lap, he asked, “So you’re from California?”

Suzy nodded, then after stealing another glance at the disappearing cabin cruiser, she answered, “Born and raised.”

“How do you like it up here?”

She shrugged.  “It’s okay, I guess.”  She took a sip of her water, and then went on, “All you hear down there is how it rains and all up in Washington, but I don’t think it’s rained even once since I got here.”

The wine steward arrived, and after placing an ice-filled bucket on a stand next to Carnahan, he presented the bottle for Carnahan to inspect.  “This meets your approval, sir?” he asked.  It was a bottle of Dom Perignon.  Mack and the boys certainly hadn’t skimped.

Trying not to register shock, Carnahan nodded.  “Quite so, thanks.”

The wine steward made a show out of extracting the cork, which came out with a loud “pop,” and then offered it to them to smell.  With a flourish, he poured each a glass and after wrapping the bottle in a towel, he placed it in the bucket of ice.  With a bow, he disappeared.

Carnahan had never actually had Dom Perignon before.  The closest he’d come was one time when a rich drunk had left an empty bottle in his cab.  He picked up his glass now, and took a sip.  It really was quite good, he thought.  Tiny bubbles…

He looked back at Suzy, “So how long have you been up here?”

“About a week,” she said.  She took another swallow.  Then looking back out at the water, she asked, “You ever wonder how it would be if things had been different?’

“What do you mean, different?”

“Like if you hadn’t done something.”

Carnahan nodded.  “Sure.  Everybody wonders about stuff like that.”

She nodded, and was silent for a few moments, as she stared out at the water.  Then she looked back at Carnahan and said, “Mack said you just broke up with your old lady.”

He stared at her for a moment, and then said, “Yeah, last week.”

She lowered her eyes.  “That’s too bad.  You were together for a long time?”  She looked back up at him.

“About six months.”

“Huh, that’s pretty good.  I don’t seem to be able to last longer than a month or two with mine.”

“How come?” Carnahan asked, interested.

She shook her head.  “I dunno.  I guess you go into it expecting one thing, but then it turns out to be something else.  Maybe it’s ‘cause a what you did, or maybe it’s something else, entirely outa your control.”

Carnahan leaned forward, looking into her beautiful green eyes.  “That’s what you were talking about, if things had gone differently?”

She took a sip of the champagne, and then nodded.  “Yeah.  I was just kinda flashing on it.”

“What happened?”

She shrugged, and avoiding his gaze, looked out the window at the water.  “It wasn’t nothing.”

The waiter appeared beside the table, and he said, “Hello, I’m John.  I’ll be your waiter tonight.  I hope you folks are settled in.  How is the wine?”  He stood attentively, with his pencil poised over the order pad.

“Just great,” said Carnahan, smiling.

“So have you had a chance to make a selection?”

“Not yet.  Could we have a few more minutes?”

The waiter nodded.  “Certainly.  I’ll be back in a bit.”  He walked off.

Carnahan picked up his menu.  After a moment, he looked up and said, “Hey, they have abalone steaks.  I haven’t had that in ages.”

Suzy looked at him over the top of her own menu.  “I never had abalone before.  Is it good?”

“It’s really good.  Hard to find any more, though.  Not a lot of abalone left, I guess.”

She smiled.  “Huh.  Well if there ain’t a lot of them left, then I’ll have something else.  Maybe salmon.  I like that and there’s lots of them.”

Carnahan nodded.  “That’d be good.  They do salmon really well here.”

“Then that’s what I’ll get,” she said, smiling.  She set the menu down and took another sip of the champagne.

Carnahan decided he liked her.  He took a sip as well, and then asked, “So what were you flashing on?  What was the decision you made, where you wished things had turned out differently?”

She stared at him for a second, and then said, “It wasn’t that.  It’s just like you think maybe you’re going one direction, then it turns out it’s something else.”

His eyes narrowed, he asked, “Because of something you did?”

She shook her head.  “Not that I did.  Not really.  Stuff that other people did.”

Carnahan took the bottle of champagne from the bucket and refilled their glasses, and said, “If it was beyond your control, there’s not a lot you can do.”

Suzy took a long drink, and then shaking her head, said, “That’s not true.  Everything you do affects what happens to you.  That’s what they taught us.”

“Who taught you?”

“You know, in church, and Sunday School.  They said if you sin, God’ll punish you.”

“So you figure you sinned and God is punishing you?  What happened?” 

Suzy stared at him, a blank expression on her face.  Finally after several long moments, she shook her head.  “Look, I really don’t wanna talk about it.” 

Carnahan stared back, silent.

After another few moments, she frowned and then looked away and said, “All I’m gonna say is I guess I kinda walked into this thing, wanting to believe one thing, but at the end, I found out it was something entirely different.”

“You’re not the Lone Ranger.  People do that all the time.”

She laughed sourly.  “Yeah right.  But it seems like I make a habit of it.” 

“We all do.  It’s human nature.”

Eyes still downcast, she frowned, and then continued, “Not like me.  Before that, I went all these years with my mom, believing if I just hung on, it’d work out, and it didn’t.  And then afterwards, I still hung in there figuring if I worked hard, there’d be a reward somewhere down the line.  It’s all a bunch of crap.”

“What’s a bunch of crap?”

She looked up at Carnahan.  “God, Christianity.  The whole lot.”

“Why?”  He looked at her intently, now thoroughly enjoying himself.  Carnahan loved discussions like this.  Plus, in any event, he really wanted to find out what had happened to her.  When she didn’t respond, he repeated himself.  “Why?” he asked again.  “C’mon, you can tell me.”

Suzy frowned, staring at him intently.  Finally, she answered, “Because they were lying.  What they said doesn’t work.  God doesn’t reward you for not sinning.”  Cheeks flushed bright red, she looked away out at the water, and then took another sip of champagne.

Staring at her for a moment, Carnahan let out a deep breath, and then said, “Well, I’m not really a heavy Christian, but I’ll take a stab at this, anyway.”  He took a drink of his champagne, and then went on, “The basic idea is that if you keep on the straight and narrow, God’ll reward you.  You screw up, you’ll be punished.  Right?”

Still frowning, she nodded, looking gloomily into her wine glass.

The waiter appeared back before them, then asked, “So, have you folks decided what you want yet?”  He looked at Carnahan.

Carnahan nodded.  “The lady will have the King Salmon Filet, I’ll have the abalone steak.”

The waiter wrote the orders on his pad.  Then looking at Suzy, he asked, “What dressing would you like with your salad?”

“You have a house Italian?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”  The waiter nodded, still writing.  Then he looked at Carnahan.  “And you, sir?”

“Same.”

The waiter finished writing.  “Anything else?”

Carnahan shook his head.

“Alright.  I’ll be back with your salads in a few minutes.”  He left.

Suzy was still staring gloomily at her wine glass – which Carnahan noticed was almost empty.

“Would you like some more champagne?” he asked.

She nodded her head.  “Sure.”

As he was pouring the wine he studied her.  Her long, straight black hair was shining in the late evening sun.  Perfect complexion with a nice tan.  Lovely, elegant body.  Gorgeous legs, he recalled from when they were walking in.  She was probably the most beautiful woman he’d ever met.  Maybe not the best educated, from the way she talked, but what the hell?  She was nice – he was certain of that.  He didn’t get any bad vibes at all.  But her almond-shaped green eyes looked sad.  He felt a compulsion to help her. 

He put the bottle of champagne back in the bucket, and then took a sip.  Putting the glass down on the table, he said in a tentative tone, “Look, I have no idea where you’ve been or what you’ve done, but I’ve got the feeling that you’re a good person. I can sense that.”

She looked up at him over the rim of the wine glass.  “Thanks,” she said.

Carnahan went on, “What you’ve got to remember is that often stuff happens that there’s just no reason for – things that don’t appear to jibe with what we’re taught in Sunday School.  A baby’s killed in some horrible death.  Children starve.  Things like that happen every day of the week.  But were they sinners and was God punishing them?  No way.”  Carnahan took another sip of the champagne, and then continued, “I don’t know what’s happened to you, but I’m guessing it’s along the same lines.  You’re not a bad person.”  Pausing a second to glance out at the water, he turned back to her and said, “I drove cab for a lot of years, and one thing you learn as a cabbie is how to size people up in a hurry – either you learn or you don’t make any bucks.  Now I don’t get anything negative off you at all.”

She raised her eyebrows.  “You don’t?”

He shook his head.  “I don’t.  So if you’ve had bad luck, then it’s just one of those, ‘shit happens’ kind of things.  Not because you are a bad person.  I’m certain of it.”

Eyes downcast, she frowned.  “I wish you was right.”

He smiled at her.  “I am.  You want an answer beyond that, then maybe you should just figure God’s testing you.  That’s a big concept in Christianity, right?”

Looking thoughtful, she nodded.  “Yeah, I guess.”

“Then that’s it.  You figure the harder the tests, the bigger your prize at the end, if you pass.”

Almond-shaped eyes narrowed, she asked, “You really think so?”

He shrugged.  “It’s either that or the ‘shit happens’ type stuff.”  He continued, “I’m not really very religious, but I do like that explanation – I’d like to think that there is some reason for things happening.  Not a Christian thing really.  More of a ying yang sorta thing, you know, like the concept of karma – do good and good will come to you, do bad and bad will come to you.  Very simplistic, but that I have seen in action.”

She stared at him, a somber expression on her lovely face.  “So you think I’m being tested?” she asked.

He nodded, taking another drink of champagne.  “I’m sure of it.”

She chewed on her bottom lip for a moment thinking about what he’d said.  She looked up at him, and then asked, “So I make the right decisions, I’ll pass the test and be rewarded?  I make the wrong one, then I’ll be punished?”

“More or less.”

She looked at him intently.  “So how do I know which is the right decision?”

Carnahan sighed, then after hesitating for another moment, he said, “That’s the tough one.  Figuring out which path is correct.”  He shook his head, and then went on, “The only thing that’s ever worked for me is you gotta pick the hardest one.  The one that’s least attractive.  You look at the other options, you’ll see some short-term gains, things you want – they all look attractive.  They’re the expedient ones and they always look so, so good.  But they are almost always the wrong ones.  The right path is the one that’s so hard you’re sure it’s gonna break your back; the one you know there’s no way you can do, because it’s embarrassing, or hard financially, or there’s something else that makes it impossible.”  He looked over at Suzy. 

She was immobile, staring out at the water, a frown frozen on her lovely face.

She closed her eyes, and Carnahan thought it looked like she shivered.

“You okay?” he asked.

She shivered again – he was sure of it this time – and then she looked up at him.  “Thank you,” she said, wiping what looked like a tear from the corner of her eye.

“Huh?”  He asked, eyes narrowed.

She sat up straight in her chair and took a deep breath.  Letting it out, she said, “Look, I gotta go.”

Puzzled, Carnahan, stared at her for a moment, then said, “Oh, the rest rooms are back by the entrance.”

Frowning, she shook her head and then said quickly, “No!  I mean I gotta leave.  I just can’t go through with this shit.”  She picked up her small black purse, and after rummaging around in it, pulled out a large wad of bills.  “Here, it’s almost all there, except for like a couple hundred dollars.  Tell Mack I’ll get it to him.  Soon as I can.  I ain’t no rip-off.”  She held it out to him.

Uncomprehending, Carnahan stared at her, wide-eyed, in a state of shock.  He looked at her face, and then at the money, and then back at her face.

After a few moments, she dropped the money on the table, next to his wine glass.

“I gotta go.  Sorry.”

Finally, he was able to speak.  “Did I offend you?” he asked stiffly.

She rolled her eyes, and then stood up and grabbed her purse.  She fled quickly through the crowded restaurant, nearly colliding with a busboy who was cleaning up a nearby table.

When she was gone, Carnahan stared at the wad of bills sitting next to his wine glass. 

A few minutes later, he was thinking dark, ugly, painful thoughts as he drained the last drop of champagne from the glass. 

He stood up, and then turned the empty bottle upside-down in the bucket.  He picked up the wad of cash from the table and put it in his pocket, and then after thinking about it, he pulled out a twenty and left it on the table.

A grim frown on his face, he made his way out of the crowded restaurant.

 

XVII.  One rich sonofabitch

            Elmo Murkowski always had a nice haircut.  He prided himself on it, actually.

            He had his graying brown hair styled at least once a week, and that along with the regular manicures and facials and expensive colognes, all conspired to make him seem a little like a politician.  Or at least a rich person.  Which indeed he was.

In addition to BlackTop Cab, Elmo owned a number of apartment buildings on the Hilltop, which he rented out to anyone with a warm body and the first month’s rent.  Plus, he had an interest in a bar down in Spanaway, which catered to the redneck cowboy crowd.  And then there was the landscaping company he owned that employed illegal aliens – mostly Mexicans.  Plus it was rumored he had some money in topless dancers in Alaska.  Elmo was quite diversified, actually.

            He was on the long side of fifty and holding.  Well over six feet tall, he had played quarterback on his college team.  Sadly, in the past few years, he’d put on a fair bit of weight, to the point where his favorite attire – Dockers with a polo shirt – looked a little ridiculous with the heavy gut riding out over his belt. 

            Elmo never avoided a chance to make money, no matter who got screwed in the process.  The rules for leasers and drivers at BlackTop were always in a state of flux and kept changing – almost on a daily basis – to suit Elmo’s current needs.  And always, if you didn’t like it, there was the omnipresent threat that you could be parked if you spoke out.

            Elmo was always very careful to make it clear that the drivers and leasers were not employees of BlackTop – and that was one of his most significant bonuses.  By his decree, the drivers and leasers were “independent contractors” which allowed Elmo to escape paying payroll taxes or workers compensation or even minimum wage or overtime.  The beauty of it was that it still allowed him the same degree of control as if they were employees, because all he had to do was to refuse to lease a car to someone and they were finished.  Not fired – parked. 

It was perfect.

            The leases were always verbal – nothing was in writing, so if he felt like changing different terms, he could do so on a whim.

            He’d had an inspiration some time ago and instituted what he called a crash fund, which was supposed to pay the deductible if a driver was involved in an accident.  Initially, leasers were supposed to come up with five hundred dollars that Elmo would hold for them.  Then if one of their cars was involved in a crash and the driver was at fault, the crash fund would cover the deductible and the leaser would have to pay in another five hundred dollars.  Just a few months ago, he’d decided to up the amount to one thousand dollars per leaser.  At present, there were ten different people leasing cars and he required the deposit from each of them. 

            Elmo used the ten thousand dollars to invest in offshore oil drilling and made a killing.

            Bobby Woods had made a contribution to the crash fund.

