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Steve C. Gingolaski Blue Cab Company




















Blue Cab Company






Steve C. Gingolaski







































Copyright © 2017 Steve C. Gingolaski

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1493767968

ISBN 13: 9781493767960

Library of Congress Control Number: 2013921051

LCCN Imprint Name: City and State (If applicable)

Chapter 1




"Show pity for the devil," my sweet old grandmother always said, "for he did his job so well that man no longer needed him." The year is 2084, the place is Philadelphia, and my sweet old grandmother had no idea just how right she was.

***

Nearly thirty-four hours ago, two less-than-upper-echelon members of the Mensa society, jacked up to their eyeballs on some shit made mostly out of household cleaning products, decided to make some easy scratch. Instead of doing things the upright and honest way, like a paper route or a bake sale, they decided to snatch a girl on her way home from school and demand a huge ransom for her release. The parents, upscale Philadelphia socialites, immediately took out two citywide contracts. One was for the death of the guys who grabbed their girl—a standard vermin termination contract, and the other for the return of their child—a standard search-and-rescue contract.

So here I was circling in a holding pattern over downtown Center City with approximately fifty-five other Company cabs some fifteen to twenty stories above William Penn's head, waiting for any clue as to the whereabouts of the parasites and their prisoner. The contracts were citywide. It didn't matter who fulfilled them, only that they were completed within the proper time frame.

The streets were already jammed with people scouring the city for any clue that might help them cash in, and the voice streams were flooded with reports from local law officials of unlawful interrogations and new corpses being discovered in alleyways throughout the city. It was the irrational sort of chaos that would soon lead to riots and the electric smell of Taser fire as the local uniforms responded.

A light on my console flashed deep amber—a secure channel was being requested. A single voice command caused a grinning face to fill the display. The grinner was happy with himself as always.

"I take it from your facial expression that you found something, Dee?" I knew he had. He never bothers calling unless there is money to be made.

"Got 'em located. They just placed a second call to the parents demanding to know where the money was. Whatever they were on is starting to wear off. The stress level in the caller's voice was extremely high. I didn't even need to run the analyzer on it."

I looked out at the lights twinkling down in the city and then at all the red lights on the back ends of the Company cabs in front of me. "If a call came in on a public line, then why is all my competition still in a holding pattern with me?"

Dee grinned even deeper. Here it came: a technological feat of piracy that wouldn't make any sense to me even after he explained it. It was part of what he lived for. "That's because I picked the signal off at the public switch. I was monitoring incoming traffic with a destination of certain high-level Philadelphia families from unusual sources and captured a call coming in from Castlerook Confectionaries. I spoofed the source address of the call and released it but put a few blockers and reroutes on the path. The local police should be finished tracing it in a minute or two, so wait until everyone leaves. I gave them a bogus address somewhere up north. You should have a nice head start."

"I'll take your word for it. Nice job, but the contract isn't open-ended payment. How much is this going to cost me?"

"It's reasonably priced," he assured me. "My sniffer is always up and coursing through the public switches. This was just a simple job tacked onto a list of others."

Of course Dee would be listening in on and taking note of who was calling whom and what dirty little secrets were being passed over supposedly secure and impenetrable lines. In his line of business, being well informed was almost as important as being well armed.

"So, who are my vermin and who is my hostage?"

The family chose to remain anonymous on the contract. It makes everything much harder but protects the social dignity and honor of the inconvenienced family. In the past, quite a few missing family members were explained away by having a sudden and serious desire to go abroad.

"Rat number one is a Mr. Jeffrey Meyer," Dee said. An image materialized quickly on the screen. It showed an average-looking kid in his early to mid twenties with a long, sallow face and hollow, almost-dead eyes. A slight chill along the back of my neck caused my head to briefly twitch, and I felt it coming. The chill enveloped my brain, and the stench of rot and decay assaulted my nostrils. I looked back at the image in front of me and saw that Jeffery's lifeline ran out at 11:48 p.m. A quick glance at the system time displayed on the console and a bit of fast math gave Jeffrey another forty-nine minutes of free breathing.

"Rat number two is a Mr. Kalid Cord." A new image appeared on the display. It was of another young kid but this one with bright, blue eyes and a quirky smirk. He looked like the kind of kid that was able to find and harness humor out of everyday life. His lifeline ran out four minutes after his friend's.

"What about the girl?" I asked.

