Friday, March 15, 2013

Once Upon a Set of Wheels by L. M. Steel

Yesterday we read an interview from L. M. Steel. Today read an excerpt from Once Upon a Set of Wheels. If you like it, be sure to comment and pick up a copy.


 On the seventeenth of May 1982, a baby girl was found in an abandoned stolen car, on the bridge of a dam. This is Lotus' story: from the abuse by her adoptive father, several foster homes and care homes. She finds unlikely allies in petty criminals, but her life of crime extends much further than they ever realise. When death occurs who would ever suspect the shy little girl who nobody wants?

On the seventeenth of May 1982, an infant girl of only a few hours old was found in an abandoned stolen car, on the bridge of a dam. Abandoned for no one, for no one came to claim her as their child, no one came to say that they were responsible for this babe, no one came to love her. This was how it was to be, always.

The police called her ‘Lotus’ after the Lotus Esprit her life was discovered in. ‘Ogden’ after the dam the car rested over on that day. Lotus Ogden was named and a person.

Lotus tells us the story of her short life, from the abuse at the hands of her adoptive father, to the several foster families, children's homes and detentions. She finds unlikely allies in car thieves and drug dealers but her life of crime extends so much further than any of them ever realise.

So very young, she takes her first life and realises how easy it was, and how no-one would ever suspect the poor, timid, shy little girl who nobody  calls their own.