            He’d been driving car thirty-three one night.  He’d just left the office and was turning left onto Puyallup Avenue when the steering locked up, and he crashed broadside into a new Cadillac driven by the wife of the Pastor of the Life Church, a big congregation over off South Puget Sound Street.

            It was a low-speed crash, but Bobby was pretty shaken up. 

            When the cops arrived, Bobby told them what happened, and they inspected the cab’s steering and confirmed that there had been a mechanical failure – and that Bobby was totally faultless.

            As such, Bobby was quite surprised when he was summoned to the office with one of those, “Elmo requires your presence, immediately,” commands from the dispatcher on the following day. 

At the office, Elmo put a paper in front of him and told him to sign it.  It was a statement where he claimed complete responsibility for causing the accident.

            According to Elmo, either Bobby could sign the paper and pay him the thousand dollars for the crash fund, or he could go drive for Army-Navy.

            Scared, angry and hurt, Bobby eventually signed the paper.  He’d been at BlackTop too long; he couldn’t see leaving.

 

 

XVIII.  Dirty, icky, nasty

            Elmo really hated to go down in the shop – it was so dirty and icky and greasy and smelled so bad.  But he wanted to talk to Evil Justin and dredge some information out of him – and he thought it would be better to do it on Justin’s turf.  He wanted Justin to feel at ease.  

One of the mechanics told him Justin was in the office doing paperwork.  Elmo found him seated at his desk with a stack of invoices in front of him.

Elmo stood in the doorway of the office, staring down at Evil Justin, a bland smile on his face.  “Hey, how’s it going, sport?” he asked.  He sniffed, and thought he could make out the faint traces of alcohol on Justin’s breath – even over the smell of his own cologne – which today, was Antaeus, by Chanel.   

            Evil Justin was at once on guard. 

            He knew something was up by the fact that Elmo had come into the shop.  He also figured that gave him an advantage.  He decided to use it.

            Looking up at Elmo, Justin shrugged his shoulders, and then said, “They’re just putting the fifth rebuilt transmission into thirty-eight.  The fifth transmission in two weeks.  All of the last four have been fucked-up and we had to pull them out almost as soon as they were installed.”

            Elmo looked thoughtful.  “How many transmissions have you done in the last month?”

            Justin shook his head.  “I dunno.  Maybe ten-fifteen.”

            “How many were bad?”

            “About half,” said Evil Justin, watching him closely.

            Elmo frowned and then shook his head.  “That’s way too high.  I’ll talk to Greg about it.”

            Evil Justin nodded.  “Good.  Because my guys are getting sick and tired of working on the same damned cars over and over.  The shop’s getting backed-up because of it.”

            “I’ll see to it.  Greg’ll just have to do better.”

            There was an awkward pause for a few moments, and then Elmo asked casually, “Hey, so what do you know about this party they gave for Ed Carnahan last Saturday night?”

            Justin shook his head.  “I dunno.  I heard a lot a people talking about it.  Shit, that’s all everyone’s talking about, really.  Something fucked up bigtime, but nobody seems to know exactly what happened.  Only thing that’s for sure is that Carnahan’s really upset, and everybody seems to figure it’s Mack and Medina’s fault, somehow.”

            “Have you seen Carnahan?”

            “Nope.  He’s been gone by the time I got here this week.”

The stench coming out of the mechanic’s bathroom was more intense than usual this morning, so Elmo decided to leave without further questions.  “If you hear anything, I wanna know, ASAP.” 

He turned and fled.

 

 

XIX.  Darkness descends

            Everyone figured it was Mack and Medina’s fault.  Everyone.  

            Even so, no one actually seemed to know what had happened, or why.

That night after they learned that Carnahan and Suzy had left the restaurant, Mack and Medina scrambled frantically to locate Carnahan and find out what had transpired – but all to no avail.  It wasn’t until Monday night when Carnahan showed up for work that they had finally been able to talk to him.  And that wasn’t very helpful.

            All that Carnahan would tell them was that he and Suzy had gotten into a fight and she had left.  He gave them the money he’d gotten from Suzy and then in a very chilly tone, asked them to please leave him the fuck alone. 

He was very obviously quite depressed.  And angry as well, although it was hard to tell at whom, because he really and truly wouldn’t talk about it.

            From that point on, it seemed Carnahan was just going through the motions at work.  He was morose, gloomy and withdrawn.  He snapped and shouted at people for no particular reason at odd moments.  For the first time ever in his career, he was hard to work with.

Mack and Medina had kept fairly close track of who had donated what money, so at least they were able to return the proper amounts to the proper people.  All told, they were nearly four hundred dollars short – which to their credit, they absorbed themselves.

But even though they got their money back, the people still blamed Mack and boys for the change in Carnahan.  No one really knew what had happened – just that something very bad had come down and that Carnahan was extremely unhappy.  The idea for the hooker was Mack and the boy’s, so it must be their fault.  QED.

In this manner, the drivers became outcasts and pariahs overnight, and a period of darkness descended onto BlackTop.  

For a while, it seemed like the bad luck was universal.

Whitey Jorgen broke his left ankle chasing a runner that he should have caught.  Steve LeMay had his guitar stolen out of the back seat of his cab while he was in Marilyn’s eating breakfast.  Dan Dinwiddie had three cars down in the shop for over a week when there were no loaners available, and Elmo refused to reduce his lease.  Robert Ransoon lost his Indiana Jones hat while he was on charter with a couple of obnoxious, drunken Russian sailors.  Three of Medina’s favorite hookers including Hazel were busted in a sting down near the train station.  Bobby Wood’s cable TV went out just at the start of his favorite race, the Indianapolis Five Hundred.  Dewey Mitchell received a notice from the IRS saying they were going to audit him – which he promptly lost and forgot about.  Darnell Jones got in a wreck with a school bus and had to fork over a thousand dollars to the crash fund.  Elmo’s ex-wife blew into town for a visit and hit him up for three year’s back alimony.  Ed Miller got a two hundred dollar speeding ticket on a really great run to Port Angeles. 

Everyone had a bad time.

 

 

XX.  Suzy is as Suzy does

            “Thank-you, Mr. Blair,” said Suzy politely.  “And will there be anything else?”

            “Can I get extra starch?”  He asked, staring at her chest.

            She checked a box on the tag, and then asked, “Okay, is that it?”

            Still staring at her chest, the man nodded his head.  “Yup, that’s all.” 

            “Okay, we’ll have this for you on Wednesday then,” said Suzy, smiling. 

            She put the tag she’d filled out on the pile of shirts, and then handed the receipt to the man.

            He smiled at her again, then turned and walked out the door.

            She pushed a vagrant strand of shiny black hair out of her green eyes, and then went back to sorting the piles of clothes behind the counter.

            After leaving Carnahan sitting at the restaurant on Saturday night, Suzy found herself walking aimlessly downtown, pondering her fate.  She was by Sauro’s Cleanerama on Pacific, wondering for about the ninety-ninth time what in the holy hell she was going to do, when she noticed a help-wanted sign in the window.  Suzy believed in fate.  She took the help-wanted sign as an omen and went inside just as they were closing, and got an application.

            Monday morning, she was back at the door at the door of Sauro’s at eight AM, application in hand.  The owner, an elderly Italian man with a toupee that looked like a drowned rat, hired her on the spot.

            That night, she paid her motel bill with the last of her cash, and then with her small suitcase in hand, she walked all the way back downtown and then up the steep hills and moved into the YWCA women’s shelter.

            The place was dirty and there were bugs, but it felt right.  And to her, that’s what was most important. 

She had taken Carnahan’s advice literally, and was starting her life over.  This time, she figured, she was going to do it right.  She might not be able to fix everything that had happened in her life, she thought, but she’d do as good job as she could.  From this point on, everything was going to be on the up and up.

            It hadn’t always been that way.

Raised in Visalia, California, Suzy had been sixteen when her alcoholic mother finally ran off and, this time, didn’t come back.  Her father had left years before, so she was on her own, without any money, or any way to get money.  She ate scraps from the refrigerator and continued to go to school, hoping her mother would return.

            After the landlord evicted her from the apartment, the state became involved and from then until she was eighteen, there was a swift succession of foster homes.  

The day after she turned eighteen, she walked out of her last foster home and never looked back.  She moved to Los Angeles and for the next several years, supported herself mainly by working in fast food restaurants.  At least until she met Henri. 

            Henri was an older, handsome, fast-talking, French-Canadian who styled himself as a film producer, and who lived a wild, extravagant lifestyle.  Suzy was awed by his good looks, his big house and his apparent knowledge of the movie business.  And plus, he really seemed concerned about her welfare, not like most men, who just wanted to get in her pants.

            It was no coincidence she had chosen to move to Los Angeles – she wanted to be an actress – and she realistically figured her looks might be the key to her success.  So when Henri whispered sweet nothings in her ear, and then told her he could get her in pictures, she bought the story hook, line and sinker.  She gave up her job at Bob’s Big Boy and moved into an apartment he rented for her.  He showered her with presents and for the first time in her life, she was actually happy.

            The bliss continued for several months.  Henri would come over several nights a week, and they would discuss her career, how she was going to make it big.  He enrolled her in an acting class that met twice a week and he even got her a speech coach to work on her grammar and pronunciation.  She was going to make it big.

            She had heard about the casting couch, so it wasn’t a total surprise when Henri suggested it might further her career to sleep with a man he introduced as a studio exec.  Nonetheless, she had a lot of problems with it – even just the aspect of being unfaithful to Henri. 

They had a messy, protracted fight that lasted a couple weeks, but finally, she gave in.  She steeled herself and did the dirty deed.  Henri had convinced her it was completely necessary.  She figured he was looking out for her best interests.  Afterwards, Henri told her she’d made a great impression, and just to wait.

            This whole scene repeated itself several times and might have gone on indefinitely except that she ran into another woman – who as it developed, had gotten the same assurances from Henri – as well as an apartment and all the rest – for the last year or so.

            Henri had always been a little unclear about exactly how he got the money to support the big house and his wild parties.  So after the two women compared notes about the men they had slept with and all the rest, even as naive as they were, it soon dawned on them both that he was pimping them out.

            The resulting confrontation between the two women and Henri was quite ugly.  It ended with Henri battered and bruised, gagged with a sponge and duct tape, and tied to a kitchen chair with the cord off the drapes.  The women searched the house and found his cash, and then blowing kisses, left.

            Suzy was distraught.  She felt violated, betrayed and worthless.  Nothing more than a dirty, no-good whore.  Cursing her stupidity for believing Henri, she holed up in a motel and contemplated suicide for a few days, and then calming down, she decided to use her share of the cash to leave LA.

When she arrived at the Greyhound Station, the first bus she saw had a “Seattle” sign on it, so believing this was yet another omen, she hurried inside and bought a ticket for Seattle, and then boarded the bus.

Arriving in Seattle two days later, Suzy hooked up with Ashley – who by chance of fate was at the bus station looking for a post-operative transgendered friend supposedly coming in from Tuscaloosa. 

Ashley’s friend never made it, but she and Suzy hit it off quickly. 

Ashley developed a motherly interest in Suzy and took her under her wing, and began the slow process of trying to educate her all about life in the Puget Sound area.  

For the next several days, the pair floated around from party to party, Suzy trying to deaden her feelings of despair in a bottle.  She didn’t really protest when Ashley offered her some crack cocaine.  With the advent of the cocaine, most of her money was gone within a couple more days.

When Suzy finally sobered up, she found she was getting desperate.

At Ashley’s incessant urging, she reluctantly decided that hooking was the best way she could earn some money.

The way she saw it, her life was ruined already.  She’d done the dirty deed – albeit unknowingly – a number of times for Henri.  She was a dirty no-good whore.  That being the case, what exactly was the difference if she did it now, for herself?

As a friendly gesture, Ashley offered to turn Suzy on to a few tricks – for a small percentage of the action.

And so with Ashley’s expert guidance, Suzy set out to ply the world’s oldest profession.

Unfortunately, luck was not with Suzy.  Every time Ashley set her up with a client, something happened to torpedo the deal.  Either her price was too high or the guy looked like a creep and Suzy couldn’t go through with it.  This happened almost a half-dozen times in just a few days.

Ashley was pissed-off, no end, teetering right on the verge of a hissy fit.

When Mack and Medina had found her, Suzy was very nearly out of money and right on the bitter edge of desperation. 

So the deal Mack and the boys offered looked awfully good – the way she figured it, if she could actually make eleven hundred dollars in one night, then maybe she could use the money to set herself up so she could look for a real job.  She figured she had to get out of her current situation – of that she was certain.  Because the further it went, the less it looked to her like she had any future at all as a hooker.  Aside from Ashley – who she did actually count as a friend – the people associated with prostitution and the lifestyle itself just weren’t for her.  None of it.

Plus, she’d seen how her money had quickly evaporated because of the partying.  The brush with cocaine had scared her badly – mainly because she’d liked it a whole lot – rather too much, she thought.  Quite correctly, she figured if she didn’t get out soon, she might never get out.

She saw Mack’s offer as her only real chance at going straight.  It compromised her morals to sleep with someone for money – even one more time – but the way she saw it, her morals, thanks to Henri, had already gone out the window.  So she reasoned, such as it was, one more time wouldn’t really matter.

And then the deal came down.

She’d been surprised when she met Carnahan.  After talking with him, she found she actually liked him.  She’d always been attracted to older men – like Henri – and she found Carnahan quite attractive.  He was smart and seemed very compassionate.  He seemed like someone she could really trust.  If it had been different circumstances, she thought…

She’d about lost it when she found herself talking to him about her problems – that was close to the last thing she wanted to do.

But it was so weird. 

At the end when Carnahan started talking about finding the right path, it was like she knew exactly what he was going to say before he even said it.  Or rather, it was like he was just confirming what she already knew she had to do.

So pushing her over the edge was really pretty easy. 

On one hand, she hated to leave Carnahan at the restaurant.  He was a nice guy, and had helped her.  Sleeping with him might have actually been fun, she thought.  And she really and truly could have used the money.  But like he said, that was the easy way.  And it was wrong.  And, she knew it.

So, she did the hard thing and left him sitting there.

She hated the fact that leaving him like that, had hurt Carnahan, but there was no way around that, as she saw it.

This time, she was going to do it right – if it killed her.

 

 

XXI.  Life sucks

“Next car,” said Carnahan, tonelessly.

“Car fourteen.”

“Fourteen.”

“Fourteen’s vacant Tenth and Pacific.”

“Top Downtown,” said Carnahan in a monotone.  He moved fourteen’s button to the vacant slot for the downtown zone, and then said, “Next car.”

“Car twinkie-eight.”

