Monday, July 17, 2017


   This story was written by Lisa Ann Goodrich with Phil Mershon in 2015

  "Where to for you, Bub?"
  Fred leaned across the back seat to make a big production that he was exerting himself to open the cab door from the inside. Acrylic Falls offered only one taxicab company, but Fred did not intend to allow a lack of competition to infringe on personal courtesy.
  Tommy’s mouth twisted into a grin, revealing that the out-of-towner did not understand the question. The young man’s thin eyebrows drew together over his nose and friendly lines scrunched along his forehead. "Hi! I'm Tommy! Are you gonna drive my cab tonight?" he asked.
  Fred grinned back in spite of himself. He did not like to grin at men. He was not what a person would call homophobic. He simply liked things to be clear from the get-go.
   Fred waved the kid into the Crown Victoria and said, "Who you think going to drive you, Bub? Captain Ahab? Fred is who. Fred is me. Where you go?"
  Tommy continued to grin as he spoke. He buckled the seat belt over his thin waist and stated, "I'm hungry. Are you going to take me to a restaurant tonight?"
  Fred fought against the contagious impulse to grin back. He winced as his Cabdriver of the Year Belt Buckle cut into his midsection while he tightened his own seatbelt. "Look, kid. You hungry? I take you to food. What kind food you like?"
  Tommy rubbed his chin and licked his grinning lips. At last he replied, "I like good food."
  Fred wiped a palm across his arid face while signaling the honking car behind him in the hotel valet line to go on around. "Hokey smokes. You want good food? H'okay. You like Italian? I know lots good Italian food for you."
  Tommy shook his head. The gesture appeared playful. Fred would not have been surprised to hear the kid’s head jangle from the effort. The meter was already clicking away. A little decision-making time was good for business.
 "H'okay, no Italian. You like the German food?"
  Tommy made a face that made it look like he thought the Germans were serving sour lemons and limburger cheese at their restaurants instead of sauerkraut and bratwurst. Come to think of it, maybe the kid was right.
  "Chinese?  I take you to Chinese Buffet with miles of good food.”
  “No!  They use chopsticks!”
  "No good. Right. You could poke out you eye. H'okay. Let's see. Oh-ho!  You want really good food!  I know good Armenian restaurant couple miles down road. That where Fred take you,"  the older man announced with a finality which he intended to declare that playtime was over.
   Tommy's face lit up like a crate full of glow sticks. "Are you going to drive me in this cab to an Armenian restaurant tonight?"
  Fred faced the steering wheel. "You bet, Bub. I drive you in cab to restaurant full of Armenian food tonight is what I do!"
  Fred had been the Captain of the Cabbies in Acrylic Falls for as long as anyone who cared to think about such things could remember. Throughout those decades, he had met hard drinking millionaires, reprobates, college students crazed on nutmeg and cough syrup, concert-goers amped on the excitement of electronic death grunge, as well as more than a few average business travelers who did not care much one way or the other for advanced conversation. Fred fancied himself an expert at sizing up his passengers fast and sure. In his business, a guy needed to know if the fare was going to take you deep into the woods and blow your brains out. After twenty-plus years behind the wheel, Fred had never been robbed, rolled, or cheated on a fare. Considering that most of Fred’s fares were whacked out in some way or another, his safety record was impressive, even to himself.This skinny kid with the toothy grin struck him as no more bizarre than the typical customer a driver would meet on a Saturday night in Acrylic Falls.
  But Tommy differed from the others in ways for which Fred was not immediately prepared.
  As Fred shifted into gear, Tommy turned back to wave farewell to the doorman in front of the hotel. The doorman's response, if there was one, went unreported.
  "You staying at the Wintercrest, Bub?"
  Tommy spoke to Fred with a sudden intensity. "I'm Tommy," the kid clarified. "I'm staying at that hotel tonight."
  "Good for you, Tom-Tom. Girl at front desk always call Fred when she has customer."
  Fred was going to say "customer like you," but he caught himself. The driver continued to process the situation.The kid was maybe a little underweight, obviously kind of green, a guy with a voice like a squeaky door hinge, but clearly not a threat to anyone. Of course, the possibility always existed that the guy lacked finances. Fred had asked if the kid stayed at the hotel just in case. Every now and again some guy would flag down a driver under the pretense of being a guest, then run like Secretariat. Fred had chased after and caught his own share. But when the front desk lady called him directly, the risk evaporated.