I don’t know if Tempo knew at that point my involvement in the events that lead to Detective Wilkinson’s departure from the police force, but in time he came to understand my way of handling a difficult situation. We never spoke of it, or any other of my activities it was a quiet understanding we had. I had my own way of doing things, and if events ever lead to extremes, I handled them with extreme measures, but nothing was ever said about it.
Tempo read out the article that followed the headline, as I made some toast and coffee, and got myself some breakfast and a cup of tea. The food felt good, it wasn’t a three-course meal but it filled me, and this was the landmark breakfast, after this meal I never went hungry again. I always found food from somewhere, yes sometimes it was from yet another dustbin, but I never went longer than a few hours before I was fed.
The report explained that he was found between midnight and one o’clock; on first discovery it appeared that he been for a drink and stumbled over a wall. On the road side the wall was only a few feet high, on the other side it fell thirty feet to a farmer’s field. It explained that he was actually undercover, although it didn’t say what the case was, those details were released later. There were no signs of a struggle, no evidence to suggest anyone else was present, it just seemed he had fell and a large stone from the old Yorkshire built wall had fallen with him. Even if they did suspect someone else was there, would they ever even consider it was a little seven-year-old girl? I silently sniggered to myself; I was getting good at this. I wasn’t proud of myself, I knew I had done wrong, very wrong, and deep inside I hated what I was becoming; but each time it came a little easier, a little less frightening, a little more acceptable, and in time, much more necessary.
This is most likely where you will hear the story of my life from. Apart from the murders, my life before the age of seven has not and most likely, will not be disclosed in newspapers. Tempo agreed to let me stay with him for a while, but as long as I earned my keep. I knew it wouldn’t be long before social services caught up with me so I decided to do as Tempo told me and earn his trust. I hoped by doing this, when they did come he would protect me. For the first few days I stayed at his house, I made him food and drinks, and cleaned up a bit. The upstairs of his place was filled with what he called surplus stock: record players, televisions, and some beet Amax videos that were no good to anyone. A lot of it was entertainment goods, and at the time, being naïve as I was, I figured it was something to do with his DJ work. I also helped ‘repair’ these goods, which involved, scratching off serial numbers; sometimes he took different ones apart and used different parts to make new ones. As time went on I was educated in the art of dealing in stolen goods and fencing.
After a few days Miss Tetley came knocking at his door with a police officer. At first I thought she knew that I was there, but as I hid upstairs and listened to their conversation, it turned out to be just routine questioning. Tempo had been the one who had taken Robert and I to the school after the Enright’s left, and they were just asking if I had been in touch. He answered their questions, quite calmly, and denied any knowledge of where I was; he was very convincing. I hid myself in the spare room with the surplus stock, I kept as quiet as I could, I didn’t even breathe till I absolutely had to. I heard them leave and thank him for his co-operation, but I didn’t go downstairs till Tempo came up and got me, that was when we decided it would be better if I ‘disappeared.’
“Right, Steve McQuin!” he stated as he slumped in his chair, and I placed myself on the middle cushion of his couch. “You being here isn’t exactly doing me any favours.”
“But I thought I was helping.” I stuttered out, I was terrified he was going to turn me out in the cold.
“You are, and you’re doing a good job, but I don’t want the social services to keep coming round, and I definitely don’t want cops round here all that often. So … what are we going to do?” I just shrugged my shoulders, as he drew a deep breath and stared at me. “Look…” he began as he sat forward putting his hands together. “I like you, you’re a good kid, and you do some decent work for me, so I’m not gonna ring that Tetley woman up and say you’ve shown up.” I was so relieved. “But I can’t have anyone on the street seeing you in here and reporting me. So I’ll do you a deal. You can stay in the garage, it’s quite warm, it’s got an electric point where you can plug in a kettle, and some space to set up a camp bed. It’s not gonna be the most glamorous place in the world, and we’ll have to figure something out about food, but for now it’s either that or that Moor Green place.”
“The garage sounds great!” I jumped in before he could say anything else. “I can even do some work down there for you if you like.” He gave me a smile, and got up to go into the kitchen, as he did he pointed at the telly, which was my cue to get out the Marijuana and start cutting and weighing. I smiled back and got to work, ‘we’ decided to wait until late at night till we walked down to the garage, so not to be seen.
The garage wasn’t great, but after I substituted the kettle for an electric heater, it soon warmed up. At first I felt like a stray cat, Tempo would come down twice a day and bring me scraps of dinner and a two-litre bottle of water. I had a bucket in the corner as a toilet, which I would empty late at night down a drain at the end of the road. I wasn’t exactly living the high life, but I was comfortable. I worked for Tempo inside the ‘enclosure’, just small things at first, rewiring plugs, checking fuses, scratching serial numbers, and testing everything, telly’s, stereo’s, video’s, even toasters and other appliances, anything he could lay his hands on. I also helped with the car ringing whenever he got one in. I didn’t really understand what we were doing, all I knew was I was earning my keep. For the first couple of weeks that was my life, when Tempo wasn’t around and there was no work to do, I would curl up next to the heater, and read the paper Tempo had left behind, or a book that he said he had ‘found’. Some were interesting, some were boring, but they kept me occupied and entertained. Life went on day to day and I was happy, it wasn’t a family or a real home, but I had what I thought was a friend and roof over my head. My work progressed, I started rewiring whole stereo systems and TV’s, and stripping some down, taking out car stereos and fitting them in others, I actually thought this was a real repair shop. I soon learned the reality of Tempo’s occupation, but still it didn’t bother me that much, I had done much worse than dealing in stolen goods.