“Go ahead twenty-eight.”

“Two-eight’s vacant at the Tall One.”

“Two in the Town,” said Carnahan as he moved the button, placing it below fourteen’s.  “Next car.”

The radio hissed and sputtered, and he heard what sounded like a three.

“Car with a three,” he said, disinterested.

“Car forty-three,” came the response.

“Go ahead forty-three.”

“Four-three.  Uh, hey, I’m on South Hill, but I’m not finding that Roadside Tavern place.  Where is it?”

Carnahan exploded, “If you don’t know where the place is, look in a phone book, you idiot!  Don’t waste my time with stupid stuff like that.  Now, next car!” he said, angrily.

 

Ed Carnahan had tried to remain focused on his job, but it was a losing battle.  Since Suzy walked out on him that night, he’d been a wreck.  He’d been irritable and short with people, and generally very hard to get along with.  He stayed to himself as much as possible, avoiding any kind of meaningful conversation. 

Anyone who even tried to ask about what happened with Suzy was met with a curt, “None of your goddamned business!”

Every face he saw at BlackTop was laughing at him, he was sure.

Ed Carnahan, the man that was so bad at relationships, had been stood up by a hooker!  Of all things, this was the capper, as he saw it.  He couldn’t even sustain a one-night relationship with a goddamned hooker!  Now that’s bad!

He wanted just to crawl in bed and never come out.

In his more rational moments, he didn’t really blame Mack and the boys – they’d been trying to be helpful.  The person he really blamed was himself.  Over and over and over.

Breaking up with Lucy had been difficult, as he saw it.  But even so, it was something he would have dealt with over time.  The final fight that ended with her leaving had been anticipated, at least in his subconscious, if nothing else.  More than anything, when she finally did walk out the door, he felt relief, at least deep down inside, knowing that that chapter was finally finished and he could move on. 

The grieving he had since gone through had been more of a matter of routine, as he saw it now – he had grieved for the loss mainly because it was expected of him – that was just what you did under those circumstances.  In this, he mostly focused only on the good times they’d had, pushing into hazy obscurity, all the nastiness that formed the basis of the reasons why they had broken up.  Then his denial would flag and the hurt and pain would be renewed.  Back and forth, around and round.  His moods were like a revolving door.

That was alright.  He would have gotten over Lucy in time, no problem.

But adding the failure with Suzy presented a burden that he could not bear.

This failure had been totally unanticipated. 

Suzy was a bright, beautiful woman, who seemed like an honest-to-God a nice person.  Over the course of their encounter, he’d become very attracted to her.  They had seemed to get along awfully well. 

He’d known Suzy was a hooker, and what Mack and the boys had arranged, more or less – he wasn’t stupid or blind.  But he’d actually sensed some chemistry – something he hadn’t even expected.  So when he found himself getting to like her, it was quite a surprise.

But not half as much of a surprise as when she so abruptly left.  That was about the last thing he expected – she was a hooker after all, bought and paid for.

Since she’d left, he’d replayed their conversation over and over in his mind, and couldn’t even imagine anything he could have said to offend her.  This being the case, the only reason he could come up with was that it was simply him – and this left him in a deep, dark depression.

He figured there must be some very profound fundamental flaw within him that he must be blind to, and that that was what she had reacted to.

Seriously – who gets stood up by a hooker?  It just doesn’t happen.

And yet, it had happened to him.

But that wasn’t even half of it.

If this had been an indignity he had suffered by himself, alone, it would have been tolerable.  But it was not.

Everyone at BlackTop knew what had happened.  The whole mother-loving company, he figured.  He was under the microscope.  It was just so embarrassing.

And he felt like he was being flayed alive.

He longed for the comfort and the simple bliss of ignorance and denial.   But it just wouldn’t come.

And so the run of bad luck and ill feelings at BlackTop continued, on and on.

 

 

XXII.  Make my day

Microphone in hand, Bobby O’Dea flipped on the meter and pulled the heavy car out into traffic.  It was just after midnight on a busy Friday night, and he was having a very bad time.

Sensing a momentary lull in the radio chatter, he took advantage and keying the mic, said, “Car double-nickel.”

In a terse voice, Carnahan instantly responded, “Go ahead fifty-five.”

“Double-nickel’s going twentieth and Sprague,” said Bobby O’Dea into the mic.

“Going.  Next car.”  There was a squeal of noise from the speaker as several cars tried to call in at once.

Bobby turned the volume down, and hung up the mic, and then looking in the rear view mirror, he glanced at the faces of his fares in the back seat.

They were gangbangers.  His car was full of young gangbangers – who better yet, were playing with a gun. 

Bobby had a really bad feeling in the pit of his stomach – although when he thought about it, it was quite familiar.  It was a feeling he hadn’t experienced in years and years and years – not since he’d been in Saigon. 

Now those were the days!

Bobby O’Dea was a Viet Nam veteran.

He’d known right from the start that he’d really lucked-out when the Army had sent him to truck driving school, and everything that happened to him after that in Viet Nam, while he was “in country” proved his theory.

Bobby O’ had driven truck there, and he’d liked it.  Really and truly.  He’d pushed his deuce-and-a-half mostly back and forth between Saigon and Bien Hoa, ferrying supplies to the different bases.  He hadn’t really seen any action or had anything bad happen the whole time he was there.  He had a mild-mannered disposition and treated everyone with respect and dignity.  Most of the Vietnamese treated him the same.  The few that didn’t, he ignored.

The Army had issued him a rifle back when he arrived, and he took it with him on his trips religiously.  Unbeknownst to his sergeant or the captain, he’d quickly lost the ammo and so for over six months in one period, he’d carried it unloaded.  As far as he was concerned, it didn’t matter because he wasn’t really interested in shooting anyone.

            His best friend in Saigon was one Patrick Aloysius Murphy, a supply sergeant with Headquarters Company, and together, they made quite a killing.  Murphy had a really good connection for some local marijuana, and with Bobby’s help, they supplied about half of the soldiers in the district with high-quality Vietnamese Green. 

Bobby O’ never sampled his own wares.  He didn’t really approve of drugs – at least for himself.  Even so, he didn’t really care what other people did, either.  As such, he helped Murphy out figuring that if weed made people happy and helped make the war zone a nice place to live, then it was okay. 

It turned out to be a good business.  He and Murphy made quite a bit of extra money, and as a side benefit, he developed a network of friends all over central Viet Nam.  Bobby O’ knew in his heart that it was a good deal all the way around.

Bobby was full of regret when his thirteen months was up – altogether, Viet Nam had been quite a pleasant experience for him – but not so pleasant that he wanted to extend his tour.  He was a realist.  He’d had a lot of friends that weren’t so fortunate as he was, and he didn’t want to press his luck.

Bobby O’ got out of the army in 1970, and after traveling for a few months visiting friends and relatives, he decided to settle down and live in Tacoma.  He’d spent some time at Ft Lewis just after basic training, and had liked it there. 

He quickly found a job driving truck, and within a few more months, he married a local girl that he’d gone out with before he left for Viet Nam.  They were as happy as could be.

At least on the surface.  Under the surface, things were a little different. 

Bobby O’ found he really didn’t like being back home all that much.  The people here were often mean and disrespectful to him, and for that matter, to all Viet Nam veterans.  Once when on a whim, he’d gone to an anti-war rally up in Seattle at the UW with some other Viet Nam vets, a protester had called him a “baby killer.” 

He tried to explain about how he’d just driven truck there but no one would listen.  He finally gave up trying and left, driving back to Tacoma.

But by far, the single biggest factor contributing to his unrest was that driving truck back here in “the world” was pretty goddamned boring, compared to Viet Nam.  And then on top of it, the pay wasn’t all that great, either.

Bobby O’ had salted away most of the money from his business in Viet Nam, so after a year of driving truck, he quit the company, intending to go to a technical college to follow his childhood dream:  he wanted to become a boiler operator.

Two years later, with a Facilities Maintenance Engineer certificate fresh in hand, Bobby O’ hit the streets looking for a job.

But there weren’t any.  None at all.

As a temporary measure to hold him over, he took a job with Oliver Taxi, just for a couple months.

Nearly twenty years later, he was still driving cab.  He’d been with BlackTop for most of the last ten years.

The truth of the matter was that he liked driving cab.  It was a whole lot more fun than driving truck.  Probably even more fun than running a boiler.

And it was the people and their environment that made it that way. 

After working as a cabbie for only a few months, he’d finally figured it out.

The thing he’d really been missing since he left Viet Nam was that element of danger he’d found in his side business with Murphy – and of course the danger of just being in a war zone itself. 

What he found was that working as a cab driver, he was able to recapture that.  The Hilltop area in Tacoma was most definitely a war zone – just ask any cabbie, they’ll tell you.  And because Bobby worked the Hilltop, the majority of his customers were on the shady side of life: drug dealers, hookers, pimps, and thieves, and so on. 

Bobby O’ decided he liked it that way.  Overall, he thought, they were a lot more interesting than normal people.

Now his wife, of course, thought he was nuts.  But, she but tolerated it.  Exhibiting a true mercenary streak, she was more interested in the money than anything else.  Bobby usually made a fair bit of money, driving cab.  As long as he kept the money rolling in and didn’t keep a mistress – or at least wasn’t overt about it – his wife was just fine with the whole thing.

And this was a good thing.  Because Bobby absolutely loved driving cab.  He loved the intrigues; he loved the drama; the adrenaline; he loved every little bit of it.

Or at least almost all of it.

Gang members were not a big turn-on for Bobby.

Bobby figured older criminals were no big deal.  They reacted in fairly predictable patterns and were generally respectful and civilized when they weren’t actively practicing their crafts.  They had honor.  But now these little gangbangers like he had in the car presently – that was another story.

These current passengers were Bloods from the Eastside, all of them probably under sixteen.  He’d found that with kids this young, you really never knew what they would do.  They didn’t have enough sense to know their limits. Plus, they were always trying to impress each other with how macho they were.  And the word respect wasn’t even in their vocabulary.

That made them pretty damned scary in Bobby’s book.

He’d picked up the first two at an apartment house over by the city dump – The Overlook Apartments – an apt name for a complex that looked out over the dump.

From there they’d driven to a place over on south Thirty-fourth and Ainsworth, where they’d picked up two more kids.

They were driving him nuts.  They had a gun, and they were playing with it, spinning the chamber and dry firing it. 

Bobby focused on his driving, trying to ignore them, but it was difficult.

“…and when we bring this Bulldog to the ‘hood, everyone gonna listen,” said the leader, sitting directly behind Bobby.

“Yeah, they’s gonna shit, goddamned niggers,” said the one sitting in the front seat next to him, looking back.

“We’re gonna clean it all up, nigger,” said the first one again, as he dry fired the gun for what seemed like the ninety-ninth time.

Another one chimed in, “And we won’t take no shit, neither!”

“They won’t mess with the Bulldog!” said another.

The kid next to him, trying to look mean, said, “Hey Mr. Taxi, you ever get held up?”  The kid giggled and glanced back at his friends, who laughed, egging him on.

Bobby, eyes on the road, answered, “Yeah, I been held up twice, actually.  Why?”

“Oh, nothin’.  I just wondered what happened.  You lose a lot of money?”

The kids in the back seat laughed again, and clicked the gun’s trigger.

Ignoring them, Bobby shrugged.  “Nope, not really.”

“How come they didn’t get your money?  You broke?”  They all laughed again.

Stone faced, Bobby focused on the road and said, “They didn’t get any money because I killed ‘em, that’s what happened.”

This set the kid back a bit.  Eyebrows raised, he said, “You full of shit.”

Bobby O’ gave him a sidelong glance, then eyes back on the road, he went on, “No, it’s the truth.  I let him take my money, and then as he was leaving, I pulled out my piece and shot him in the head.”  Bobby signaled, and then turned left onto Nineteenth Street, going up the hill.  He continued, “It almost wasn’t worth it.  The cops came and they said it was justified, but shit, it must have taken a day and a half to fill out all goddamned the paperwork.  I lost more money sitting talking to the cops than what the guy tried to steal!” 

Wide-eyed, the kid said, “No shit?”

Bobby nodded.  “No shit.  Now the second time it happened, I got smart.  I just figured fuck all this paperwork and shit and I dumped the body down by the Mission and just drove away.”

“What’d the po-lice do?”  Asked one of the kids in the back seat.

Bobby shrugged again.  “What the fuck ya expect?  Nothing.  The guy was a junkie, so what the hell do they care if someone capped him off?”  Bobby felt good, screwing with the kids.  He figured he was getting back at them for having made his life miserable playing with their gun.

The leader sitting in back was unconvinced.  “I think your white ass is lying.  You ain’t capped nobody off.  You full of shit.”

Bobby turned the corner, left onto Alaska, and said, “You think I’m lying, then maybe you wanna give me a try, huh?  Feeling like you’re really lucky, today, huh?”

The kid sitting next to him turned to the one in back and said, “Hush up, now nigger!”

Bobby turned again, onto Seventeenth, and then a few seconds later, right onto Sprague Street.  “Which house is it?” he asked.

“The white picket fence,” answered the kid next to him.

There was a crowd of people milling around in front of the house.  More gangbangers, thought Bobby.  Drunk gangbangers having a party.  Oh, great!

As they pulled up, Bobby could feel the kids were nervous about something.  They eyed the people in front of the house, watching closely.

Bobby parked at the curb in-between two cars.  He stopped the meter.

“Okay, that’ll be Ten-fifty,” he said.

The kid next to him dug in his pocket, and then smirking, he said, “All I got is eight.  That’ll have to do, right taxi man?”

Bobby just glared at him, unwilling to get into it over two-fifty.

The kid threw the money on the seat and began to get out.

“Watch out!  It’s Levon!” screamed one of the kids from the back seat.

There was a loud bang and the passenger window exploded in a cascade of tiny glass chunks.

The kid in the front seat ducked down behind the door, half in the car, half in the gutter. 

More shots rang out.

The adrenaline racing through his system, Bobby ducked down, desperately trying to avoid getting shot. 

He wanted to leave in the worst way but he couldn’t.  The kid was lying half-in and half-out of the car, with the door open.  The way they were parked, if Bobby took off, the open door would hit the car next to them and probably kill the kid.

More shots rang out.  The back window starred and then sagging inward, and collapsed.  Bobby could hear impacts on the doors. 

He grabbed the mic from the holder on the dash and shouted into it, “Car double-nickel, shots fired at twentieth and Sprague.  Call the cops!”

The kids in the back seat screamed and the car shook.

Carnahan’s voice came back immediately, “You have an emergency five-five?”