"The family name is Jensen. That's Harry and Martha Jensen. Harry Jensen is the owner and head architect of Pinnacle Creations," said Dee as his face once again filled the display. "You've heard of them. They're the company that redesigned the Philly Art Museum so that it changes shape once a month. If you haven't been there yet, I would highly suggest it. The systems in place there are truly state of the art."

"I'm glad it has your personal stamp of approval," I said. "But what is the name of the girl?"

"Can't tell you. There are three Jensen family sisters, and since this began the other two have all but disappeared. To tell you the truth, I don't even think that our two geniuses know. They just kept referring to her as the bitch."

There was a sudden disruption in the circle as all cabs but mine powered up and took off going north over Broad Street. I waited until they were out of sight and headed southeast toward the Delaware River.

"I'm uploading the blueprints of the complex to your onboard. Make your way to the network operations room in the central command complex. That is where the call originated from, so that's where I would expect them to be hiding out."

"Thanks for the help, Dee," I said. "Send me your bill."

"I've already deducted my fee from your account," he said, grinning again. "Just in case you don't survive."

"You're a real sweetheart," I said.

"Stay safe," he returned. "There's no money in your death."

***

Castlerook Confectionaries stood empty. It was the brainchild of Francis Chessman, whose untamable sweet tooth and uncanny business sense created a sugar-and-chocolate empire that survived for almost 150 years. When ninety-five-year-old Francis Chessman died quite messily in a multivehicle gore fest, ownership passed down to his eldest son, who ran the business for several profitable decades before quietly slipping off into a diabetic coma behind his father's perfectly preserved oak desk with gold inlay. The next several decades were spent above water but with little fanfare until ownership was passed once again down the double-helix slide and onto the shoulders of Francis Chessman IV.

Around the end of 2073 Castlerook Confectionaries was streaming toward stellar new highs on the profit scoreboard, and the company Christmas party was catered with all the best stuff money could buy. Francis, described by many as a well-documented human resources nightmare, ended his revelries by chasing one of his female weights-and-measurements engineers throughout the production facilities. His blurry eyes and puckered lips met passionately with the meaty fist of the five-foot-seven-inch, 205-pound engineer, and their brief but spectacular union caused Francis to sink quickly, albeit noisily, beneath the molten-chocolate surface of the number three vat.

Ask any high school kid the reason for the closure of Castlerook Confectionaries and with wide, implacable eyes and hushed voices they'll immediately spin a fantastic yarn about some guy their best friend knows who actually talked to the girl who bit into a Castlerook bar and found old man Chessman's eyeball staring back at them. Kids today, huh? It wasn't an eyeball. It was his testicle—the left one to be precise. I got the straight shit from Tommy Morrison back in fourth-period study hall. His uncle delivered bagels and donuts for a living to the fifteenth precinct of the Philly PD. He scanned the hard copy right off some lieutenant's desk when the guy ducked out to hit the head.

Castlerook Confectionaries had spent the better part of the last twenty years in a state of total lockdown. The judges were still trying to decide what to do with the property. Now, with the courts inhabiting the third generation of the Judicial System Websphere, counselors could VR in from home and have their pixelated dopplegängers file motions and countermotions faster than ever before. It caused massive slowdowns in decision making. Ain't technology wonderful?

***

I dropped from several stories and engaged landing thrusters hard, causing my cab to hover slightly above the decrepit roof. A flash scan confirmed my suspicions that the roof was too unstable for a landing, so I popped the door, attached my grapple to the winch behind my head, and slid out and down through a hole in the roof into the darkness below.

I landed softly in several inches of dust that covered the large, open expanse of space like a light snow. A sharp tug on the cable caused the winch to reverse directions, and the cable quickly disappeared back up through the roof. A soft voice command, transmitted through my personal link to the onboard central core, caused my cab to shift to possum and play dead. It would continue to hover, but all electronics were powered down. Someone might be able to spot it with a thermal sweep, but that would be a lucky shot.

Optic shades, tuned to illuminate without blinding, amplified the ambient light—translated as outside city light reflecting through the shattered windows—to a comfortable level. Although it refused to permeate every dark, shadowy recess, it displayed enough to allow me to relax my professional paranoia. A quick glance around told me that this section of the plant wasn't a heavy-traffic area. The lack of telltale footprints in the dust signified that if anyone had visited here lately, it was most likely the ghost of Francis Chessman IV haunting the dust bunnies on his eternal quest for his missing walnut.