The day came for what we called my first ‘field mission’. It was just the two of us on this occasion, he brought me some black leggings and a black sweater, a hat and some kid sized goalie gloves; he couldn’t find leather gloves in children’s sizes. By this time it was March, I had been hiding for nearly two months, and I hadn’t seen proper daylight for some time, only as a silhouette in the garage doorway when Tempo brought me lunch.
March 3rd 1990, my first time out on the job, it was a little scary and a little nerve racking, but also very exciting. I got all my gear out at seven o’clock, made sure everything was there, I laid it all out neat, almost like an officer preparing his uniform. I then poured a small cup of water and brushed my teeth, my conditions might not have been the cleanest and brightest, but I always took care in my personal hygiene. I then stripped and wiped myself down with a sponge, pulled one of Tempo’s T-shirts over me, and got into my little bed, Tempo was coming for me at two-thirty, so I set my alarm for one-thirty so I could get myself ready in time. It was no use, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep, I just kept tossing and turning and going to the toilet. By the time my alarm went off, I had already got dressed, brushed my teeth again and emptied my ‘potty’. I still had an hour to go, so I made sure the car I shared my ‘room’ with was all empty and clear, Tempo said that was important. It was only an old banger, and Tempo said it wouldn’t be sold on, we would take all the good stuff and then scrap it, ‘the disposable partner’ he called it. I waited and waited, all sat ready to go, I could feel the adrenaline pump through me, and I could barely sit still. Time went by, two-thirty came and went, three o’clock the same, just as I was starting to feel disappointed and ready to go back to sleep, the garage door opened at three-thirty-five.
“Sorry smudge.” Tempo yawned as he made his way in; he never called me by my real name, ever. “I overslept, but I’m here now so let’s get going, we’re already behind.” He looked like death, he had obviously been ‘smoking’ and whatever else, but I didn’t care, I was too excited to care. He opened the car door and I ran round and got in the passenger side, we drove out the garage, and he got out and closed it, then we were off.
“Where are we going?” I asked all fidgety after five minutes.
“A mate I know gave me a tip on some stock, so we’re going to pick it up. I thought it’d be good for you to learn how the whole of my business works.” He smiled and winked as if I got the joke. “When you’re a bit bigger, I’ll also show you how to drive, just in case you’re needed.” My eyes widened with surprise and joy, ‘me, drive? How cool would that be?’
We drove right across town to a place called Boothtown. We drove straight through on the main road, and just before we got to the top of the hill we turned up a cobbled hill. There were three or four very tall houses, all built in old stone, all the houses were dark, except one had what looked like a landing light on, classic ‘out’ sign. The street was dark and quiet except for the streetlights and night shift Lorries. We walked round to the front of the houses on the main road, there were some steps leading down to the front kitchen doors, and we made our way down the steps of the first house, the one with the light on. Standing outside the door Tempo took a quick look around and turned to me. He seemed nervous and anxious, and shaking, but I think that was the cold, I was freezing; I was only wearing thin leggings.
“Right smudge, time for an Oliver Twist.” He said looking at me rubbing his hands together. I had read that book, and enjoyed it, but I didn’t quite understand what he was getting at. He looked down, at the bottom of the door was a small cat flap, I still didn’t get it, I just looked at him. “Well what are you waiting for?” I just looked at him, and then all around me, and then back at Tempo, I had no idea. He bent down and guided me to do the same, pointing at the cat flap he looked at me, quite annoyed, and said, “You, go through there.” Now I got it, but it was tiny, I knew I was small, but I wasn’t sure I could get through that. Seeing he was annoyed I thought I’d better try, so I reached in, arms first and went to slide my head and shoulders in. “Once you’re in, unlock the door, or if the key’s not there, the window and let me in.” I nodded to say I understood and attempted to wiggle my way through the tiny hole. It took me a while, the hardest part was getting my shoulders through, it took some pulling and pushing, and at one point I thought I had knocked one out of it’s socket, but it was just where it still hurt from Martin’s hammer. I still screamed. Tempo kicked my foot to tell me to shut up, so I just gritted my teeth and carried on squeezing. Eventually I pulled myself back out, I sat on the stone cold floor and just stared at Tempo, his face said I wasn’t allowed to give up but I couldn’t really see an option. I sat and looked at the hole, assessing the situation I thought for a while, and just as Tempo was about to say something I jumped to my feet and walked up the steps. I knew he wanted to shout after me but he couldn’t risk waking any of the neighbours up. As he followed me up, ready to blow his top, I took off my shoes and socks, jumped on the railings round the steps and grabbed the metal drainpipe. The bathroom window was small but it was bigger than the cat flap. I shimmied my way up, gripping it with my feet, and quite quickly, got up the tall building. I leant over to the frosted window and balanced one foot on the ledge.
“It’s shut!” Tempo whispered up behind me, still annoyed. I just ignored him; I got my balance and as quietly as I could, punched the window frame. It worked like a charm; it was an old window and had a fastener that allowed you to have it open at different lengths. It popped off the hook, and getting my fingernails underneath I was able to wedge it open. I reached inside and gripping the frame, pulled my whole body onto the ledge, once on I slithered myself through the window. On hitting the floor, head first, I got my socks out from where I’d tucked them into my leggings, put them on and ran downstairs.