  Tommy pressed his face against the rear passenger side window, gazing out onto the rainbow lights reflecting back up from the oil and grime of the new black asphalt along Hazington Road.The window fogged from his breath, making his view more kaleidoscopic. He mumbled something into the glass but Fred could not make it out.
  Fred kept his eyes trained on the sidewalks on both sides of Hazington. Granted, he had a fare in his backseat. But the kid wasn’t going far and Fred would need another trip or two before the night was over. On their left they passed a line of twenty-somethings waiting to pack themselves into the cineplex. The gape of Tommy’s mouth made Fred suspect the kid had never seen hipsters before. “Those just people trying to look cool like they not trying.” On their right they cruised by three bars sandwiched together, each one flashing a sign insisting that no cover charge was required. “All three places owned by same guy. He tell me one day he get so mad he fire himself. Then he give himself job next door.” The kid didn’t let on whether he got Fred’s joke. All he could do was gape and gawk. Just up ahead of the next green light hung a banner informing the world that an Arabian horse show would be in town from the twenty-first through the twenty-eighth. That show would be farther on toward the north end of the city. Where they were now was the old part of town, the part that tried to maintain the look and feel of the days when Acrylic Falls had been known as Tattsville. In those days, Fred had been one of the very few cab drivers in the area. He could have driven from one end of the village to the other and halfway back again in under fifteen minutes. These days you could spend fifteen minutes just waiting for a traffic light to change.
  Fred did not like to wait for traffic lights to change.

  He made a fast U-Turn seconds before the approaching red light. In futile response, both of the cars behind him slammed their brakes and blared their horns.
  "I like you horn, bozorami! What else you get for Christmas?" Fred completed the illegal turn, snuggling right into the open space in front of Aggie's Armenian Delights.
  The delights in question, as Fred knew from his own heritage, included a porridge called harissa, lamb khash, stuffed grape leaves, topik meatballs, and the one thing no one who visited Aggie’s could resist: shish-kabobs. Fred had eaten enough shish-kabobs as a child to last him his whole life. If a person wanted to have gas attacks for the next two days, Aggie was more than capable of accommodating.
  It looked as if the kid would not have much of a wait for a table. Unlike the new entertainment hubs Fred and Tommy had driven by, Aggie’s did not have obnoxious music with bone rattling bass flowing from it, nor was it surrounded by throngs of drunken wannabes and tourists in rented convertibles. Aggie’s bucked the trends and stuck to tradition. It was a family restaurant and did indeed have a regular following of the natives of Acrylic Falls, many of whom spent weekends up north at one of the natural lakes to enjoy the universe as they presumed it was intended.  
  Fred watched Tommy greet their arrival at the Armenian restaurant with all the excitement a cloistered nun would bring to a party with the Pope.The kid pried himself from the passenger side glass, leaned over the front and asked breathlessly, "Are you going to wait for me while I eat dinner at this restaurant?"
  The driver stifled a groan. "No can do, Tom-Tom. Fred got to work." He hoped the kid wasn’t going to stiff him on the tip just because the travel time had been so brief.
  Tommy leaned back in his seat and fished a wallet from his loose-hanging jacket pocket. "I'm Tommy. I want you to drive me back to the hotel tonight." The look on the kid’s face struck Fred as more of a plea than a question. The older man felt what he supposed was a small bout of sympathy for the young guy, one which he slapped away the instant he noticed that the wallet the kid was holding burst with currency.
   "Listen, I tell you what I do.You pay me ten bucks is on meter now. I wait here. I leave meter run. You eat you food. You come back out. I take you back to hotel."
  "I'm Tommy and that sounds like a good idea. What is your name tonight?"
  "Same as every other night, Tom-Tom. My name Fred."
  Tommy selected a ten dollar bill from the other currency in his wallet, placing it in Fred’s hand with all the caution exercised by people who transport hand grenades, then hopped out of the taxi, skipping toward the establishment with the enthusiasm of a kid going to the circus.
  Fred rolled down the windows and lit up a cigarette as he watched Tommy give him a delirious wave before he disappeared behind the darkened glass doors of the restaurant.
  As the meter clicked every twenty seconds, Fred drew on his thin Saratoga cigarette and glanced into his driver side mirror to monitor anything interesting that might approach. Saturday night was generally the most exciting night in this part of Acrylic Falls, as opposed to the newer part of the growing tourist town. Not many years earlier, some deep-pocketed developers had discovered that a few man-made lakes in the middle of the desert, coupled with year-round sunshine and an endless array of taverns with flashing signs somehow differed from every other town in America. Word spread that this was the place to be. A planned community popped up around those lakes complete with pricey golf-courses and elegant names to go with them. Indian casinos shook their tambourines directly outside the community to provide an additional outlet for the tourists’ cash in case they hadn’t spent it all at the overpriced specialty clothing stores and gourmet ice cream parlors. Acrylic Falls also boasted a succession of mid-level and elite hotels, some restaurants with what the owners hoped was an international flair, too few revamped roadways, far too many convenience stores and gas stations, and at long last a string of taxi cabs, all of them commanded--if not owned--by Big Fred Bagratuni.