I crossed the floor quickly and climbed up a short ladder to a catwalk that spanned the length of the room. Stepping quietly, I tried to be just another shadow as I moved steadily toward the center of the complex, where the control center was stationed. The blueprints that Dee had uploaded to my onboard sat faintly visible about a foot and a half off my left eye in the form of a 3-D holomap. It switched from top-down to first person at the slightest touch on the corner of the optic specs. It had taken a while before I got used to the map, but soon enough it became a valuable resource whenever it was available.

I moved quickly down empty hallways and through rooms with broken pieces of furniture scattered violently about. The air was thick with the smell of mold and heavy with particles of dust. As I went on, the thick air caused my breathing to become somewhat labored, or maybe I was just getting out of shape. I stopped a few times to consult the floating guide, listened for anything that sounded human, and jumped ahead to another safe spot.

A steel door separated me from the central command complex, but with two panes of missing plate glass, couldn't quite stifle the voices inside. Dee had been right. It sounded like my future pair of toe tags were indeed coming down. One wanted to cut and run. He didn't care about the money. Continued breathing seemed to be of more importance. The other was a true disciple though. He was the calmer of the two and tried to extend that aura by describing all the possibilities that this money would make come true. His voice carried a sliver of rage as if accusing the other of spoiling his dreams.

I put my hands on the door and gave it a soft, steady shove and grit my teeth hard enough to cause my jaws to ache. Worst fears realized, the damn thing screeched like a wounded animal. With weapon in hand and a curse set firmly on my lips, I crossed the threshold and made my way inside the complex.

Luck or something closely akin to it was solidly on my side as I slinked my way through the lower section of the complex, making as little as noise as possible. The hollowed-out structure of the command center seemed to amplify the shouting that raged above me and helped me gauge their position. I moved quickly up one staircase after another until I had reached the upper level of the command center and entered a cavernous room.

When the Castlerook Confectionaries was still in the confectionary business, this massive room would have been filled with analysts monitoring the endless streams of data that come with every manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution company. The tables were still here, some of them even in their original positions. Most were tossed about the room, however, as if a tornado had touched down and then suddenly evaporated. The high-end video screens filled with production and marketing data that should have covered most of the walls were missing and had most likely been resold by a guy who camped out in alleyways and started every conversation with, "Psst. Yo. Over here."

My toe tags were off in a smaller side room standing on either side of a large, heavily scarred table. An equally beaten-up credenza stood next to the far wall. The girl was not in sight.

The two never stopped shouting at one another, each of them trying to deliver the rational side of the argument through high volume and frantic arm gestures in a futile attempt to win over the rambling idiocies of his partner.

The redecorator had done a nice job of scattering the tables. They provided ample cover and allowed me to move into range without the hassle of being spotted. Confusion came only when I looked at my watch. Jeffery Meyer's lifeline ended at 11:48, which was almost seven minutes from now. I briefly wondered what would have happened if I had tried to take them down now, but it was an old and familiar puzzle that I was still too scared to solve. Instead, I looked for a nice place to settle down and wait. I mean, who am I to fuck with fate?

My rest was short lived, as a roar from behind me added a new and unexpected level of excitement to the game. It dominated every other noise in the complex. I spun, ducked, cursed, and tried to aim all at the same time, and only the curse was executed properly. A flash of light glinted off the metal bar that smashed down on the spot that my head had occupied only a split second before. A loud thud partially deafened me as solid wood met solid metal. I had to admit, they really made quality furniture back in the day. The table had taken the blow without cracking in half as my head would certainly have done.

Scrambling to my feet, I jumped the table that I had been using as cover only moments before and ran straight at the objects of my contract. A sharp pain caught me in the side and spun me to the floor. My hand collided awkwardly with the ground, and my gun went skittering to the far side of the room.

A quick glance at my attacker and I knew what I faced. Red jacket with silver buckles, black shirt, red pants with a thick black belt, and soft, black boots. It was either Santa Claus or an employee of Red Cab Company. Someone was out to steal my contract, and it wasn't a jolly old elf. Whether he had been here first or followed me all the way in, I had missed him. Damn sloppy.

From my position on the floor, he looked almost like a mountain that had learned to walk. Very tall, very strong, and very hairy, he was the perfect caveman, and for such a large man, he moved fast. Of course, the size of the contract was a great motivator for speed.