Huddling on the floor of the cab, Bobby O’ keyed the mic and said hurriedly, “Yeah, they’re fucking shooting at us!  Call the cops.  Twentieth and Sprague.”

There were another series of shots, and the screaming from the kids in the back seat continued.

Carnahan responded immediately, “All cars, we’ll have radio silence.  Car five-five has declared an emergency and so we’ll have radio silence until it’s over.”  Microphone still open, Carnahan paused, and then said, “The cops are on the way, Bobby.  Hold tight!”

There was another loud explosion and the car shook.

Bobby made his mind up quickly.

Sitting up, he lunged over and grabbed the kid next to him by the scruff of the neck and roughly hauled him back into the car.

There was a fusillade of shots, and one struck the dashboard in front of him.

Bobby ducked down again, after making sure the kid’s legs were inside the car, and then dumped the gearshift into drive and floored it.  He steered left, hoping he would miss the car in front of him.

He didn’t, but they only struck the car a glancing blow.

After the impact, Bobby took a chance and sat up enough so he could see to steer.

Ten seconds later, he turned the corner and was fish-tailing back out onto Nineteenth.

Two minutes following that, he was at the emergency room entrance of St Joe’s Hospital.

They carried the kid from the front seat off in a gurney – he’d been shot in the leg.  The others, including Bobby, were okay.

The car wasn’t so lucky.  They counted twenty-one bullet holes and three windows blown out.  The cops impounded the cab as evidence.

 Following a tip from Bobby, the cops searched the other kids and came up with some drugs as well as the gun they’d been carrying.  They were whisked off to jail.

That made Bobby’s day.

Smiling, Bobby waved at them as the patrol car receded into the distance.

The cops made him out as a hero, saying he probably saved the kid’s life by pulling him back in the car.

Bobby was absolutely glowing.  He hadn’t felt so good in years and years and years.

God he loved this job!

 

 

XXIII.  I don’t believe my eyes

            Almost a month had passed since Carnahan’s aborted date. 

Medina was driving down Pacific near the bus station when he thought he saw someone flagging him down.  He quickly pulled over to the curb and in a brief moment, the passenger door opened.

            “You!” he said, eyes wide in disbelief.

            It was Suzy.

            She was dressed in faded jeans and a light-blue calf-length lab coat.  Her black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and a few stray wisps had escaped, in disarray.  There was a dark smudge of dirt on her forehead, and she looked beat.

            She sat down beside him and closed the door.

            “Hey, I’m glad I found you,” she said, opening the small black purse she carried.  “I been looking for you and Mack for the last couple three days.”

            Medina shook his head, looking at her, still unable to believe she was in his cab.

Ignoring him, she dug in her purse and came out with a handful of bills, which she offered to him.

            “Here,” she said.  “This is all I can come up with right now, but I should be able to come up with the rest in a week or two.”

            Completely incredulous, Medina said simply, “What the holy hell is this?”

            Suzy’s face hardened.  “I ain’t no rip-off.  Here.  Take it.”

            Medina’s self-preservation instincts took over and he accepted the money and stuck it in his shirt pocket.  He shook his head, and then asked,  “So like what on earth happened?  Did Ed do something?  Why did you split?”

            She frowned and looked away, out the window.  “It wasn’t nothing he did,” she said quietly.

            “So?  So why did you leave?”

            She shook her head.  “I just had to.”

            “Do you have any idea what you did to Carnahan?  It’s been like almost a month and he still won’t talk to any of us, now – or to anyone else, damn near.  It’s like he’s always gloomy, and really out of it.  Snapping at people all the time.  Acting like a real asshole, mostly.  And he was never like that before.”  Medina shifted in his seat. 

On the radio, Rosie began giving out the eight-thirty time calls. 

Medina wasn’t even close to top in the zone, so he turned the volume down.  He went on, “Everyone blames me and Mack and the boys for what’s happened to Carnahan because we set the thing up.  They’re all pissed off to the max.  Nobody’ll even talk to us anymore, hardly.  That being the case, I figure you owe me some kinda explanation.”

            She bit her lower lip, looking anxious.  “I really hurt him?”

            Medina nodded.  “Sure as hell looks that way.”

            She shook her head.  “God, I’m sorry.  I never meant that to happen.” 

            “It did.  He’s like really screwed-up behind this.”

            He continued to stare at her.

            “Well?” he asked.

            She shrugged.  “It really wasn’t his fault.  It was mine.”

            “How so?”

            She stared at Medina for several moments, mouth partly open.  Then she took a deep breath, and letting it out, said in a small voice, “I’m not actually a hooker.  I just couldn’t go through with it.”

            Medina’s eyes narrowed.  “You’re not a hooker?” he said sharply.  “Like if you’re not a hooker, then why the hell did you agree to do it?  You agreed to date him.”

            She looked uncomfortable, squirming in her seat.  After a moment, she answered, “I really needed the bucks.  I thought I could do it.  It was the easy way.”

            Medina gave a short laugh, and then angrily asked, “Well why the hell didn’t you follow through, then?”

            “I was gonna – really – but then we were talking.  He made me realize I shouldn’t.  It was the wrong way for me to go.  I needed money, the right way for me to get it was the hardest way – and that’s what I’m doing,” she added, a look of pride now on her beautiful face.

            “What in the holy hell are you talking about?” asked Medina, looking puzzled.

            “Hooking was the easy way out – the wrong way.  I’m doing it the right way now – I got me a job at Sauro’s Cleanerama.  It don’t pay diddley squat, but it’s honest money.  It feels so damn good.”

            “Carnahan told you to get a job at Sauro’s?” Medina asked, confused.

            She shook her head.  “Naw.  We were talking about how to figure out the right path when you gotta make a decision.  He just said, look at all the options and then take the hardest one.  That’s what I did.  And he was dead-on right.”

            Medina narrowed his eyes.  “So you’re not mad at him?”

            She smiled.  “Mad?  You gotta be kidding!  Mister, I owe him big!  He straightened me out.  God knows what I would done if I hadn’t met him!”

            This was all a little much for Medina.  He was dumbfounded.  It wasn’t even close to the scenario he’d figured.

            She went on, “Look, I’m really sorry what happened to Ed.  And to you and to Mack.”

            Medina stared at the dash, absorbing what she had said.

            She continued, “Like I said, there’s nothing I can do about what’s happened, but I’ll make sure to get the rest of the money back to you.”

            “Huh.”  He was silent for a few moments, and then asked,  “So where are you staying?”

            She frowned.  “At the YWCA women’s shelter.”

            “That sucks.”

            She nodded, smiling.  “Bigtime.  But it’s temporary.  I’ll have you paid off and enough to get a place of my own within the next couple weeks.  I’m saving every penny.”

            “Would you be willing to talk to Ed?  Tell him what you told me?”

            She looked uncomfortable again.

            “It might help him deal with what happened,” said Medina, continuing.

            Her eyes widened.  She looked like the thought scared her.  “I dunno…”

            Medina pressed on.  “If you’re really sorry about all the trouble you caused Ed, you’ll do it.”

            A pained look on her face, she stared at Medina, then after a moment, she looked away and said slowly, “Okay, but not right now.  I gotta get back on my feet, first.”  She frowned, and then went on, “I really am sorry for what happened, Marty.  I really screwed everything up good.”

            “So like when can you talk to him?” asked Medina, wondering if there was any way he and Mack could get Carnahan to actually talk to her.

            She shook her head.  “Soon.  Like I said, after I get back on my feet.  Gimme a couple weeks or so at least.”

            “How will I contact you?”

            She shrugged.  “I told you.  I’m working at Sauro’s.  I get off when it closes at eight.  Monday through Saturday.  You wanna talk to me, that’s where I’ll be.”

            “Six days a week?”

            She nodded.  “I need the bucks.  That’s the way to get ‘em.”

            Medina looked at her closely.  She looked very defiant, her chin jutting out, a hard and purposeful set to her face. But at the same time, she seemed fragile, like it wouldn’t take too much to push her over the edge.

            After a moment, Medina nodded.  “Okay, we’ll play it your way.”  He was silent for another moment, and then asked, “Can I give you a ride somewhere?”

            She shook her head.  “I told you, I’m saving every penny.  I ain’t got money for cab fare.”

            He shrugged.  “It’s okay.  Like this one’s on the house.  Where can I take you?”

            She looked at him, eyes narrowed, and then said, “Well, I was gonna go back to the shelter…”

            “You want a ride?”

            She smiled.  “For free?  Sure!  I gotta say I wasn’t looking forward to all those hills.  It’s been an awful long day.”

            Medina nodded.  “Cool.  Let’s boogie.”

            He took a quick look out the back window, then put the heavy car in gear and moved off into traffic.

 

 

 

XXIV.  You know it’s really slow when…

One slow winter’s night, Dan Dinwiddie was sitting in his taxi at the Amtrak cab stand.  There were traces of dirty snow lying here and there on the ground in the parking lot.  It was less than a couple weeks before Christmas and very cold outside.  Unlike typical Tacoma weather – where the snow usually lasts less than a day – this snow had been there since the week before because it had never really warmed up yet.

            There wasn’t any business anywhere and Dan was extremely bored.  He’d been sitting with the engine running for almost an hour, trying to stay warm.  He’d read the paper twice, already.  He’d actually almost memorized the want ads.    

Dan was getting ready to call it a night when suddenly Ralph Mack came whipping in, parking behind him in the taxi stand. 

Ralph’s heater wasn’t working very well and he was chilled to the bone.  As soon as his cab came to a stop, he put it in park and turned off the ignition, and then he got out and quickly jumped into Dan’s car.  He was hoping to warm up and talk for a bit. 

            Just as Ralph was hopping in, Dan had a crazy impulse – an inspiration, actually – on how to relieve his boredom.

The moment the door slammed shut, Dan popped the meter on and dropped the car in gear.

            “Hey!  What are you doing?” asked Ralph, wide eyed.

            Deliberately ignoring him, Dan stepped on the gas, and started towards the exit of the parking lot.  “And where would you like to go, sir?”  He asked courteously.  He turned right onto Puyallup Avenue, and headed towards Pacific.

            “Hey man, my car’s back there and the goddamn key’s in it!” said Ralph, looking out the back window of the cab at the Amtrak station, disappearing into the distance.

            “And why would you leave your keys in the car, sir?”  Asked Dan, glancing sidelong at Ralph. 

            Mouth hanging open, Ralph was wide eyed, staring at him.  “You popped your noodle, didn’t you?” he finally asked.  “You crazy sonofabitch!”

Still ignoring him, Dan turned right onto Pacific and went all the way down, over to Eleventh Street.  Dan stayed in character, and continued to pretend that Ralph was a normal fare – and it was driving Ralph crazy.

 “Why the hell are you doing this?” Asked Ralph, wide eyed.

Gazing straight ahead at the road, Dan calmly answered, “It’s my job, sir.  I’m doing it for money.”

Ralph looked over at the meter, as it continued to turn, going click, click, click.

            “Hey, what the hell you think this is?” said Ralph, pointing at the meter as they turned the corner on Pacific.  “I’m not paying that, you crazy sonofabitch!”

            “Then you’re going to go to jail sir, if you don’t pay,” said Dan, heading out East Eleventh Street. 

            “This ain’t very funny, Dan.”

            “Sir, I’m a cabbie, not a comedian.”

            And so it went.

            They went all the way past the Shipwreck Tavern, all the way around the Tideflats until maybe a half hour later, they finally came back to Amtrak.

            Dan hadn’t even gotten the car stopped at Amtrak when Ralph jumped out.

            He never did get his money.

 

 

XXV.  I don’t believe my ears

            “She’s working at Sauro’s?” asked Mack, incredulous at the thought.

            Medina nodded.  “That’s a fact.”

            “And she gave you the bucks?”

            Medina was getting tired of repeating himself.  “You have them in your hand…”

            “Somebody pinch me.”

            Medina went on to tell Mack the rest of the story.

            They were sitting in one of the back booths at Phil’s.  They’d come in for Morning Tea after the end of their shifts and Medina had cornered Mack immediately to tell him of their good fortune at finding Suzy.

            And it really was good fortune:  the money Suzy gave them couldn’t have come at a better time – they were both nearly broke.

            As well as being ostracized and shunned by the other drivers and BlackTop employees generally, they had both suffered financially as well.

            For example, the day dispatcher, a sadistic bastard named Tony Trujillo, had decided to punish them, and since the days following the aborted date, he would now only dispatch them to grocery runs on the Hilltop.

            Hilltop grocery runs were about as bad as it gets – everyone hated them and avoided them like the plague if they could.  This was the type of run where you’d get to the store and find the people would still be in line, checking out.  Fifteen minutes later after they finally paid for their food, invariably, it’d take them another ten minutes to completely load every nook and cranny of the car with the groceries and a few screaming kids.  Then you’d drive a whole half a mile to their squalid, house.  Then – probably twenty-five minutes into the trip – it’d take them another ten minutes to unload the groceries, and then finally at the end, they’d count out the three dollar and ten cent fare in pennies.

            Mack tried to avoid the runs by changing zones and other ruses like calling in phony trips to Puyallup and Lakewood.  But as he found out, it didn’t work.  Because no matter where in the county he was, the only thing Tony would give him were Hilltop grocery runs.  He could vacate twenty miles away at Ft Lewis, and he’d still hear Tony tell him, “Vacant?  Good, then pickup Safeway, Eleventh and M Street, for Louise.”

            Eventually, both he and Medina gave up and started calling in-service only after Tony had left each day.

            Rosie Glen, the evening dispatcher, treated them better – but still, the calls she gave them didn’t seem as good quality as they had before.

            Really, the only one who treated them the same as before – at least in terms of trips – was Carnahan himself – and he still wouldn’t talk to them.  Or anyone else, for that matter.

 

When Medina had finally wound down and Mack had wrung as much information out of him as possible, Mack downed the rest of his shot of Old Tennessee.

Wiping his mouth on the cuff of his sleeve, he said, “Well, don’t that beat all.  Who the fuck woulda figured she wasn’t a hooker?”

Medina nodded his head.  “If we could only get him to talk to her, maybe we could end all this?”

“No shit.  If I get one more grocery run, or one more cheap drunk, I’m gonna scream.”  Mack signaled the bartender for another drink, and went on, “You know Rosie gave me Mr. Ugly again last night?  That’s three times this week!  Fuck, I can’t stand this.”

Mr. Ugly was one of the driver’s least favorite fares. 

An elderly, kidney dialysis patient, he would spend all day drinking at his favorite North Tacoma bar, getting roaring drunk, then roll into dialysis and get sobered up.  According to Mr. Ugly, his body was already shot, and dialysis did sober him up, so what the hell? 