   Fred had been in the taxi business since the days before Acrylic Falls had been anything other than a blip on a geriatric GPS system. Himself a native of Hrazdan, Armenia, at an early age Fred had migrated to south Chicago, found himself in hangdog love in Denver, divorced and destitute in Reno, incarcerated in Nogales, on the lam from Immigration in Phoenix, freed and legalized in Salt Lake City, and from that point forward driving cabs in the great southwest over the last twenty-some years. Fred recalled those days and nights as having been simultaneously carefree and full of adventure. The reality had been more of a struggle than he would care to live through a second time. After Salt Lake City, Fred had parked his wild ambitions and settled into the life of the greatest cab driver in America. Just as he had been good at making money behind the wheel, he found he was good at socking it away. Every time his Folger’s coffee can got full of enough cash to allow for it, Fred bought another cab at auction, licensed the vehicle and found himself a driver to pay a fat lease for the privilege of driving it. A lot of the drivers speeding up and down Hazington Road this night wouldn’t make back their own gas money. Fred tried to teach all of his guys to move slow when looking for someone to flag them down. He explained to them about tipping the valets and front desk workers, the doormen at bars and the bagmen at the bus stations. Three out of four new guys figured they already knew everything and so three out of four of them couldn’t pay next week’s lease, which meant Fred was supposed to take away their keys. Of the remaining one out of four who actually understood how to make money in the business, most of them came away from a Saturday night with a pocket full of cash only to see how fast they could throw it away on gambling, women or drink. Fred knew there was something inherently twisted about even his best drivers. Every driver he’d ever met had some kind of compulsion. And that was okay. Fred himself was not that much different. It was just that his old compulsion had been to live free of all responsibility and the one he’d picked up twenty years back was to be the greatest cab driver in America. Fred believed that a big part of his responsibility was to look after his guys. He had missed month’s of sleep helping out the drivers under his command. Most people thought that being a boss meant you just yelled orders at people all day long. Fred knew that a real leader worries about his guys. That philosophy--and the ability to throw the bull whenever necessary--had served Fred well. Within a few years Fred Bagratuni had amassed a fleet of fifty-two taxis, each one of the golden yellow Crown Victorias bearing the slogan "Where to for you?" in bold red cursive font. The company name, "Fred's Fine Fleet," radiated in royal blue block letters below. If Fred squinted he could almost see the Armenian flag in front of him each time he gazed upon one of his rides.  
  The modest tourist trap had been quick to grow and popular wisdom held that it was not going to slow down anytime soon. Just before the town's expansion really took off, some joker named Richard Conway dropped in and bought all of Fred’s Fine Fleet at twice what Fred would have asked for it, had he been so inclined--in cash. Fred didn’t know why this diminutive cowboy with the high-heeled snake-skin boots wanted a taxi fleet in Acrylic Falls, but at the time Fred hadn’t cared. The burdens of ownership had steered him from what he enjoyed most: taking people where they wanted to go. Besides that, Conway’s motivation had been none of Fred’s concern. All he had known for sure was that Rick the Dick (Fred’s code name for him) had bought up all fifty-two taxis for cash with the only stipulation being that Fred had to manage the fleet. Fred’s own stipulation was that his name and logo continue to grace the golden fleet and that his own personal cab remain in his possession. It was a sweet deal for Fred. And the job, while not especially painless, allowed Fred to be his own boss as well as the protector of the other cabbies. He knew how to manage the drivers and how to safeguard them from the fares which came primarily from the hotels or from the weirdos on the street. Whenever a driver had a problem--with a passenger, a cop, or some hotshot scumbag--that driver called Fred. Most of them did not even know that Rick the Dick was the owner now, not that it would matter to them. Fred would always be the boss.
  "Hey-hey, big Fred! What's the good word, amigo?" oozed a voice greasier than the shiny muk atop the asphalt.