He feinted my way and then jumped at Kalid Cord who, in a moment of sobering terror, had tried to run past him. Kalid changed directions almost in midair as the bar connected solidly with his chest and sent him flying backward over the table.

My competition turned quickly back to me, sensing that I was probably the second most dangerous guy in the room. I had to admit that I pretty much felt the same way about him. Bar raised high over his head, he swung down with both hands in an attempt to plant that piece of steel solidly between my eyes. I waited and rolled up on to my left shoulder at the last minute. When the bar met the floor in a high-pitched, audible kiss, I rolled back on top of it, stomped down on both his hands with my right foot, causing him to lean further forward, and lashed out with my left foot connecting with the side of his head.

I almost screamed as pain radiated up my ankle and into my shin. He grunted and dropped the bar. I spun with the motion and climbed clumsily to my feet while bringing the bar up to shoulder height. Swining upwards at a steep pitch, I caught him fully on the side of the head. The look on his face made me wonder if he even noticed my feeble attempt to brain him. He answered my unspoken question with a shot to my chest that sent me reeling backward.

Ignoring the bar that now lay at his feet, the caveman must have decided to finish me off in the manner of his people. Two thick, powerful hands grabbed me by the neck and lifted me off the floor.

My dad always said that there were two types of fighters—those without honor and those who enjoyed lavish funerals. Dad was always a realist who believed in survival first.

Employing the wisdom of my father, I lashed out viciously with my foot and caught the caveman in the smaller of his two heads. Two or three more attempts to communicate my point finally convinced him to put me down. Diving to the floor, I grabbed my fallen weapon and employed yet another of dad’s canons of wisdom: Live enemies are future headaches. Each squeeze of the trigger resulted in a clap of thunder that deafened the room. The caveman dropped and bled out on the floor.

I spun quickly and moved to the center of the room, blocking escape for everyone but me. Kalid was sitting on the floor struggling to stand. Jeffrey Meyer had never moved a muscle. He had stood through the entire show like his feet had grown roots. I wasn't even sure if he had blinked.

"Nobody move," I wheezed. My throat was on fire, and even breathing hurt. But I said it again just to make sure that someone had heard me.

Kalid stopped trying to stand and just sat there crying. He had figured it out first. Jeffrey was a bit slower. He must not have been completely down yet. He looked first at the bleeding caveman and then at me. Synapses starting to fire again through whatever gray matter he had left, finally clued him in to just what the hell was happening. Seeing that neither the caveman nor I had come bearing an attaché full of cash, Jeffrey checked his hand, decided to throw down, go all in, and hope that the cards fate had dealt him were strong enough to ride.

His hand disappeared behind his back and then flashed back into view holding a wicked-looking knife. Eight inches of double-edged steel with a half-serrated tip and hand guard dotted with twelve tiny spikes—the kind used to tenderize your opponent's face when up close and personal—glistened in his hand. He thrust it up high and charged.

I stepped back, shifted my weight, and adjusted my aim. The air around me seemed to suddenly grow cold. It was coming, and I could feel it. The numbers on my watch changed slowly and grew brighter at the same time. The light illuminated the Tekklar 88 in my hand—13 mm, explosive-tipped semiautomatic with extended clip.

Jeffrey arched his back, bellowed a deep battle cry, and thrust forward, intending to slice me in half. His cards hit the table and came up suicide kings. I was flush with aces and released the thunderclap that punched a fist-sized hole through his chest, folded him in half, and sent him flying backward into the conference room. The time on my watch was 11:48.

Kalid screamed and hid his face in his hands. I moved over to him and grabbed him by the hair, pulling him to his feet.

"Where is the girl," I demanded. He tried to say something, but his words were drowned out by his sobs. I shook him again, and this time he pointed to the scarred credenza at the end of the room. I tossed him against the table and left him to try and stand by himself.

Opening the top of the credenza was like reaching the end of a horror book you had read countless times before. The surprise was gone and all that was left was the gore. Half my contract had already been rendered invalid, and from the looks of it, it had been that way even before the ink on the electronic signature had dried. Since the girl was already dead, they must have planned on killing the person that delivered the money and trying to make a run for it. What a waste. There was no money in her death.

I turned to Kalid. He was half leaning, half standing against the table with his hands out in front of him and caught in an infinite verbal loop of confessing and pleading. In one long, monosyllabic word he accounted for the last two days of his life and what Jeffrey had done to the girl even though he pleaded with him not to do it.