Drunk or sober, he was always nasty and abusive towards the drivers.

He lived just around the corner from the bar – the fare to the bar was the minimum fare of three dollars and ten cents.  It usually took him five minutes or more to get in and out of the car with his walker, screaming all the while “What’re you looking at, asshole!” and so on.  And then he’d pay exact change.  If he was feeling good, he’d tip the driver ten cents.   Three dollars and twenty cents for a fare that took twenty minutes to a half hour.

Medina nodded, thinking about his own most recent Mr. Ugly trip and then said, “Yeah, I had him last week myself.  One cheap, nasty, evil sonofabitch.”

Mack nodded.  “Rosie usually don’t do that to me.  I gotta think it was ‘cause a Carnahan.” 

The bartender placed a new shot of Old Tennessee in front of Mack, and Mack handed him some money.

Continuing, Mack said, “You’re right.  We gotta get them together and get this shit sorted out.”

Eyebrows raised, Medina asked, “Right.  But how?”

Mack shook his head.  “Dunno.  I guess we need to go talk to her.”

“She said it’d be a couple weeks or so before she’d do it,” said Medina.  He took a sip from his beer, and then went on, “What about we try and talk to Carnahan, ourselves?”

Mack frowned, shaking his head.  “I dunno.  I guess we can try it.  But I don’t know how far we’re gonna get.”

 

 

XXVI.  The bare truth

Medina waved at Carnahan again.  He and Mack were standing outside on the deck in front of the dispatch office.  It was three-thirty in the morning, and dead as anything.

Carnahan ignored them for several minutes, looking away, ostensibly engrossed in the book he was reading.  Finally after it became clear they weren’t going away, he put the book down and went out to meet them.

The door of the driver’s lounge opened and Carnahan came out, lighting a cigarette as the door swung closed.  He flicked the match off towards the wash rack, and then stared at them, letting out a long plume of smoke.

Mack and Medina were standing awkwardly by the railing.

Medina cleared his throat, and then Mack said, “Ed, like we’re sorry as hell about what happened.”

Carnahan frowned and shook his head, saying, “I told you I didn’t want to discuss that.” He started to turn back towards the door.  

“Eddie, we found her,” said Medina quickly.

Carnahan stopped in his tracks.

“And she’s not a hooker,” said Mack.

“Not a hooker?” asked Carnahan tentatively.  He turned back towards them.  “She’s not a hooker?”

Medina shook his head.  “Naw, she was just someone who was down on her luck, who was trying to make a fast buck.  She found me last night and we got to talking.”  He went on to relate the full story, leaving nothing out.

Carnahan sat down in one of the deck chairs and listened closely, absorbed in the story.  When Medina finished, Carnahan simply sat there shaking his head.

“That’s why she left?” he asked.

Medina nodded.  “Because going through with it woulda been the wrong thing to do.  The wrong ‘path’, she said.”

“No shit?” asked Carnahan.

Medina nodded again.  “No shit.”

“She wasn’t mad at me?” he asked.

“Mad at you?  Just the opposite.  She told me she figured you helped her a helluva lot.  She said she was in your debt.”

Seizing the opportunity, Mack added, “And she wants to see you again, to explain.”  Which was sort of close to the truth, he thought.

Eyes wide, Carnahan said, “She does?  She wants to see me?”

Mack nodded quickly.  “You betcha.”

Carnahan frowned.  “It wouldn’t do any good.  There’d be no purpose in meeting her again.”

Medina broke in, “It might or might not do any good.  Never know if you don’t try it.”  He paused for a moment, then went on, “It’s gonna be a couple weeks before she’s ready.  Like I said, she wants to get back on her feet before she sees you.  That gives you a while to think about it.”

Eyes downcast, Carnahan said, “I really don’t see the purpose, here.”  He sighed, and then continued, “But thanks for trying, guys.”

Mack frowned, then said quickly, “Look, you been such a fucking wreck for the last month, somebody’s gotta do something.  We got you in this mess, it’s our job to get you out.”

Eyes narrowed, Carnahan asked, “Has it been that obvious?”

Medina laughed. 

Mack went on, “Only if you’re not from Venus or something.  Yeah, I think everybody noticed that you been down in the dumps.”

Medina nodded.  “Just try it, Ed.  All you gotta do is talk to her.  Clear up all this mess.  Then maybe we can all get everything back to normal.”

Carnahan shrugged.  “We’ll see.”  He gave a cautious smile.  “But like I said, thanks for trying.”

 

 

XXVII.  Capitalism’s finest hour

Lyman Clark was a capitalist.

            He’d been a night driver at BlackTop for about five years, and in that time, had amassed what everyone acknowledged to be the premier collection of strange and interesting items that had been taken from people in lieu of cab fare.

            He had several TV sets (two color, one black and white).  Boom-box radios up the kazoo.  A couple cell phones.  Leather jackets.  Concert tickets.  A passport and several drivers’ licenses.  Groceries.  Cigarettes.  Cosmetics.  French perfume.  Car stereos.  Pawn tickets.  Booze.  Cameras.  Watches.  But these were things that most all the cab drivers traded for at one time or another.

            Lyman had a great number of more exotic items as well.

            There was the walker that he’d taken from one elderly lady who’d been unable to find her money.  Another elderly gentleman forfeited his false teeth until he could pay up.  There was the hypodermic syringe and insulin he took from a diabetic.  A bottle of antibiotics that he got from a lady with pneumonia.  A purebred terrier with six puppies.  A giant economy-size box of rubbers from a hooker.  Crutches.  And even once, he took a man’s wife (though only for several hours).

            As was the custom, he generally waited a few days for the people to redeem whatever it was he got from them, but then if they didn’t produce the cash in time, he would offer his wares to the other drivers and to the public at large.  He was often found out in the parking lot with the trunk of his car open, showing off his latest acquisitions.           

            And then for a time, he had also operated a traveling after-hours bar.

            Wisely recognizing the demand for booze after the bars closed each night, Lyman stocked his trunk with a number of bottles of liquor.  Then every time he’d pick up someone after bar closing, he’d offer them their favorite libation – at $20 a drink.  He justified the high price by correctly pointing out the fact that he had, as he said, a corner on the market and if they didn’t like it, they could find someone else that would sell them a drink after two AM.

            Business was quite brisk until a drunk Canadian tourist ruined it all one night by whining and complaining to the company about being gouged.  The drunk couldn’t remember the car number so they never were able to actually identify Lyman.  Still, it scared him pretty good, so he decided to lay low for a while and his traveling bar became history.

            Capitalistic bent aside, Lyman was never one of the top moneymakers at BlackTop.  He could frequently be found sitting at the Greyhound Depot, parked out back, bullshitting with other drivers.  More often than not, when he got a call, he’d continue talking for fifteen or even twenty minutes before he left – and then he’d wonder why the fares weren’t there when he finally got to the address.

                        And then usually when the calls got really hectic around bar closing, he’d take off and call out-of-service to eat breakfast.                                                                                              

None of this particularly endeared him to the dispatchers.

            For his part, he just figured the dispatchers didn’t like him because he was too smart – too good a businessman to be at BlackTop.

            All of which was well and fine.  But his latest exploit had landed him in real trouble.

            He’d been on his way to the north end with a couple of teenagers coming back from a night out on the town, when Ed Carnahan had called on the radio, telling him he wanted him at his window, to talk to him in person, right now.  Lyman dumped the teenagers off and then made his way back to the office.

            He walked up the stairs to the deck and waved at Carnahan through the window of the dispatch office.  Carnahan acknowledged him with a curt nod of his head, but it was fifteen minutes before he could break free to come out on the deck and talk.  Lyman was all butterflies by the time Carnahan finally came out.

            Visibly annoyed, Carnahan sat down beside him on one of the deck chairs, and then lit a cigarette. 

            As Carnahan blew out the match, Lyman asked him in a casual tone, “Cindy complained, huh?”  His stomach was doing flip-flops as he waited for the answer.

            Carnahan nodded, smoke trailing from his nostrils.  “Yeah.  What exactly did you expect?”

            Trying to sound indignant but not really pulling it off, Lyman said, “Well she couldn’t pay me.  What was I supposed to do?”

            Blowing out a long plume of smoke, Carnahan shook his head, and then said, “Look.  Obviously you’ve gotta be paid.  I mean Cindy’s a regular.  Sure, sometimes she gets short of cash, but she always pays up, eventually.  We’ve been doing business with her for a helluva long time, Lyman.  She’s a good customer.”

            Lyman pushed his case. “She was drunk as shit.  Really sloppy.  And she was acting like a real asshole.”

            Carnahan nodded.  “Yeah, I know how she gets.  Murphy took the call tonight.  He told me she was pretty soused.”

            Lyman nodded, feeling more relaxed now that it sounded like Carnahan was finally taking his side. 

            Carnahan took another big drag off his cigarette and then went on, “But Lyman, that still doesn’t excuse what you did.”

            Confused at the reversal, Lyman narrowed his eyes and said, “Whadayamean?  She’ll get it back when I get paid.”

            Carnahan shook his head.  “I really don’t give a shit what she did or said, but you do not take a paraplegic’s wheel chair and then leave them laying out on the goddamn sidewalk, at two-thirty in the morning – and in the rain, much less!”  Looking embarrassed, Lyman frowned and looked away.  Carnahan waited a few moments for the words to penetrate, then continued, “It took her a half hour – a half a fucking hour – to drag herself up to the door of the building, and she probably never would have gotten inside except that one of her neighbors found her and helped her in.” 

            Lyman seemed to shrink into the chair.

            Carnahan pushed on.  “It took me almost twenty minutes of really fast talking before she calmed down and stopped shouting.  And then I still had to talk her neighbor outa calling the cops.  Do you even realize exactly what you did?  She coulda died of exposure or something!  You could have ended up charged with murder, for god’s sake.”

            Lyman continued to melt into his chair.  “Sorry,” he said meekly.

            Carnahan looked closely at him, taking a big drag off his cigarette.  Then exhaling, he went on, “If we’re lucky, neither of them will say another word about this.  But I’ll tell you right now, that if Elmo ends up hearing about this, I can guarantee you’ll be down the road in an instant.  Do you understand?” 

            Looking scared, Lyman nodded quickly, and muttered, “Yes.”

            The sound of the radio squawking with people trying to call in was audible through the open window and Carnahan was distracted momentarily.  Then he turned back to Lyman, and said curtly, “Look... I did the best job I could to smooth this over.  Like I said, if we’re lucky, this’ll be the last anyone hears of it.  But now you’ve got to do your part.”

            “My part?” Lyman said weakly.

            Carnahan nodded.  “Your part.   I want you over at Cindy’s ASAP.  Give her back the wheel chair, and it better be bright and shiny and looking better than new.  And if you know what’s good, you better kiss her ass like you never kissed ass before in your entire life.  She’s got your balls in a trash compactor, and her hand’s on the switch.”           

            “But... but...what about the money she owes me?” asked Lyman, looking perplexed.

            Carnahan shook his head, looking quite angry.  He spoke quickly, “Nope.  That’s the exact wrong question.  The correct question is ‘how do you feel about being owned by her?’  Lock, stock and barrel.  Lyman, if she goes to the cops, you’ll end up in jail.  I’m certain of it.  No other possible outcome.  At the very least, it’s reckless endangerment.  At the worst, it’s attempted murder.  And then if she gets an attorney and files a civil suit against you, she’ll get thousands and thousands of bucks in damages.  Thousands.  And given that, it’s pretty much a certainty your career as a cab driver would be over.  Why even Army-Navy wouldn’t hire you then – after you get out of jail.  So I think you better write-off the cab fare and get your ass over there and start kissing up.  Or else.”

            Almost choking, Lyman sputtered, “Or else?”

            Frowning, Carnahan said flatly, “Look.  You have this resolved in the next one hour, and I hear back from Cindy that you’ve been a good boy and everything is righteous, or I’ll make a full report to Elmo this morning and your career as a cab driver is ended.  Period.  Do you understand?”

            Lyman nodded, looking grim.

            Carnahan flicked his cigarette butt in a long arc out over towards the wash rack, and then standing up, said, “Good.  Get over there right away.  You might wanna take her a bottle of booze if you’ve still got your stash.  Do anything and everything to make her one happy camper.”

            Looking scared, Lyman nodded agreement.

            “Good.  Don’t disappoint me.  I’m going way out on a limb for you on this.”

            Without saying a thing, Lyman clambered to his feet and quickly left.

Carnahan watched as Lyman climbed into his cab.  Then shaking his head, he opened the door to the driver’s lounge and went back inside.

 

 

XXVIII.  Preacher Dave and Crazy Leroy

“Now it’s time to turn to your brother, and give them a big, big hug…”

Mack turned the volume of the radio down, eying a couple of almost-good-looking hookers standing at the street corner, wondering they’d do if he tried to give them a hug. 

Dave McDonald, one of the phone people, was pinch-hitting for Rosie who was probably outside goofing off.  If it wasn’t real busy, McDonald almost always took the time to do his preacher act when he subbed for her.  Or if not that, then he’d do his AM radio DJ persona.  McDonald was a real ham, and tonight, he was really getting into it.

On the radio, McDonald continued in his best tent-revival, preacher voice, “Are you hugging them?  Are you hugging them?  Praise the Lord, then!  Praise the Lord! “  He paused for a second, then went on quickly, “Yes, my brothers, all we’ve gotta do is just try and get along and love one another.  And if we can do that one thing – that one small thing – then the world, as our sister Dionne Warwick would say, will be a better place.”  McDonald took a deep breath, foot still on the mic pedal, and then said, “Alright now my brothers and sisters, with the spirit of love in our hearts, who is the next car?”

Mack keyed the mic.  “Car sick-o.”

“Yes, my brother, car sixty?”

Mack shook his head, trying not to laugh.  He keyed the mic.  “Sick-o’s vacant, Nineteenth and K.”

“Very good, my brother.  Now is the spirit moving inside you?   Do you feel it?  Do you feel it?” he said, almost shouting at the end.

McDonald was such a goddamned ham, thought Mack.  “Oh, yeah right, for real,” he said into the mic, bored and hungry, hoping he wasn’t top in the zone so he’d have a chance to get a bite to eat.

McDonald continued, “Well since the spirit is inside you my brother, then why don’t you get the WA Grocery, Nineteenth and Prospect, for Leroy.”

Mack was at once alert and said crisply, “Sick-o copy.” 

“Thank you my brother, now, who’s next?”

Mack dropped the car in gear and quickly turned and accelerated up Nineteenth Street.  He knew who Leroy was.  All the drivers did.

Leroy was a Viet Nam veteran who had an eighteen hundred dollar a month disability check.  He was also nuts as hell  – a schizophrenic – who liked to ride in cabs.