I let Tempo in through the kitchen window; I couldn’t find the key for the door so he had to do a bit of climbing as well. He didn’t say anything when he got in, he just ran up the stairs to the living room. It was a tall, but very thin house, the kitchen was at the bottom, the living room above, and then above that a small bedroom and bathroom. I followed him up and watched as he scanned the room and its contents, he pulled a post it pad out of his pocket and started sticking the pages on things.
“Anything with a sticker on, that you can carry, unplug and take down to the kitchen.” He said in a hurried whisper, he was anxious about something, almost panicking, I soon learned that this was just his way; he always acted like this on the job. I did as I was told and carried the VCR, a lamp, a couple of speakers and some tapes and videocassettes down to the kitchen, I couldn’t carry the telly, it was huge. After making a small pile in the middle of the kitchen I went back upstairs to find Tempo rummaging through little pots, like he was madly trying to find something.
“Is everything all right?” I asked after a minute or two, I was unsure of what to say, he seemed very much on edge.
“We need a key!” he stated as he started throwing things on the floor.
“A key?” I asked curiously, I didn’t understand, we were already in the house.
“Yes a key, a key!” he hissed at me. I was scared now, I didn’t like it when he got angry, as I understood it angry people hurt you. I quickly darted up the stairs, I didn’t want to be in his way, and I had a feeling. I remembered when I lived at Martin’s house, Kevin used to keep a spare key in a slipper in his wardrobe, it was left there in case of emergencies. I ran into the bedroom, it was bigger than you’d expect, or at least it seemed to be. There was a double bed, a bedside table with a full ashtray on it, and that was basically it, typical bachelor pad. The wardrobe was big, in fact it was massive, but it was built into the wall, so I guess that saved space, and so made the room seem bigger. The doors were massive, and were all mirrors, even the handles. I didn’t bother switching the light on, but I could still see my reflection. I hated looking in the mirror; it always reminded me of when I would lock myself in the bathroom after Martin had beaten me. Looking over the bruises, feeling the agony, wanting to cry, but never! I would never cry, not for anyone. It also meant I had to look at myself; I didn’t like looking at myself, especially my eyes. Looking into my own eyes, I could see me. Any other time I could ignore it, but when I saw myself, my own eyes, my own evil eyes staring back at me, I knew what I really was. I quickly flung open the wardrobe door to stop myself from freaking out and started searching. There wasn’t much in there, I guess who ever lived here had gone on a long holiday, there were no shoes, and there were no keys in the slippers. I started rummaging through coat pockets, but still nothing. I didn’t want to go back down stairs empty handed, I thought Tempo would be angry, so I just sat on the end of the bed and tried to think. I was about to give up and go down and face the music when I noticed a photo on the windowsill. It was a man and a woman, both quite young, I’d say early twenties, and I figured it was the owner and his girlfriend. I stared at it for a minute or two, and thought about what we were doing. I wasn’t as naïve as I’d like to have thought, I knew we burgling this man’s house, stealing all his possessions that he had worked hard to pay for. In one night we were taking it all away. If he had the time, I think Tempo would have taken the kitchen sink, he was totally gutting the place, I don’t know how we got it all in the car. I stared at the picture in its nice silver frame; they looked happy, really in love, and totally unaware.
“Are you having a shit or sommat?” I heard Tempo scream from downstairs, he was getting frustrated. I jumped up from the bed and grabbed the photo, smashing it on the windowsill I ripped the happy moment out of the frame and just as I thought, there was a key. I grabbed it, dropped the frame on the floor and ran downstairs. Tempo had his angry face on and stared at me as though he was ready to blow, but before he could shout anything, I held the key up. His scowl turned to relief, and he grabbed the key out of my hand.
“Right, let’s get all of this out and into the car.” He said as he rushed down to the kitchen. “Then we can get the hell out of here!” He opened the kitchen door and I started carrying things out, the video, tapes, the toaster, a blender, the stereo and even some toilet roll, Tempo said he was running out and it beat buying any. The car had a really big boot, and nearly everything fit in, the telly and the stereo system went on the back seat, we loaded up and then as fast as he could Tempo drove us back to the garage. We got everything out and stacked it up; he said we would deal with it all in the morning. We then started pulling the car apart, taking the stereo out, even the seats; we left just the ‘vitals’ that the car needed to run on.
“Right, now I’m gonna show you what we do with the getaway car.” He said smiling with relief that it was nearly over. If he hadn’t slept in, it would’ve been over an hour ago. We got in the car and once again drove off, we drove along the dark back roads and up into the surrounding hillsides. We drove for about half an hour at high speeds, along winding country roads, and up steep hills, the surroundings were peaceful, yet a little creepy. Mist seemed to creep over the horizon like a haunting shadow; it was just like a scene out of a Hitchcock film. Finally we stopped, we were in the middle of nowhere, there were no houses, no streetlights, nothing, just rolling fields of heather. We got out of the car into the freezing cold night air, and Tempo popped the hood on the car.
“Smudge, come round here.” He beckoned me over to the front of the vehicle with the bonnet open. “Grab those spark plugs, they could be useful.” I did as I was told, and then Tempo used his hand to shoo me away, telling me to stand clear. He took a box of matches out his pocket, undoing the cap on the engine, he lit a match and holding his hand round it so it didn’t blow out, dropped it in the engine. He then came over to me, grabbed my arm and shouted; “Now we leg it!” I ran along with him as fast as I could, I had trouble running because of my leg, but I put up with the pain, I didn’t want to get left behind in this place. After about five minutes we heard a bang, and turning round we saw the flames reaching into the dark sky, it was almost artistic as the bright orange flames rose like a giant against the silhouette of the dark moors. Job done!    