Another thunderclap echoed, and the half of my contract that was still valid was sealed. I felt no sympathy for either of them. Besides, with the fee that I had incurred by using Dee, the night would probably prove to be a wash. What a waste.

***

I remotely powered up my cab and had it meet me down by the main gates of the factory. After that, I called a friend in the local precinct and waited for uniforms to arrive with the coroner and the documents that would eventually get me paid. I reloaded the Tekklar 88 and stashed it in the cab. It was a military-grade weapon and no civilian, even in my line of work, was allowed to possess one. Dee had given it to me on my ten-year anniversary with Blue Cab Company. He laughed as I unwrapped it and assured me that it was registered to me and completely legal. He followed that up by warning me not to get caught with it. One was a joke, but he would never admit to which.

The caveman had been one Carl Levanthal, second-year veteran of Red Cab Company. I found his cab next to the front gate. His cab was a low-end shell with very few enhancements. The condition of his ride said that he either wasn't very good at his job or that he spent his earnings elsewhere. The latter would have signified that he wasn't very intelligent. Your ride is your life. I notified dispatch, and they would in turn notify Red Cab on where to collect the remains. Intercompany homicide inhabited that gray area between officially forbidden and unofficially accepted.

***

I was looking through a large pile of junk in an attempt to kill time when I heard the voice. The wind had died down, and it was still almost inaudible. It was barely more than a whisper. Slowly moving around the pile, I found the gate guard's booth almost completely hidden. Inside I found a girl counting on her fingers.

She had black hair that had once been shaved close to the skull but had recently been left to grow wild. Large, dark eyes looked about the small room without fixing on anything in particular. Her pale skin reflected the light cast from the three-quarter moon, and her age could have been anything from sixteen to twenty-six. Her clothes were plain and white in the moonlight—somewhat dirty but still in decent condition. When she noticed me standing there, she looked up and smiled like a child. Then she went back to counting on her fingers, repeating the same thing over and over again. "Alpha, six, deuce, whiskey, six, beta, three, one, foxtrot, niner."

"Hello," I said, crouching down almost at her eye level.

She graced me with another smile.

"What's your name?" I asked softly.

"Alpha, six, deuce, whiskey, six, beta, three, one, foxtrot, niner," she returned in a singsong voice.

"My name is Richard," I said. "Richard Vandercar. I work for Blue Cab Company. What is your name?"

"Alpha, six, deuce, whiskey, six, beta, three, one, foxtrot, niner."

"Nice to meet you, Alpha," I said. I sat there and watched her for a few more minutes while she counted on her fingers, when her eyes suddenly focused, a quick snarl formed on her lips, and she shot up out of her seated position and stood ramrod straight with her hands at her sides.

Standing up, she was about five foot six, maybe seven, inches. I stood up slowly with my hands placed in front of me. Her eyes were fixed straight ahead, and it looked like she might break out into a hard march at any moment.

"What is your name?" I tried for the third time, hoping that the change in her posture would also change her answer. This time I struck pay dirt.

"Jeannie," she replied.

"Jeannie what?" I asked.

"Jeannie Aiken," she replied in those same terse, clipped words.

I stepped backward involuntarily as a chill wormed down the back of my neck. Pain encompassed the backs of both my eyes and momentarily blinded me. What I saw was impossible. It had to be. The girl who stood rigidly in front of me, the girl who bore the name Jeannie Aiken, also bore a lifeline that had terminated over three months ago.



Chapter 2




Let me tell you about “lifelines”. They are the providence of tea leaf readers, tarot cardsharps, cold-fingered palm readers, and every other peddler of mystic bullshit that sells celestial deliverance from all of life's trials and tribulations. My dad's view on mystical things, simply put, was this: the cosmic crutch of the meek and stupid who would rather blame all their problems on some magical, fate rendering monkey in the sky than actually give a damn and work hard for a living. I think a lot about my father lately.

So why do I see lifelines? How did I come face to face with the magical, fate rendering chimp? I have no idea. However, when I inevitably ask the universe, “why me?” the only answer I can come up with is that I was born dead. My earliest memory is of my birth. The monitor that was supposed to track my heartbeat flatlined before my head even kissed the air. The room filled with a collage of smocks as doctors rushed in from everywhere. The blood that had spewed forth in presage of my arrival dripped slowly off the end of the bed, staining the floor with a shallow puddle. My mother screamed my name and cried as she stared at the solid line on the ECG. My father, the hardest man I've ever known, stood a little ways off, slowly hammering his hand against the ledge of the window until his skin split and blood spilled. His eyes glistened, but not even God could get him to admit that he was close to tears.