Several times a month or more, Leroy would go for long, aimless rides all over the county.  Sometimes he’d stop at a restaurant and have the driver sit outside while he ate, and then sometimes they’d just drive without stopping.  Each time, the fare would always be at least forty or fifty dollars, without fail. 

Mack had driven him several times.  The guy was pretty creepy – he talked to himself constantly, and supposedly had all these “voices” that told him where to go.  He was one strange cookie, for real.

But, for that kind of money, Mack figured creepy was just fine.

Mack pulled into the grocery’s parking lot, and saw Leroy standing next to the pay phone.  Long hair and a shaggy, unkempt beard, and an old army jacket and jeans.  The guy looked like a derelict, but he had bucks.  Mack stopped next to him. 

Leroy got in the back seat.

Mack turned the meter on before the door closed. 

“So where can I take ya? He asked.  The guy had really crazy looking eyes, thought Mack.

Crazy eyes narrowed, Leroy was silent for a moment, and then said, “They’re telling me I need to go to Lakewood.”

Mack nodded, smiling to himself.  This was going to be a very good trip, he was sure of it.  “Oookay… Now, do they say where in Lakewood?” he asked.

Leroy was lost in thought, a look of concentration on his face.    Then he looked up.  “No, they just say Lakewood.”

Mack smiled broadly, his suspicions confirmed.  “Oke doke.  How about we just go down the freeway towards Lakewood, then maybe when we get there, they’ll have the actual destination?”

A worried expression on his face, the man held his hand over his forehead and was silent for a moment, and then looked up and said, “They say that’s okay.”  He then stared blankly into space, and started talking to himself, in a low, almost inaudible mumble. 

The little Mack could hear sounded like nonsense.

Ignoring him, Mack picked up the mic.  “Car sick-o.”

On the radio, McDonald responded immediately, “Yes my brother, car sixty?”

“Sick-o’s got a charter – probably a round trip.  I’ll be out for a while.”

“You see?  God does love you!   Now let’s all just love one another, my brothers!  And who’s the next car?”

 

They’d been driving aimlessly through Lakewood for almost an hour.  The fare was fifty dollars and climbing.  Leroy mostly kept to himself, mumbling softly, except when telling Mack where the voices told him to go.  Mack was pretty well getting used to him.

He wasn’t used to his car.  He’d gotten car sixty back from the shop only just that day – Evil Justin had held it hostage for almost two months.  Compared to car thirty-one, sixty was a brand new Cadillac.  Mack couldn’t quite get over what it felt like to drive something that was not a smelly, noisy, wreck.

He’d had the volume on the radio down and hadn’t really been paying attention, but he thought he’d heard Rosie calling him.  He picked up the mic.

“Car sick-o?”

Rosie’s sexy, sweet-young-thing voice came back, “Car sixty!  There you are!  Goodness gracious, you know how I get when you guys don’t call-in for a long time.  So how are we doing?”

Mack keyed the mic.  “Just fine.  I don’t have a clue how much longer.  I’ll most likely vacate back where I started.”

“That’s fine, dear,” said Rosie.  “I also wanted you to know you have a personal, downtown.”

Mack narrowed his eyes.  “A personal?  Who?”

“She didn’t give her name.  The address is near the fast puppy.”  The fast puppy was the driver’s shorthand for the Greyhound Depot.  Rosie continued, “Shall I put that on your hook?”

It was Suzy.  It had to be, thought Mack.

He keyed the mic again.  “I know who you mean.  Yeah, go ahead and put it on my hook.  I’ll do that after I vacate.  It’ll probably be a local.  I’ll call going when I pickup if it’s gonna take more than a couple minutes.”

“Thank you, dear.  And you remember to check-in, too.  I get so worried!”  She paused for a second, and then went on, “Alright now, I’m holding six bells in the town, three in the Tideflats, four bells on the Eastside, who’s calling?”

Mack turned the radio back down and then made a violent u-turn in the middle of Bridgeport Way, and headed back for the freeway.

Leroy woke up from his trance with a start.  “Hey!  Where are we going?  This isn’t the way!”

Mack glanced back at him, over his shoulder and then after a second, said,  “They’re telling me we have to go downtown.”

Mouth hanging open, wide-eyed, Leroy said, “No!  That isn’t what they said!  They want me to go the other way!”

Mack frowned, and said, “Well dipshit, you’ve got your voices and I’ve got mine.  Mine say we’re going downtown.  We’ve got a lady to pick up, and if we don’t, they say we’re in deep shit.”  He put his hand to his ear and went on, “What was that?  What are you saying?  You what?  Oh, no!”   He glanced back at Leroy again, and said, “Leroy!  We’re really up shit creek, now!  They planted a miniature Claymore inside you while you were sleeping and they’ll explode your head if we don’t go downtown!  A fuckin’ A Claymore!  Goddamn tricky sonofabitches!  Poor Leroy!  I won’t let your head explode, man!”  Then Mack continued in a soft monotone, “Downtown… downtown… downtown… downtown…” Over and over and over.

Leroy looked scared and put his hands over his ears, slowly rocking backwards and forwards in the seat.

Fifteen minutes later as they pulled up in front of Sauro’s Cleanerama, Suzy walked out from the doorway where she’d been waiting.  She opened the front door and got in.

“Hi, how ya doing?” said Mack as she got in.

“Hey, Mack,” she said.  Then she saw Leroy in the back seat, and asked, “You got a fare?”

Mack nodded, and then to Leroy said, “This is the lady they’re telling me we gotta pick up.  You understand?  They’re telling me it’s life and death.  It’s a secret mission from the commander himself.  We don’t pick her up, you head’s gonna explode right now!  And we don’t want that, do we?”

Looking worried, Leroy shook his head, and was silent.

Mack looked back at Suzy.  A serious expression on his face, he said, “Thank you, ma’am, for letting us pick you up so Leroy’s head don’t explode.”  Suzy grinned, and he paused for a second, and then went on, “I just got sixty back today and I’d sure as hell hate to mess up the upholstery on the first night.”

“No, we sure wouldn’t want that,” said Suzy.  “Are you gonna be okay, Leroy?”  She smiled at him. 

He gave what looked like might have been a fleeting smile, but didn’t answer. 

Suzy shrugged, and then opening her small purse, she pulled out a wad of bills.  Holding them out towards Mack, she said, “Here’s the last.  Now we’re square.”

Mack accepted the money and put it in his shirt pocket.  “Thanks,” he said.  “So, you gonna be able to get together with Carnahan now?” he asked, eyebrows raised.

A smile on her pretty face, she shook her head.  “God, will you and Marty never stop?”

Eyebrows still raised, Mack said, “Stop?  Us?”

Frowning, Suzy said, “Look, I told you guys I’d do it and I will.  I like him.  He’s a nice guy.  I owe him for setting me straight.  And I’m real sorry about what happened.  But I don’t need any more build-ups or guilt trips!”

“Guilt trips?”

Her face softened.  “All the stuff you and Marty been telling me about him for the last month sounds just great.  And I really do owe him.  But lighten up, already.  Quit pushing so hard!”

Mack shrugged.  “He was really fucked up behind this – we just wanna see him get over it.  And talking with you may just do that.  It’s been over a month since you told Marty you’d do it.”

She frowned again.  “Yeah, I know.”

“Well?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, what?”

She paused for a moment, staring at Mack, then said, “I can do it.”

“When?”

“Whenever.”

“Tomorrow night?”

She drew a deep breath, and then looking down at the floor of the cab, she said softly, “Okay, I guess so.”  Chewing her bottom lip, she looked up, and then went on, “I finally got a room at the Winthrop.  Any chance you can help me move my stuff down there?”

Mack put his hand on his forehead, and then wide-eyed, looked back at Leroy.  “Ohmigod!  Leroy!  They’re saying we have to help her move, now.  You hear them?  You do hear them, don’t ya Leroy?”

Leroy looked blankly back at Mack.

Smiling, Mack turned to Suzy.  “I and Leroy would be most pleased to help you move, ma’am.”

Mack was waiting at the door of the YWCA women’s shelter when Suzy returned, pulling a cart loaded with her possessions.  Men  all men, even cab drivers, weren’t allowed inside.

“Is this it?  Mack asked.  There were a couple garbage bags of clothing, a small suitcase, and an old portable TV.

She nodded.  “One of the ladies here gave me the TV.  It works and everything.”

“Okay.  It should all fit into the trunk.”

They picked up the stuff and placed it in the trunk.  Mack slammed the trunk lid and they got back in the car.

Leroy was very agitated, talking quite loudly now.  “Fire!  Fire!  Yes I can.  The angels aren’t apples today if the Christmas is red! No you won’t!  Alright Lieutenant, let’s go.  Dive, dive, dive!”

Suzy looked alarmed, but Mack held up his hand.  Looking back at Leroy, he said, “Leroy.”  Leroy ignored him, staring off into space, continuing to speak gibberish.  Louder, Mack said, “Hey Leroy!”

Mouth gaping open, Leroy looked over at him, silent for a moment.  “Huh?”

Mack put the car in gear and turned right down Fourth Street, and said, “Put a cork in it, huh?”  Eyes wide, Leroy stared at him.  Mack went on, “Okay, my voices are telling me we gotta help this lady get her stuff upstairs to her new apartment.  You cool with that?  How’s the head?  It ain’t close to exploding yet, is it?  I told you I was gonna take care of ya, didn’t I?”

Mack looked back at Suzy.  In a lower voice, he said, “So maybe you and Ed can go to dinner tomorrow night?”

Suzy looked away and shrugged.  “I dunno.  Whatever.”

“I was just thinking you might kinda pickup where you left off.”  Mack paused for a second, and then went on quickly, “I mean just the dinner, nothing else.  I wasn’t trying to say nothing.”

Her eyes narrowed.  “You better not be thinking I’m gonna do anything…”

“Not even close.”

Suzy finished in a curt tone, “Because I ain’t no dirty whore.”

Mack nodded his head.  “Course.  I’m just saying like you guys can start over, like you just met off the street.  Two regular people.  Nothing more, nothing less.”

Her expression softened.  “Okay.” 

Mack was silent for a moment.  From the back seat, Leroy droned on, mumbling incoherently.

“So how’s it working out at Sauro’s?” asked Mack, after a few more moments.

She shrugged. “Oh, good I guess.  Awful long day.  But I like it.  The customers are mostly nice.  The money ain’t great, but the guy that runs the place is real easy to get along with.”  She was silent for a moment, staring out the window of the cab, and then went on, “I am doing it the right way.  I feel like I got control of my life back.  And that feels damned good.”

Mack stopped in front of the Winthrop. 

Built back in the twenties, the Winthrop had long been one of the premier hotels in Tacoma, a gathering place for the elite.  The Knights of Pythias had their friendship galas there; the Plywood Association had their conventions there; the Aquinas Academy held their dances in the opulent Crystal Ballroom; giggling debutants made their first forays into the society pages – For years and years, the Winthrop was a place of elegance and grandeur. 

Then in the sixties with the advent of the Tacoma Mall, the downtown had all but died and the hotel fell into disfavor and disrepair.  In those years, it was more common to see bums than debutants standing in the entrance. 

Through a fitful decade as the hotel struggled with solvency and slowly sank into oblivion, it was finally rescued from the wrecker’s ball and turned into low income housing, mostly for old people. 

Now shabby and seedy, the glorious days of the past grandeur had faded into obscurity.

It wasn’t a great place, but it was alright.

Mack put the car in park and turned off the ignition.  Looking back at Leroy, who was still mumbling quietly to himself, Mack said, “Hey, Leroy!  Leroy!”

Leroy looked up.

“C’mon, get out.  My voices are telling me you can help us carry the stuff up to her apartment.”  Leroy sat stock still, looking a little angry, so Mack continued, “C’mon!  You want ‘em to explode that Claymore?  C’mon an’ help us!  Quick!”

Mack and Suzy got out, and Leroy reluctantly followed.

The trunk open, Mack gave Leroy the TV set.  “Now don’t drop it,” he said.

He took the garbage bags of clothes and Suzy took the suitcase.  Together they walked in through the lobby, and stopping in front of the elevators, Suzy punched the call button.

Moments later, creaking and groaning, the old elevator deposited them on the sixth floor.

“It’s this way,” said Suzy.

They followed her down the dingy hall.  The place smelled like boiled cabbage and moldy old people.  Mack wrinkled his nose.

Suzy opened the door, and they stepped inside.  A small studio apartment.  There was a couch that was probably a hide-a-bed, and a small kitchen table with two chairs.  On the right was a small kitchen.  It looked neat and clean.

To Leroy, she said, “You can put the TV over there.  Thanks for carrying it up.”  She pointed towards the kitchen table. 

She set down her suitcase and took the bags from Mack.

Leroy set the TV down gently, and stood placidly, eyes roaming over Suzy’s gorgeous face and body.  He may have been nuts, but apparently he wasn’t so nuts as to be unable to appreciate Suzy’s good looks.

She smiled at him, and then looking back at Mack, said, “I gotta thank you guys for helping me out.”  She looked back in Leroy’s direction again.

Leroy looked away, his cheeks red beneath the bushy beard. 

Mack said, “Ain’t nothing.”  He paused for a second, and then went on, “So what time is good for you tomorrow night?  I can give you a ride to the restaurant if you like.”

She frowned, looking away.  “You really are a pushy sonofabitch, aren’t you?”

Mack smiled broadly.  “Who me?”

The frown softening, she said, “Whatever.  I get off at eight.  It’d be nice to come home and take a shower before I go out.  How’s nine o’clock?”

“What say, I pick you up at work at eight, then bring you back here and wait for you.  That way you could probably be ready by eight-thirty?”

She tried to hide her smile, but couldn’t.  “Okay.  That’ll work.”

“Cool.  We’ll see ya then.” 

 

Back at the WA Grocery, Mack stopped the meter and put the car in park. 

They were sitting in the grocery’s parking lot.  Leroy had been pretty quiet for the rest of the ride since they dropped Suzy off.  He’d been acting almost like a normal person.

Mack turned the interior light on, then said, “Okay Leroy, my good man, that’ll be eighty-seven fifty.”

Leroy stared blankly for a moment, and then said, “The voices are telling me to pay you.”

Mack nodded.  “Yup.  And mine are telling me you oughta give me a twenty dollar tip.”

Leroy’s eyes narrowed.  “No, they’re saying I should pay the exact amount.”

Mack shrugged.  “Aw, what the hell.  You sure they’re not saying to tip me?”