Life went back to normal; me in the garage fixing bits and bobs, and making the most of my situation. Tempo off loaded the goods and he said he made a good return on them. He even gave me a little bit of spending money, not a lot, just ten quid, but it made me feel good, like I had a proper job. I didn’t really have anything to spend money on, I stayed in the garage all the time, and so I saved it under my pillow. After a few more jobs it started to build, and so did I, I didn’t feel guilty about ripping people off anymore, they had their living, I had mine, that’s life! I was encouraged more when Tempo said the customers were really happy with my work; that was the key to any good business, making sure the customers are happy with your standards so they’ll come back. Of course our settings increased when we ‘expanded’ but at this time we worked from the council garage on small jobs, robbing houses, a bit of car ringing and trading stolen goods. Still it was here where I learned everything I know about being a pro criminal, and as I got deeper into this life, the guilt over what had come before started to fade away. It was all in the past, I couldn’t change it, and it got to the point where even if I could, I didn’t want to change it, I didn’t give a damn. I still never looked in a mirror, I didn’t have to, I knew what I was, I didn’t have to see it. I hardened myself to everything; I was turning into a reflection of Tempo, ‘live for today; for tomorrow may never come. Screw the past; it can’t be changed, and if anyone asks; lie!’ It might not be moralistic, but at that time in my life I had nothing to guide me but Tempo, he was my parent, my teacher and my best friend, the biggest influence in my life, what else would you expect me to become?
I started to get braver as I got harder and would venture out during the day, still only in hours when I knew people were at work and kids at school, I had to remember I used to live here as a neighbour, people knew me. I got myself into the small town by the market place, and bought myself a six-way extension lead, a kettle, and a second hand sandwich toaster with the money I had saved under my pillow. I got the bus back up to the garage, and I paid the fare! Tempo brought me down some tea bags and sugar, two cups, butter, cheese and a knife, I plugged in the heater, kettle and toaster; which needed rewiring. I then used the other three sockets for a surplus telly, a video and a little portable radio. I could only watch videotapes, as there was no aerial, but I would watch all the ones we got in before they were sold on.
By June I started to get more involved with the business, not only was I an expert cat burglar, you could lock all the doors and windows and tape down all the pet entrances, and I could still get in and rob you blind. I was also quite a talented salesman. I would go to the car boot sales with Tempo, never the local ones, but over to Wakefield and Bingley where no one could recognise me. Tempo said I was a natural; I would sell twice as much as he would, and always for more than the original tagged price, he said ‘I could sell tea to a china-man.’ I didn’t know what that meant but I loved it when he praised my efforts, for once in my life I had someone encouraging me. My education didn’t go that much unattended to either; I read books all the time, and newspapers, tabloids and broadsheets. Tempo ‘found’ me a dictionary after he got sick of all my questions. I soon learned the basics of politics, I knew the government structure, and that Edwina Curry had seriously pissed off farmers, and that in fact, there wasn’t a wide spread salmonella outbreak. I read books that were way beyond my age, but I enjoyed and understood them, (except for Shakespeare, no-one understands Shakespeare.) I could write well, not neatly but well, and I would be in charge of ‘stock’ listing. My maths abilities stayed strong as well, I would price everything up, receipt everything that came in and out, and eventually made up the ‘books’ keeping check of all the money that came in. I was eight years old and basically running a private business, Tempo was always the boss, but I was the one who looked after all the ‘business’s interests’ and I was as good as any accountant. If I hadn’t spiralled into the life I did, I truly believe I could have made a decent life for myself in the world of business; I certainly had the head for it.