  That was Rasmus, the one-eyed pimp. Fred had been to many cities. Not every town could claim a one-eyed pimp. Indeed, a clear majority of cities would have been less than open to the suggestion. Most places would have wasted little time rejecting such an offer. But if a one-eyed pimp possessed the tenacity and wherewithal to make a go of it, Acrylic Falls was willing to give that man a chance. Fred felt a chuckle bubble up from his waistline as he considered how the low-life had decided it was his mission in life to exceed the status of a cultural stereotype. His long flowing blue velvet robe dragged the street while his twenty-gallon hat almost brushed against the low-hanging monsoon night-time clouds. How the skinny bastard could hold himself up from the weight of those gold chains was more than Fred could fathom.
  "How you do, Rasmus?"
  "I do f-i-n-e, fine... Big Fred,” slurred the degenerate lifeform, his one eye swirling around his face for emphasis.  “Going for a ride, mighty man!"
  "No can do. I got fare inside restaurant. High roller. Got to wait. I get someone else for you."
  The pimp leaned in the window a bit closer to Fred than the driver would have invited his own mother to do. His one eye rolled skyward before settling its sight-beam on the driver.
 "Listen, Freddie. If I wanted one of your boys running lost in town tonight, I’d have asked for that, ya dig? Man, I need me one fine fat Freddie."
  "Hey, scumbag," Fred said, pushing back with one enormous shoulder. "You breathe that smelly salami dog breath on me one more second, I cut out you tonsil and mail to you sister."
  Rasmus backed up, flashing his teeth without smiling. His eye caught the street light and gleamed. "That's fine, Freddie. Don't mess yourself. Lots of rides waiting for me, brother."
  The pimp snapped his fingers. A late model Lexus pulled up beside him. The door eased open and the hooker behind the wheel said to get on in. They coasted off as Fred punched out his cigarette. The cherry’s sparks trailed after the Lexus before dying out. "Hokey smokes. Why you need ride if you got ride? Goofball degenerate. Whew. Is long night already."
  Over the next hour-and-a-half, a typical assortment of what Fred liked to think of as users, cheaters, and six-time losers milled along Hazington Road with no purpose other than to check out what every other aboosh-head was doing, each one hoping he was doing it better than the other. Fred liked the word aboosh-head. It was sort of a combination of Armenian and English to mean “stupid-head.” The Mexicans had their Spanglish. Well, Fred had his Armenglish. He made himself laugh sometimes.
  Fred was just getting set to light his seventh Saratoga when he heard feet racing out through the darkened glass doors of Aggie's. Squinting through the smoke that layered the front of his cab, Fred saw his fare running--if you could call feet that flopped like a drunken Bozo the Clown on a conveyor belt running--towards his vehicle. As Fred disgorged himself from the cab, he saw Aggie and his employee hot on the slipping heels of the Tom-Tom kid. The young man’s face was white.
  "Hey, you. Tommy-kid. What it is you do?"
  At the sound of his name being misspoken, Tommy stopped short and the two Armenian restaurateurs slammed into him. The kid stammered, "I-I-I'm To-to-to-Tommy! Are ya-ya-you going to--"
  Fred waved him off. "I'm going to leave you boney ass right here you don’t tell Fred what go on. Aggie! What is problem?"
  The old Armenian man spat on the sidewalk. "You want to know what's wrong?"
  "That is what I ask."
  "I tell you, Mr. Fred. He come in. He look at menu. He order shish-kabobs. He want bobs? We sell him bobs. This is our business. He eat the bobs. He drink a soda. He wipe his hands. Rub his belly. Magloski bring big shot the bill. He pay with big shot credit card. Magloski call in credit card. Credit card woman say to keep this fellow in the restaurant until police get here. Magloski give card back to this guy. Why he do this, I should live long enough to understand. Mister Credit Card leave without paying bill. We run. You call out his name. We bump into him. You start to ask stupid questions."
  "Hokey smokes, don't  cry me a river, Aggie. Tom-Tom, you pay this man in cash, h'okay?"
  "Okay, Fred."
  “Tom-Tom here got all the cash you need, Aggie. He no deadbeat. Big mistake. Everyone have nice day.”
  The kid trembled with such frustration that Fred grabbed the wallet and paid Aggie fifty dollars for the meal. Aggie’s countenance regained its natural levity. “Hey, kid. You come back again, make sure Fred here is with you. We forgive and forget, okay?”
  Tommy nodded and tried to smile. He still looked confused.
  As Fred returned the wallet to Tommy, he considered patting the kid on the shoulder, but the approaching sirens interrupted his thoughts.
  "Aggie, you cheap magoo. You call cops?"
  Aggie shook his head while Magloski began to cry. "I never call a cop in my life, Mr. Fred."