Leroy looked puzzled.  “Not at all.”  He pulled a roll of bills out of his pocket and counted out eighty-seven dollars.  Then from his pants pocket, he pulled out two quarters.  “Here,” he said, handing it all to Mack. 

“Cheap fuckin’ voices,” Mack muttered under his breath.

Leroy opened the door and got out, slamming the door behind him.

Smiling, Mack picked up the mic, waiting for a break in the busy radio traffic to call-in vacant.

 

 

XXIX.  The Second Chance

“Are you sure this looks okay?” asked Carnahan nervously.

Medina straightened the lapels of Carnahan’s corduroy jacket and brushed an imaginary piece of lint from his shoulder.  “You’ll like knock ‘em dead, man.”

They were standing in front of the Happy Dragon, a small Chinese restaurant in the North End.  Medina had met Carnahan at the restaurant, and they were waiting for Mack to deliver Suzy.

Carnahan was wearing the corduroy jacket and khaki-colored Dockers with a blue dress shirt.  He looked very neat and couth. 

Carnahan looked at his watch.  “Shouldn’t they be here by now?” he asked.

Medina nodded.  “Yeah, pretty close.  Like I heard him call going about five minutes ago.”

“You’re sure I look alright?”

Medina shook his head.  “Man, you look just fine.  Now will you relax, for Christ’s sake?”

Car sixty pulled into the lot and parked in a space by the sidewalk. 

Suzy and Mack got out, and walked towards them.

Suzy was wearing brown slacks and a light-blue blouse.  She looked very pretty, in a subdued sort of way. 

She and Mack stopped in front of Carnahan and Medina.

Feeling awkward, Mack cleared his throat, and then said, “Okay folks, let’s try this again, huh?  Ed, I’d like you to meet Suzy.  Suzy, this is Ed.”

Staring into her slanted, almond-shaped, green eyes, Carnahan said, “Pleased to meet you, I’m sure.”

“Same here,” said Suzy, returning his gaze.

As Carnahan and Suzy stood staring at each other, Mack cleared his throat again, and said, “Okay, then this is where we bow out, guys.  Time for me and Marty to split.”  To Suzy, he continued, “Ed’ll give ya a ride home.  Okay?”

Coming out of his trance, Carnahan nodded quickly.  “Sure,” he said, still staring at her, awed by her beauty.

Suzy nodded in agreement.  “Yeah, okay, I guess.”

“Okay.  Later then,” said Mack. 

He and Medina turned, and left for their cars.

Alone together, Carnahan and Suzy were silent as they watched the pair leave.

Carnahan broke the spell.  “Shall we go inside?” he asked.

She shrugged.  “Sure, it’s getting kinda chilly out here, anyways.”

They turned and walked towards the entrance, and Carnahan opened the door of the restaurant for her.  It was a small place, only about ten booths.

The building had started its life in the early sixties as an English fish and chips place – H. Salt, Esquire.  H. Salt weathered a few bad years and as the craze for English-style fish and chips waned, the place finally folded.  A number of other fast-food restaurants came and went over the years, but nothing lasted very long.  Then in the mid-nineties, the Happy Dragon people took it over. 

Unlike the others, they were determined to break the place’s fast-food mold and make it a real restaurant, serving good Chinese food.  And in this, they succeeded. 

They were helped out early on by a favorable review from the hired belly of the local newspaper.  The customers came in droves after that, and so over the next few years, the Happy Dragon flourished where the others had foundered.  Their delicate, delicious sauces were some of the best in town.

The hostess, a tiny Chinese woman, met them at the door.  “Two?” she asked. 

The place was only about half-full.  Tasteful, classical music came from speakers in the ceiling.  There was a large aquarium with some koi in the middle of the entry foyer.

“Yeah, two for dinner,” said Carnahan.  Suzy’s shoulder brushed against his.

“This way, please,” said the hostess.

They followed her around the corner to a small booth, and sat down. 

The booth had blue, plastic seats – a holdover from the fish and chip days.  The table had a linen tablecloth with Chinese Zodiac place mats, with a sheet of glass over the top.  The wall to the left of the booth held Chinese figurines.  Paper lanterns hung from the ceiling.

The hostess placed menus before them, and then left.

Carnahan and Suzy stared at each other for a few moments, and then awkwardly, Carnahan, said, “So, uh…  Mack and Marty told me what happened.”

A flush rising on her face, Suzy said, “God, I’m so sorry.  I never wanted to hurt you.  But I had to leave.”

He nodded.  “That’s what they said.”

Cheeks still flushed, she asked, “They told you everything?”

“About you not being a …”

She cut him off.  “Yeah.  Exactly.  I just couldn’t.  It’s nothing against you or anything like that.”

He stared into her almond-shaped, green eyes.  She’d put on some makeup, he saw, and she looked even more beautiful than the last time.  Truly awe-inspiring. 

“And so that’s what you were talking about?” he asked.  “That night...”

She nodded her head.  “Yeah, exactly.  The easy way would have been to go through with it.  But it was the wrong way, so I couldn’t do it.”  She paused for a second, dabbing at the corner of her eye with the napkin. 

Carnahan stared at her, waiting.

When she saw Carnahan wasn’t going to say anything, she went on, “When we were talking, it’s like you really put it all into focus for me.  The whole thing.  I don’t think I never woulda figured it all out for me, by myself.  I woulda just kept going the way I was, diggin’ myself deeper and deeper.  But you set me straight.”

“I did?” he asked quietly.

She nodded.  “You did.  And now I’m doing it the right way.”

“The hard way?”

 She smiled.  “You said it!  Yeah, it’s hard as hell.  But it feels so damned good.  I really got you to thank for that.” 

Carnahan smiled.  “Well, at least I did something good, then.”

She smiled widely.  “Damn straight, you did.  Thank you!”

“You’re very welcome.”

He stared at her, now basking in a warm glow.  In all his wildest fantasies, he’d never imagined it turning out like this.

The waitress, a young Chinese girl pushing a small stainless-steel cart came to the table and pulled him back to earth.  “Hi, you leady order?” she asked in heavily accented English.

“Can you give us a few minutes?” asked Carnahan.

“Shu.  You like tea?”

“That’d be great.”

The waitress turned over the teacups and filled them, then left the teapot on the table.  She left, pushing the cart in front of her.

Carnahan picked up the menu, then asked, “They’ve got some good combination dinners here.  Would you like to do one of them?”

Suzy smiled.  “Sure.”  She picked up her menu and studied the choices.  “How about Family Dinner B?  You like Mongolian Beef?” she asked, after a few moments.

Carnahan nodded.  “That’s it, then.”  He picked up his teacup, and took a small sip.

Suzy took a small sip from hers, and then eyes downcast, she said, “I truly am sorry for what happened.  Mack and Marty told me you got really upset.  That’s about the last thing I ever wanted.  I really wanna apologize for that.”  She looked up at him, across the table.

It was his turn to blush, now.  Uneasy and embarrassed, he shrugged it off and said nonchalantly, “It’s cool.  I got over it.  And as it turns out, it was for a good cause – so that makes me really happy.”

She smiled.  “It does?”

He nodded.  “It does.  If you can help someone out, then that’s a good thing.”

She beamed.  “Thank you.”

Pushing her cart, the waitress returned.  “You leady odder now?”

Thankful for the interruption, Carnahan nodded.  “Yeah, we’d like two Family Dinner B’s,” he said.

The waitress wrote down the order.  “You like dlink with?” she asked.

He looked over at Suzy.  She shook her head.  Carnahan said, “No, we’re fine with just the tea.”

The waitress nodded and left.

Carnahan and Suzy both took drinks of their tea.

After a few moments, he asked cautiously, “Marty told me you had a rough childhood?”

She took another sip of tea, then answered, “It wasn’t no bed a roses.”  She picked up the teapot and refilled her cup and then Carnahan’s. As she was doing so, she went on, “My parents divorced when I was about three.  I ain’t never seen my old man, since.  My mom was an alcoholic.  She ran off when I was sixteen.  I got put in foster homes.”

Carnahan felt a rush of sympathy for her and he frowned.  “That sounds terrible.”

She shrugged, taking another sip of her tea.  “It wasn’t so bad.  The last couple foster homes they had me in were really religious, really strict.  The people were a pain in the ass, but they did help me.  I wasn’t real crazy about it at the time, though.”

His interest was truly piqued and he wanted to draw as much as possible out of her.  “You went and lived in LA?” he asked, eyebrows raised.

She nodded, cheeks red again, looking at the floor.  “Yeah.  I was gonna be a movie star.  God, I was so stupid!”

She was so naive, so pure, he thought, as a wave of emotion broke over him.  Ignoring it, he shrugged.  “That’s a problem everyone has,” he said, hoping to minimize her pain.

She laughed bitterly.  “Not like me.” 

“Just like you.”

Shaking her head, she took another sip, and then went on, “No, not even like me.  Nope.  For me, everything went okay for a couple three years, and then I met this guy.  He told me a lot of things.  He had this big fancy house, lots of dough.  Connections up the butt.  He was gonna make me a star.” 

“Yeah?”  Carnahan was hanging on her words, waiting for her to continue.

Her faced reddened again, and after a short pause, eyes cast down at the floor, she went on, “He talked me into sleeping with some men.  Told me they were big studio execs and that if I wanted an acting job, this was the only way to get it.  God I was so fucking stupid!”  She hid her face behind her hands.

Carnahan was bitterly stung by her pain, and he wanted nothing more than to comfort her.  “You’re not the first woman to have that happen,” he said ineffectually.  “It’s so common it’s a cliché.”

“He was a goddamned pimp!” she exclaimed in a hoarse whisper, still hiding her face.

Another wave of emotion swept over him.  It felt almost like… like… er, like … well, love… Carnahan disregarded the thought instantly, unwilling to admit his feelings. 

Suzy continued to shake her head, hands over her eyes.  It looked like she was close to tears.

Carnahan took a deep breath.  Letting it out, he said gently, “Look, it’s like I said, you’re not the first woman to have that happen.” He wanted to put her at ease, and so he went on, “You always wanna believe the best in others.  I’m the same way.  We all are.  I’m sure this guy was very convincing.”

She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, and then composing her face, folded her hands in front of her on the table.  She said simply, “I’d been living there three years.  I wasn’t fresh off the goddamned turnip truck.  I shoulda known better.”

Carnahan felt another wave of emotion break over him.  He was in severe denial about which particular emotion it was, and he was starting to have some difficulty concentrating because of it.  Fighting back those uncomfortable thoughts, he stared at her for a few moments as he regained control, and then he said, “Look.  What’s important is that you’re here now, and you’re doing the right things?  Correct?”  He was pleased that this sounded so rational and logical.

She stared at him for a few seconds, and then looked away.  “Right.”  She nodded her head, slowly, like she might even believe it.  She took a sip of her tea.

They were silent for a few moments.  Carnahan took a sip of his tea, looking outwardly calm, as his battle with denial raged on. 

Sipping her own tea, Suzy gazed down at the place mats.  They had the signs of the Chinese Zodiac on them, along with a little blurb about each sign.

“So what sign are you?” asked Carnahan, as she read the chart.  He was hoping to steer the conversation into some more innocuous subject.

She focused on the place mat.  Eyebrows furrowed, she said, “According to this, I’m a rat.  It says, ‘You are noted for charm and attractiveness for the opposite sex. You work hard to reach goals and get possessions. You're thrifty, honest, and want things just so. You get angry easily, but manage to look calm. You should marry a Dragon or a Monkey.’”  She looked up at Carnahan, and then asked, “So what year were you born in?”

“Nineteen fifty-two,” he said.  He was very interested in how she’d react when she found out he was a dragon.  She was so much younger, he thought.  And so lovely… so vulnerable… so pure…  so…

Eyebrows furrowed again, she asked, “Fifty-two?  Here’s yours.”  Her eyes widened in alarm and she looked up.  “You’re a dragon.”  She looked back at the place mat and was silent for another second, reading to herself, and then she went on, “Okay.  ‘You have good health plus lots of pep and energy. You get excited easily and may get angry easily, too. But people trust you because you're honest, brave and softhearted. You're nobody's fool though, and you never borrow money or make speeches. You should marry a Rat or a Snake.”  She slowly looked up, across at Carnahan, her eyes wide with disbelief.

They stared at each other across the table, unable to speak. 

Now, there was a different sort of look in her eyes, he thought as they stared at each other.  It was like… almost like…

Pushing her cart, the waitress arrived with their food and began setting steaming dishes on the table. 

Carnahan was so glad for the interruption, he almost wanted to shout with joy.  The thoughts he’d been experiencing were extremely uncomfortable. 

The waitress placed large dishes of Mongolian beef, spring rolls, sweet and sour chicken, fried won tons, barbeque pork, and pork fried rice in front of them.

“Could I get chopsticks?” asked Carnahan as she set he last dish on the table.  He’d calmed down some, and was thinking more clearly now.

She handed a pair to Carnahan, and then looking at Suzy, asked, “You like chopstick?”

Smiling warmly, Suzy nodded.  “Sure.  I’ll try anything, once.”

The waitress handed Suzy a set of chopsticks, and then left.

In control of himself again for almost the first time since they’d sat down, Carnahan began serving the food.  In a minute, both had their plates loaded, heaped with the delicious, steaming food.

Carnahan picked up his chopsticks, and showed Suzy.  “Here, like this.  You hold the first one between your thumb and forefinger, with it resting on the tip of your middle finger.  The second one, you hold kinda like a pencil.”  He demonstrated for her.

She studied him, and tried it herself.  “Like this?”

He nodded.  “You got it.  The first one stays still; it’s the second one you move.”

Wide eyed, she nodded, and tried to pick up a piece of broccoli.  It worked.  “Hey,” she said, smiling, and then ate the broccoli.

He felt another wave of that nameless emotion wash over him, and safe within his wall of denial, he decided to go with the flow.  Whatever it was…

They ate in silence for the next few minutes.

Carnahan struggled with his thoughts as they ate, waffling back and forth, still unwilling to admit anything more than a simple attraction to her.  But steadily, persistently, the errant thoughts continued to chip away at the wall.

In just a few minutes, he had pretty well cleaned off his plate.  Suzy had almost eaten everything on hers, too, he saw.

He reached for the Mongolian beef.  “Would you like some more?” he asked.

She smiled widely.  “God, it’s good!  But I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to get everything I have, already.”

“Maybe some more barbeque pork?”

“God, I wish I could!”  She put her chopsticks down, and with her hand daintily over her mouth, she stifled a burp.  “That was wonderful!  But there’s no way I can eat another bite.”

Carnahan was positively glowing with good feelings.  The food had been great, like Suzy said.  And the absolute capper:  here he was, sitting with the most beautiful woman he’d ever met – who was his perfect match, according to the stars, he thought.  What could be better?

