’d hired was following Liam and saw the trick you pulled. And he jumped to some alternative conclusions. Either, I’d hired a competitor of his as some kind of backup, or I’d failed to tell him that I wasn’t the only one who wanted my husband dead. Either way, he disliked the implications. He’s not the sort of person I want to be on the wrong side of.”

“I’m … um, sorry to hear that.”

“Good. Because you can make it up to me.”

“I really don’t think I can.”

“You can finish what you started. The contractor is refusing to do it and he won’t return the money I’ve already paid, so I can’t afford to hire a replacement.”

“That’s unfortunate, but really I’m not the right person for this kind of work.”

“It’s your fault I’m in this mess. It’s your responsibility to get me out.”

I’ve been told I’m not good at saying no. It’s particularly difficult when I need to say no to someone as personable as Mrs Gilmartin.

“No,” I said firmly, and meant it. As a pacifist and an uncompromising opponent of the death penalty, I’d find it completely contrary to my principles to take the life of another human being. We have a moral duty as well as an instinctual imperative to preserve the lives of other members of our species.

“You already tried to kill him,” she pointed out with evidently forced calm.

“That was as a cyclist.”

She stared. I did my best to explain. Cyclists and pedestrians show no concern for their own safety or the safety of others who might be caught up in an accident they cause. In many, if not most cases, they exhibit not merely recklessness, but an actual death wish. By eliminating them, we make the roads safer, in that a carefully targeted collision with a cyclist or pedestrian will kill at most one road user. Also, it’s an invaluable safety valve for the homicidal aggression that might otherwise be directed into normal civil society, causing wars and public unrest. I am a pacifist, after all.

“He’s the same person. If you’re prepared to kill him while he’s on his bike, why is it any different when he’s convalescing in bed?”

To me the difference was obvious: there was a good chance he might never get on a bike again. If he does, he’ll once more become a target.

“That’s a very nice distinction. But there’s something you’re not taking into account. My contractors aren’t prepared to kill him, as I said. But they have told me that unless you finish the job you started, they’re more than happy to kill you. They’re not sure whether you’re an incompetent competitor or a clueless amateur blundering into their path. Either way, they have no good reason to let you live.”

I blustered a bit but it’s hard to come up with persuasive arguments while contemplating the prospect of one’s own assassination.

So, the following Tuesday evening, I was standing in Liam Gilmartin’s kitchen, having found the key to the back door under a flowerpot, where his wife had said it would be. In the left pocket of my jacket, I had a syringe containing a lethal liquid (Mrs Gilmartin had declined to specify exactly what). She would be out somewhere public, establishing her alibi. The house would be empty except for her husband who would be in bed, groggy from the powerful painkillers he still needed six weeks after his crash. I silently went upstairs to his bedroom. In the near-dark I was able to make out the motionless form of a sleeping body under the bed covers. I took the syringe from my pocket and removed the protective sheath from the needle. I was anything but sanguine. It wasn’t going to be easy to inject Gilmartin against his will, even in his drugged state.

The light in the room came on just as I pulled back the quilt, and saw that it had been doubled over lengthwise to simulate an inert body. I looked around, with an inescapable feeling that the situation had already spun irretrievably out of control. My intended victim was sitting in an armchair in the corner of the room. He appeared alert, and the pain he supposedly suffered didn’t stop him from smiling broadly. More disturbingly, he was holding the hand of his wife who, less than a week earlier, had assured me that she desperately wanted him dead. She was the first to speak.

“I’ve called the police and told them there’s an intruder in the house. In fact, I called them as soon as you turned into our road, so they shouldn’t be very long.”

I looked at the syringe in my hand.

“Yes, it is highly toxic but at most you’d be able to get one of us, and it would be a very bad idea to add murder to the charges you’re already facing.”

I dropped the syringe and slumped onto the bed.

“Just to remove any doubt in your mind — you don’t seem to be all that quick on the uptake — there never was a contract killer. So that’s one thing less for you to worry about.”

I let the implications sink in.

“If I wasn’t seen by the hitman, how did you find me?” And then I remembered. As Gilmartin was being thrown over the handlebars, and I was looking intently to see the result of my manoeuvre, we caught each other’s eyes momentarily and I could immediately see that he knew what I’d done.