  His mind reeling from images of his night’s future earnings fluttering into the clouds, Fred turned to his passenger. "Tom-Tom, get in cab and shut up you face. Aggie, you have nice day. Magloski, I don't know."
  Fred closed Tommy’s door, then slipped behind the wheel of the Crown Vic and eased out onto Hazington Road. Five police units whizzed towards and around him as he made certain to heed the speed limit in an uncharacteristic display of respect for modern law and order. In the rearview he saw the patrols race into the frontway of Aggie’s. The Armenian would never turn Fred or the kid in. Aggie may have kept his brain in garbage disposal, but the man knew enough that if he ever wanted an out of town customer delivered again, it would serve him well to keep his mouth shut.
   As Fred moored the cab into the round at the mouth of the hotel, he waved off the ambitious doorman who had no doubt aimed to take a share of Fred's tip for the services. Fred said, "Listen, Tom-Tom. You okay now?"
  The kid grinned just as he had at the beginning of the evening. He appeared to have recovered from the ordeal. "I'm Tommy! You did me a big favor tonight!"
  The meter read one hundred eighty-five dollars. "It's okay. You good kid. Fare two-hundred bucks. Maybe you like to tip Fred. I don't know."
  Tommy reached into his jacket, retrieved the wallet--which still contained the credit card that had caused the night’s excitement--and pulled out four one hundred dollar bills. He handed them to Fred.
  "Whoa ho! Thank you, Mr. Tom. That very generous."
  "I'm Tommy! Do you want to take me somewhere else tonight?"
  "Tom-Tom, you keep throwing the money, Fred will take you where you go. Where to for you?"
  Tommy rubbed his chin for what Fred took for a contemplative moment. The Captain of the Cabbies had not quite dropped his guard. The police sirens still wailed and their units were heading up the hotel’s long scenic boulevard in their direction. Fred looked at Tommy. Tommy looked back at Fred.The captain wanted to believe in the good faith of the kid. Scratch a cynic, find a romantic, someone had said. Fred didn’t want anyone scratching him. What he wanted was for everything to work out fine.
 As if in response to Fred’s unspoken thoughts, the young man said, “I’m Tommy. I did not steal anything, Mr. Fred.”
 “Okay with me, kid. Where you get that card you used?”
  “I told you!  I am Tommy!  My brother gave me that card!”
  Fred decided that this was another of those things that was none of his business. What was his business was the abrupt and disturbing whirl of the propellor of a low-flying helicopter.
  The hotel doorman wandered back out and was inching his way toward the taxi. Fred told Tommy to stay buckled in and they roared off, followed by the shadow of the unlit helicopter.
  Earlier in the evening, Magpie Barkin, the night doorman at Acrylic Falls’ Wintercrest Hotel, had used his pocket scanner to read Fred’s Vehicle Identification Number. Barkin had been scanning taxis for months--ever since he’d first arrived at the Wintercrest--reporting the coded information back to the Central Command Liaison at headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. Magpie Barkin’s job description did not call for this degree of involvement, but the uniformed doorman did not intend to spend the rest of his life glad-handing tourists from Winnipeg into deigning to slip him pocket change. Had someone asked the Liaison back in Richmond what he thought of Magpie Barkin, that person would have replied that the doorman was a low-level asset, not even up to the position of “spy.” Barkin, on the other hand, considered himself far more crucial to the Operation. He had been sent here to perform a rudimentary function. But Barkin knew that only lazy and stupid people accepted their fates in life. He fully intended to show the decisions-makers back in Richmond that Mrs. Barkin’s youngest son had grown into a man who could be entrusted with all manner of essential tasks designed and implemented to preserve the republic. What this particular mission was, Barkin could not have quite verbalized. However, he could feel its importance with greater intensity every evening. Now as he watched the helicopter roar above Hazington Road in pursuit of that lazy-ass cab driver, Barkin’s theories were reinforced.
  Admiring the swirl of the leaves that circled overhead in the blowback from the airmobile propellers, Barkin whistled a self-composed tune, permitting himself the luxury of imagining the reaction in Richmond when they heard the news about his status in the Operation. Magpie, as everyone called him, had pegged Thomas Matthews as an operative. Before long, Barkin noticed that every time he approached Tommy, the guest began acting nervous. If he didn’t have something to hide, why would he be nervous? Yes, the guy was clearly an operative of some sort. Unlike himself, this Tommy person was just an errand boy, some feeb his own people had set up to make some surreptitious delivery of God only knew what. Just because those desk jockeys at headquarters couldn’t find their rear-ends with a flashlight and a two day head start didn’t mean that Magpie Barkin needed to rest on his laurels and let the whole damned country slip into the hands of the anarchists--no, not as long as Magpie was on the job.