She’d been looking at him awfully funny, he reflected, ever since she’d read the zodiac.

But then of course he’d saved her from a life of sin, too, he thought soberly.  He’d done that!  Ed Carnahan to the rescue!  What a deal. 

Maybe this was the way it happened?  Really!  And they all lived happily ever after?  Right?  Right?   Could it be? 

His mind was spinning out of control.

The obvious conclusion finally fought its way to the surface, crashing through his shield of denial.   The wall tumbled, crashing down.

He was in love!

She smiled warmly at him, leaning back in her seat. 

Defense mechanisms take many forms, and work in many strange, often subtle ways.  At an early age, you learn that fire is hot and will burn you, and so you subconsciously avoid touching flames.  You don’t even have to think about it – the defense mechanism works on a subconscious level.

Now Carnahan had been burnt many, many times – in relationships.  So it was not exceptionally surprising that his mind and body had adapted and evolved some rather elaborate defenses against possible re-injury.

As soon as he caved in to the fact that he was falling in love with Suzy, strong, dark forces went quickly to work deep inside him – all without his conscious knowledge.  The forces struggled to assume control, to protect him from the perceived danger.  It was a hard, decisive battle.  But self-preservation is a very strong instinct – perhaps the strongest instinct of all – and it quickly won.

Carnahan smiled back at Suzy, outwardly feeling very mellow, oblivious of the war that

had just been lost.  Setting down his own chopsticks, he pushed his plate away and asked, “So what was it like living in Hollywood?  That must have been really fun, hanging out with all the movie types and stuff.”  She shrugged, smiling, and Carnahan went on, “Did you sleep with anyone famous?”  As soon as the words left his lips, he instantly regretted it, wondering if he’d finally gone insane.

Her face hardened.  “Hey!  Whada ya think I am?”

Carnahan’s mind locked-up momentarily, as thoughts raced round and round.  He stammered, “I mean… I mean, well, you said you slept with these guys, I… I just wondered if any of them were famous?”  Even as he was saying it, he knew it was the wrong thing to say, but he couldn’t stop.  It was almost like he was possessed.

Her green eyes narrowed and her lips drew back.  “You think I’m a goddamned whore?  Don’t ya?  Don’t ya?” she asked angrily, her voice rising.

Other diners were looking at them now.  Interested, questioning faces were staring at them, wondering if it was going to be a good, messy fight.

Carnahan was suddenly boiling hot, and he felt his face flush.  Heart pumping a million miles an hour, he answered haltingly, “I know you wouldn’t a done it if you’d known.  The guy tricked you, you said.”

She balled up her napkin and threw it on her plate.

Looking away, she said, almost as if to herself, “I think that’s about enough.  I shoulda known better than to try this shit.” 

She stood up.  Opening her purse, she pulled out several bills and threw them on the table in front of Carnahan.  She went on, “Here.  This’ll cover my share of the food.” 

Mouth hanging open, Carnahan stared at her, unable to speak.

She turned and walked towards the exit.

Carnahan sat staring at his plate, shaking his head in disbelief at what he’d done.

 

 

XXX.  Bumper Cars in Tacoma

“That’s the house over there,” said the man sitting in the back seat, pointing at an old, rundown two-story Victorian.

Dewey Mitchell pulled up at the curb, and put the cab in park.

He’d picked up the fare in Bonney Lake about a half hour ago. 

The fare was a guy in his twenties, who looked reasonably neat and clean.  He’d asked to go over by Sixth and Oakes in Tacoma – a very good trip from Bonney Lake. 

Early in his career as a cabbie, Dewey had been ripped-off endlessly by people who would run away as soon as they arrived at the destination.  With Mack’s help, he’d eventually wised-up and had gotten into the habit of asking for the money up-front – at least on most all the longer trips over ten dollars or so. 

Dewey had found that usually, the people didn’t protest when he asked them for the money up-front.  But still occasionally, someone would get pissed off and decide they didn’t want the cab.  That had happened just two days ago with a guy who wanted to go to Seattle. 

Another driver who was more broadminded than Dewey had ended up taking that fare and had made almost a hundred dollars from the trip.  All of which was bad enough, but to make it worse, the driver had been crowing to everyone, all about how he’d gotten the best of Dewey, and that stung, rather much.

So, here he was with the guy from Bonney Lake.  It was still daylight, and everything seemed on the up and up.  The guy was clean cut.  He was going to a good destination, not on the Hilltop or anything.  He wasn’t a junkie or obvious low-life, slimeball.

So just this once, after much careful, laboring thought, Dewey decided to let down his guard and he didn’t ask for the money up-front.

And so, off they went.

 

Dewey stopped the meter and stared at it for a moment.  After the amount finally registered in his brain, he turned to the guy.  “Okay, Bud.  Uh, we’re looking at thirty-five dollars,” he said.

The man smiled.  “Great.”  He stretched and fumbled in his back pocket for his wallet.  Looking embarrassed, he said, “Damn pants are too tight.  Hang on.”

The man opened the door and put one foot on the ground, then reached into his back pocket again. 

And like a flash, he was off running. 

A runner!

Dewey’s stomach had been doing back flips ever since the guy had opened the door – deep down inside, he’d known right away something was very wrong – so within a couple moments from when the guy split, Dewey was out his own door, lumbering heavily after him.

The guy had about a hundred foot lead, and for a few moments, Dewey gained on him.  But he rapidly became winded, and the gap widened.

Puffing like a steam engine, Dewey stopped and then loped back to his car.

He had the car going in an instant and burnt rubber up the street – just in time to see the man run into a parking lot in back of a church.

Ten seconds later, Dewey rounded the corner, the cab bumping over the entrance, sliding sideways into the parking lot.  For a brief instant, he saw the man’s head pop out from behind a dumpster sitting in back of the church. 

Like lightning – which for Dewey was quite exceptional – graven images flashed through his mind.  Through a fuzzy blur in his mind’s eye, he saw fleeting pictures of the cab sliding to a stop in front of the dumpster, and then he jumped out and went behind the dumpster and brought the guy out by the scruff of his neck, kicking and screaming. 

It was just like on a TV cop show, he thought.  He was gonna be a hero, he thought with glee!  A hero!

And then some other images began to form in his mind.  Disturbing images.

Dewey covered the last hundred feet across the parking lot in two or three seconds.  In that short period of time, the man’s head popped out again briefly and in that single instant, the man’s fate was sealed.

In his whole placid, innocent life, Dewey had hardly ever gotten angry.  But now there was a growing fire burning deep within him – the spark of indignation at being ripped-off, that had been fanned into open flames. 

Dewey was disturbed at the thoughts he was having, as unfamiliar as he was with that particular emotion.   But the feeling grew and consumed him and for a brief instant he was possessed.  He knew exactly what he had to do.

The dumpster flew backwards, rebounding from the cab’s push-bumper. The taxi was doing about five miles per hour when it hit. 

The man’s screams were audible as the dumpster slid to a stop. 

“Stop in the name of the law!” screamed Dewey, out the open window, jamming the car in park. 

As quickly as it had come, his anger had vanished completely.   It was as if it had never happened, and truthfully, Dewey had almost no memory of his momentary rage. 

In its place, Dewey had reverted back to living his cop fantasy, where he was going to be a hero and catch a criminal.  Blotchy images of his all-time favorite TV cop, TJ Hooker, flashing through his head, he started to open the door.

From behind the dumpster, the runner shakily stood up.  Blood dripping down his face from a gaping cut on his forehead, his mouth hung wide open, and there was a look of sheer terror on his face. 

He took one quick, horrified look at Dewey, and then instantly set off running again, out around the corner of the church.

Dewey quickly closed his door and put the car back in gear and followed. 

Limping now, the man ran out across Sixth Avenue, and down the street, dodging pedestrians and cars on the busy street. 

Lost in his cop dreams, Dewey stayed close behind in hot pursuit. 

Honking his horn, Dewey blew through a red light and turned west onto Sixth, nearly causing an accident.  The drivers of the cars at the light waved their fists and screamed.  Consumed by his desire to catch a crook, Dewey just ignored them and continued to follow the man down Sixth, easily keeping up.

The man pressed on but was limping worse, going slower and slower with each step.  It was obvious he was getting winded.

After a couple more blocks, the man slowed and then finally stopped, hands on his waist, his chest heaving for breath.  Blood flowed freely from the cut on his forehead and had dripped down over his shirt, which was a bloody mess.

Dewey pulled up next to him and then yelled out through the open passenger window,  “Up against the wall, scumbag!”

The man’s eyes filled with terror in an instant as soon as he became aware of Dewey, and hands held out in front of him, he stumbled backwards.  “Stay away from me, stay away…” the man gasped, his chest heaving as he struggled for breath.

Feeling guilty about bumping the dumpster, Dewey shouted, “Look Bud, I’m sorry if I hurt ya.  You shouldn’t a oughta run.  I just want my bucks.”

Between huge breaths, the man panted, “I … don’t … have … any…”

“You don’t have any?” shouted Dewey.

“No…  I … don’t.”

Dewey thought about that.  In cases where the fares wouldn’t pay, Mack always said you should call the cops.  Usually the fares would pay, then, Mack said.  He’d drilled that into Dewey’s head, over and over and over.

Dewey looked up at the guy, chest still heaving. 

“Well, too bad then, Bud.  I guess we’re gonna have to call the cops,” said Dewey, reaching for the microphone.

The man’s breathing had eased a little.  He wiped some of the blood off his face onto the sleeve of his shirt.  He shrugged.  “Call ‘em.  I don’t care.  Just stay the fuck away from me.”

Microphone in hand, Dewey eyed the bloody gash on the man’s forehead.  The guy was still bleeding like a stuck pig.

As Dewey watched the red blood ooze down the man’s cheek, another stray thought popped up in his mind.  Hadn’t this happened before?  He just couldn’t remember. 

Dewey thought about that for a few moments.  Something was nibbling at the back of his brain and it bothered him no end.  He was sure he remembered that something like this had happened before, and what’s more, he was pretty sure it was important.

Finally, after rummaging around in the cluttered, hazy, attic of his mind, bingo, he dredged up the answer:  Don Hickman. 

Don Hickman had driven for BlackTop several years ago and had been one of Dewey’s best buddies before he got locked up.  Don was a really nice guy.  He was a grandfather who was a former mess sergeant in the army, who back in the fifties had once gone three rounds with Sugar Ray Robinson in an exhibition match. 

The fact that he had boxed gave him a lasting bond with Dewey.  They’d spent hours at a time reliving old fights and talking shop.  Don looked out for Dewey, and became the father-figure that he had never known.  For several years, they were almost inseparable.  

Don’s problems had started one night, when he had gotten a call to Marilyn’s restaurant down on Puyallup Avenue.

Don had picked up a guy who wanted to go to Lakewood.  Even though he’d been warned to GTM, he hadn’t collected any money up front, and so when they got to the destination, naturally, the guy had split in an instant, running like a gazelle off across a parking lot.

Now it wouldn’t have been so bad, but this was the third runner that Don had gotten in the last week and a half, and because of it, nice guy or not, he just snapped. 

He floored the gas pedal of the cab and used the guy for a speed bump.  Twice. 

Bump, bump.  Bump, bump.

Now, Don was not entirely without luck: the guy hadn’t died.  And more good luck:  they decided he was crazy, and so rather than becoming a guest of the state at the penitentiary in Walla Walla, he ended up at Western State Hospital, instead.  A much cushier deal, all the way around.  Much better food…  And they had cable TV!

Dewey remembered the trial clearly, now.

The thoughts turned slowly around and around in Dewey’s battered brain, like cheap vanilla pudding in a blender.  All the thinking was making his head was ache from the unaccustomed effort.  And worse, it scared the hell out of him. 

He most certainly didn’t want to go to jail.  And the nuthouse wasn’t any better…

After a prolonged silence, Dewey finally decided to give up the idea of cops.

He looked over at the man.  The guy still had his hands still on his thighs, breathing hard. 

“Look Bud,” Dewey finally asked.  “You sure you ain’t got no money?”

The man straightened up a little, his breathing now more in control.  “I could get the bucks from my brother.  That’s his house where you dropped me off at.  That’s where I live.”

Dewey was so relieved and after thinking about his good fortune for a moment, he said, “Okay.  Get in, I’ll take you back there and you can get the money for me.”

The man drew back a little, still looking scared.  “No fuckin’ way!  I’m not getting near you.  I’ll walk.”

“Suit yourself, Bud.  I’ll follow.”

The man wiped the blood off his face with the back of his hand, and then with a break in traffic, he started limping back across Sixth Avenue.

Dewey put the car in gear and followed at a discreet distance. 

They arrived back where Dewey had dropped him off.  While Dewey waited in the car at the curb, the guy walked up to the front door of the house and knocked.  And knocked.  And knocked.  No one answered the door.

The man turned around facing Dewey and shrugged.

Dewey beckoned him over to the car.

The man came around to the driver’s side of the cab and then said, “Jeeze, I’m sorry man.  I guess he’s not home.  And dammit, I don’t have my keys with me, either, otherwise I could go inside and get it for you.”  He gave a very earnest look.

Brow furrowed deep in thought, Dewey stared off into space for several seconds and then finally remembered what Mack had told him to do in something like this.  He looked up at the guy. 

“What’s your name?” he asked.

The mans eyes narrowed, and after a short hesitation, he answered, “Uh, Johnny Smith.”

“Okay, Johnny.  I’m gonna give you twenty-four hours to come to the cab company and get me my money.”  He reached over to the card holder on his dashboard, and then handed the guy a card with his name and cab number on it.  He went on, “If you ain’t paid me by this time tomorrow, then I’m gonna call the cops and give them your name and address.”

The man nodded his head.  The blood had finally stopped. 

“And so you’re gonna bring me the bucks tomorrow?”

The man nodded again.  “Oh yeah, for sure.  Absolutely.”

Frowning, Dewey said, “Okay, then get outa here.  I’m trusting ya.  And if ya don’t make it in time, you can figure the cops’ll be knocking at your door tomorrow night.  Okay?”

Pure innocence on his face, the man nodded his head.  “Oh, I’ll be there, man.  You can count on it!”

“Right,” said Dewey thinking he was kind of hungry.

The man turned and walked off towards the alley behind the house.

Dewey picked up the microphone to call vacant.

 

 

XXXI.  It must be fun being crazy

“So anyway,” said Mack, “There I was.  These two broads are going at it in the back seat.  Got all these squishy noises going.”

Eyes narrowed, Medina looked interested.  “Like squishy noises?”  He took a sip of his beer.

 

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