  Looking through the window glass of the hotel the doorman observed Hazel Overturf, the front desk chick, pretending to count receipts while she was in all likelihood sending out nasty text messages on one of her many electronic devices. Barkin did not hold Hazel in much esteem, an opinion that had absolutely nothing to do with her routine habit of turning down his advances. She would get to see what real spy talent was all about just any time now.
 “Barkin here!” Magpie stated into his cell phone in his best official voice when he saw the incoming number on the Caller ID. He was doing all he could to not smile as he said it.
 “Barkin, you idiot! Your job is to communicate vin numbers and smile like the baggage monkey you are. Your job is not to call in helicopters!” screamed Ginger McGraw, his supervisor back in the bowels of the hotel. “One more of your 007 moves and you’ll have a new job picking up my dog’s turds!”  For an aging prom queen, Ginger McGraw was one tough cookie. And Magpie had been so certain she would be proud of him!
  Magpie’s smile hit the cobblestones, the sirens fell silent, the awesome helicopter full of Rambos and Terminators retreated, and the target had taken off. The doorman
glanced over at Hazel who seemed delighted by one of her sleazy texts.
 “Witch,”  he muttered and went back to his post to wait for the next Gucci-laden limo, while he finished the remainder of his long shift in shame.
   “We got company,” Fred said, looking at Tommy in the rearview mirror. “Helicopter chase kid with stolen credit card? No sense do it make. What you really up to, Tom-Tom?”
  Tommy tilted his neck so that it appeared he was speaking into his own left shoulder. “I’m Tommy! Are you going to get us away from that helicopter, Mr. Fred?”
  Fred swung the Crown Vic off Hazington east onto Paddy Street, a narrow patch of cobblestone favored by bar staff after their shifts had ended. The street being otherwise vacant, Fred rammed his foot onto the gas pedal and the car shot forward like a stone from a slingshot.
  “Hey, I am cab driver,” he said. “I do what I do.”
  Fred realized the kid had not answered the question, but he reckoned there was time enough for that later. The greasy lights from the twinkling taverns sheared across Fred’s line of vision, disturbing him not at all, especially when he saw the glow from the police disappear and heard the sirens fade away. The hum of the helicopter was now absent. He began to question whether they had been pursued in the first place. Of course, he could not discount the fact that he was a very good driver behind the wheel of an exceptional vehicle. Twenty-odd years in the business had taught him much about rising above the abilities of the average driver. As if to prove his own point and to take no chances, Fred clicked the Vic into neutral, punched the brake like an old man striking a cuckoo clock, swung the wheel hard and doubled back toward Hazington, shooting blind across the intersection, missing a tour bus full of out-of-towners, catching tread to a patch of oil that  zigzagged them across a dogleg of Switchback Boulevard. Switchback was a convenient mistake the city planners had overlooked when laying out the design of Acrylic Falls. It deposited drivers right into the passing lane of Peyton Pass, one of the smoothest two-lanes in the area. You could ride Peyton all the way to the nearest Indian Casino and not hit one stop light, even if you tried.
  Fred’s personal vehicle sported a modified engine, a 650cc that at one time had been used by some Mario Andretti wannabe. Fred recommended premium gasoline to all his drivers. In his own machine, he used nothing but jet fuel. His miles per gallon sucked, but his car could eat up the road. The fastest legal speed on Peyton was 65. Fred felt that was a speed better handled by grandmothers. “I do 110 backing out my driveway,” he sneered. That statement was not quite accurate, but Fred did not shy from hyperbole. Exaggeration was a form of art in the taxi business.
  About his cab’s ability to go faster than anyone else on the road, however, Fred told no lies.
  Slowing down not at all, Fred took hold of the taxi microphone attached to an old analog radio. Pressing the talk button, he said, “Three-five-nine?”
  He released the button, waited for the signifying beep, and smiled around another good puff from a new Saratoga. Three-five-nine knew about a few things that maybe even Fred did not fully comprehend. Of course, Fred himself knew about things that no damned driver in all of Acrylic Falls understood. That did not mean that he knew everything. Such things were what made the world interesting. Even crazy cab drivers had their value. That included Marcel, aka three-five-nine, who also had his uses. Fred intended to call in a favor.
  “Three-five-nine here, Captain. How’s your night, Fred?” came the preacher-smooth southern accent of Fred’s longest tenured employee.
  “I do fine, three-five-nine. Listen, what you twenty?”
  “I just dropped off a party of three at the Arpaio Inn, Fred. Right now I’m deadheading it back to town. You got a ride for me?”
  Every driver always got around to asking that question. Marcel wasted less time than most. “No, I got no ride for you. I need you do me favor.”
  Fred was met with a brief pause in the conversation. He knew Marcel was mulling things over and possibly even remembering the last time Fred paid off Marcel’s bookie, an act of generosity which had saved Marcel’s life. At last the driver came back. “Alright, Fred. What do you need?”
     “You double back to Arpaio Inn, okay? I be there five minutes. I want you take look at something for me. I got passenger with me.”
  “I’m Tommy!”
  “I know who you are, Tom-Tom. Three-five-nine, you be there when I get there, okay?”
  “Sure will, Fred. I’m turning around now.”
  “Over out.”
  In the back seat, Tommy sneezed and wiped his nose on his jacket sleeve.
  “Listen, Mr. Tom. Tell me about you credit card.”
  Tommy adjusted his jacket collar. “My brother Gerald gave me this card,” he said, sounding to Fred just a trifle defensive. “It’s my card. It has my name on it.”
  “I understand is you card. You have used the card before tonight?”
  Tommy leaned across the seat to be closer to his new friend. “I used my credit card to buy my airplane ticket. I used my credit card to buy my room at my hotel. I used my credit card at the Armenian restaurant that you took me to.”
  “You have any problems with card?”
  “I had problems at the restaurant.”
  “Yes, I know. You have problems with airline? With hotel?”
  “My card says my name is Thomas Arnold Matthews.”
  “I’m Tommy and I never stole anything in my life.”
  “H’okay, so no problems.”
  “That’s right, Mr. Freddie. Thomas Arnold Matthews never steals. My brother Gerald tells me to always tell the truth.”
  “Good advice.”
  “And to never steal.”
  “He good man.”
  “I do what Gerald tells me to do. He’s going to come and see me. He is doing important things now and said he might need me to help him. Maybe you will take Gerald and me to the Armenian restaurant and my brother will tell those people I am Tommy and I am good!”
    “Yes. Whatever you want. I drive taxi. Hush. Fred thinking.”
  Tommy stopped talking and went back to staring at the road reflections through the now smeared taxi window. He was thinking too. He liked the chubby man in the front seat. That was something that Tommy could understand. Tommy always understood goodness. This Fred-man was nice even though he pretended to be mean.  He was good. Tommy decided that nothing not good should ever happen to the Fred-man. He would make sure of it. Tommy knew that many people shunned him because he was different. He didn’t want anything not good to happen to them either, but he didn’t allow himself to remember those people and therefore he didn’t really try to help them when they needed it. Fred was different. Tommy would not forget.
  Blue lights in the parking lot improved the night’s visibility as the two men drew up to the Arpaio Inn. Fred  killed his headlights and coasted up next to the other golden yellow Crown Vic. His thumb motioned for Marcel to get in the front seat. As soon as Marcel was inside, Fred locked the doors.
  “Hello three-five-nine. Meet Tommy.”
  “Hi!  I’m Tommy! Are you going to ride with us in Fred’s car tonight?”
 Marcel looked at Fred as if one of them had lost his frontal lobe. “Pleased to meet ya, Tommy.”
 “Listen, three-five-nine, I tell you story. True story, but story just happen.” Fred recounted the incident at Aggie’s. He left out the part about the helicopter and the police cars.
 “Well, Fred, that’s very exciting, but I am not making any money listening to it. Credit cards get turned down all the time. What do you care? Can you get to the favor part so I can get back to work?” drawled Marcel.
 “Three-five-nine, remember you tell Fred you secret agent or some such horse poop when you back in Frankfort?”
 “Well, yes, Fred. You’re the only one who is supposed to know that. I am never going back there. No one is supposed to know I am here,” Marcel whispered through clenched teeth, his thumb indicating Tommy in the back seat.
 “Yes, yes. I know. Don’t worry. Fred never let you down yet, right?”
 “Right, but…”
 “No, ‘buts’, just listen. I want you look at kid’s credit card.”
  Fred snapped his fingers. Tommy produced the credit card. Fred accepted it and handed it to Marcel.
  Marcel--whose real name was Dale Devine, late of Frankfort, Kentucky, a former FBI man who had been terminated with extreme prejudice, freeing him up to pursue life as a private detective, at least until he’d been asked by the chief of police to close up shop or else face charges for failing to carry a permit--took the card from Fred and held it into the light. The standard sized bank card was made of transparent laminate. It felt lighter than the average piece of plastic--less weighty, yet somehow more durable. It bore no magnetic strip on the reverse. The account number and the name of the cardmember changed from green to purple by tilting the card at an odd angle into the light.
  “Thomas Arnold Matthew? That you?” Marcel said, peering at Tommy who was making shadows of himself in the blue hotel light. Marcel had already figured this Tommy as the kind of guy who liked to play with his own food. That didn’t have to be a bad thing, he supposed.
  “Here we go,”  Fred muttered shaking his head and rolling his eyes.
  “I’m Tommy! And that is my credit card.”
  “Nice looking card.”
  “Three-five-nine, I not call you out here to gaze in moonlight. You have special history with things like this. Don’t play games, h’okay?”  Fred whispered louder than most people shouted.       
  While Marcel didn’t want Fred to be uncomfortable or more agitated than he usually was, he allowed himself to feel good holding the upper-hand over his boss for just a moment.
  Marcel motioned to Fred to tender a cigarette. Fred obliged without taking his eyes off his employee. Marcel sucked in the smoke, coughed for effect, ran a hand through his hair (also for effect), and studied the card a bit more.
  “You know, Fred, nowadays you can scan your credit card right into your cell phone and then just use your phone to pay for damn near anything.”
  “That is not cell phone, three-five-nine.”
  “I have heard tell they’ve come out with these new cards that have like a GPS system built right inside them, but I think they call it PPS. Kinda like having a microchip inside your dog, except in this case it happens to be inside your credit card.”
  Fred watched Marcel enjoying the free cigarette. He did not appreciate Marcel’s sing-song drawled explanation.  “Why they do that?”
 “Well, I suppose if somebody lost his card or something, he could track it down. I imagine the main reason is to tell people what kind of stuff you buy so they can sell you more stuff. I don’t know. Thing is, this kind of thing doesn’t exist just everywhere, you know? I mean, I read in Scientific American where they’re thinking about maybe testing it out in some of the prefab towns.” Marcel continued with his toe-in-the-sand approach to telling what he knew for certain. He found himself somewhat enjoying this temporary control even though he was still upset about Fred spilling his guts. It had been several years since he had worked that infidelity case involving the Chief of Police and he was pretty sure the guy wanted him dead.
  Fred did not smile. “How we can tell for sure this card like that?” Captain Fred didn’t have much doubt that three-five-nine was onto something, but he was in no mood for speculation.
  Marcel popped the trunk lid, removed himself from the passenger seat and strode over to the rear of his car. He retrieved a toolbox and sat it down by his own rear wheels. “Go on and bring that card over here, will you? This thing’s heavy.”
  Marcel pried open the toolbox cover and extracted something that looked like a crescent wrench with a purple light on the business end of it.
  “What that is?”
  “Tender me that card, please. This, my friend Fred, is a crescent wrench. I adapted a signal detector for the end of it. Makes one hell of a weapon, too.”
  Fred shook his head. “Sure, as long as mugger has time to wait for you to get into you toolbox.”
  Marcel scanned the clear laminate with his cell phone, then allowed the purple light on his wrench to read what the application revealed. In response, the wrench beeped twice. Marcel repeated the process and received the same two beeps.
  “It’s got PPS on it, all right. Only working sporadically out here, though. Guess when they built this part of the access they forgot a few things. Cell phones don’t always work either. New style technology doesn’t operate in a lot of rural areas like this part of town. Thing is, most folks out here don’t care.”
  “Thank you for the civics lesson, three-five-nine. So all this chase across town with flying machines and popo is all over a piece of garbage credit card with kid’s name on it? I don’t believe it.”
  Marcel looked from Fred to Tommy. “What’s that about the cops? You never said--”
  “Don’t worry, three-five-nine. If the cops show up, I write you note. Thank you for favor. You go now.”
  The two men shook hands and parted ways. Fred stopped for a second and turned around.  “Hey, three-five-nine!”
 “What, Captain?”
 “Why you have that thing in trunk of car?”
 “Remember that you wanted to make sure your car didn’t have any of the new company’s trackers on it?”
 “Well, captain, I don’t want people tracking me down neither. And you know what else, Fred? That Armenian joint you took your guy to? They ain’t hooked up to the new system. Grandfather clause.”  He winked and hopped into the car and disappeared into the night.

  Fred did not know anyone named Grandfather Claus. Maybe that was what they called Santa in Kentucky.

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