I was ripped from my mother. She didn't even notice because the epidural was strong, but my exit would cause her to spend an additional five days in the hospital. I was passed from one doctor to another. Slapped down hard on a metal table and poked, prodded, and checked for several minutes. There were injections given and readings taken and the gentle CPR that is only done on newborns and infants. Minutes ticked by and it was only after the doctors had given up and turned to deliver the news that I started to cry. I was without a pulse for nearly seven minutes.

Don't get me wrong. It's not like I was just floating there, some ethereal specter watching it happen. That would have been cool. Maybe I could have jetted over to help Mr. Chessman find his missing macadamia. But it wasn't like that. I know this because it was the same damn story my mother forced down my throat over and over again ever since my birth. Especially when I was in trouble. Mom was a master craftsman, and her medium was guilt. I hated that story.

I usually need a name and face, and even then most of the time it is just a feeling of impending death, an eerie frigid blast across the back of my neck, something maybe from a partially left-open grave. Other times I can see the end of the line itself. Like a ghostly time stamp that marks finality. That happens most often when I am either the instrument of death or I am well acquainted with the victim. My ability is limited in range as well as scope. The farthest out I have ever seen the termination of a lifeline is eleven months. But at that time, I hadn't recognized what I was seeing yet.

***

I wasn't born in Philadelphia. Where I moved from, no one will ever know. I keep that a secret just in case the laws change and the government tries to send me back. A few years after I met Dee, he ghosted through my previous life and changed practically everything. My name's the same, but that's about it. Every record of my life before Philadelphia has been either expunged or modified, from my Citizenship Info card to my blood type. On second thought, I might want to have him change that one back.

After the mandatory number of years in public education, I drifted into Philly and spent four years with the Christian Brothers at the top of Broad Street at Twentieth and Olney. Nightly trips were made down Roosevelt Boulevard, merging onto Route 76 and jumping off onto South Street. Just past the hookers and grifters and pretzel cart vendors was Broad Street on the south side of Center City. Continuing south was the only choice, as the culinary side of heaven was found at the King of Steaks where Ninth Street crosses Wharton and Pasyunck. I came to Philly for the hockey and higher education. I stayed for the cheese steaks.

The Blue Cab Company exists several blocks north and west of the Gallery Mall. There are five major cab companies in the city of Philadelphia: Blue, Red, Green, Yellow, and Orange. At one time there was a Black Cab Company. They were a company of fanatics. Word is that they all accepted an impossible contract from somewhere down south, packed up, moved out, and disappeared off the face of the earth.

The Blue Cab Company headquarters is the twenty story cube that formerly existed as the Happy Smile Toy Company. Happy Smile disrupted the entire toy market with their flagship line of fully functioning, lifelike, Alterna-Pets. It was a stuffed animal with a titanium structure encasing a twenty-year, slow-depletion energy cell and programmed with advanced AI. They were an overnight success story and were the hottest item for six consecutive Christmas seasons, until a bit of industrial espionage caused the posting of their blueprints and microcode.

Cheap knockoffs and semi-clones flooded the stores and Net within a month. Happy Smile’s stock price evaporated nearly overnight, pension and 401(k) plans crumbled, and murdered board members were found decomposing in several parts of the city. The entire company was leveraged against the single product line.

Philadelphians are well known for cursing their own sports teams after a loss. Decimating an employee’s 401K plan, incites a whole new level of response.

A month after the smoke cleared and the excitement died down, Blue Cab Company found a new home.

My office, such that it is, sits on the sixteenth floor. There are sixteen floors designated for us cabbies. Rookies on the second floor, veterans on the higher floors and garage bays eat up the odd-numbered floors. The next two levels are for admin and business functionaries, while the top two are for the senior executives.

In my business, I may not the best, but I'm damn close, scratching and clawing higher every day.

The second floor is packed newbies and resembles chaos with a bladder infection. Up here there is a bit of breathing room. It's just another perk of being an experienced professional.

The office across from mine, the empty one with the flowers hanging on the door, used to belong to Jimmy O'Sullivan. Without a doubt he was one of the funniest men ever to walk the earth. He remembered every joke he ever heard, thought up new ones around the clock, and had a sense of timing that bordered on the divine. He also had about the worst possible sense of propriety and an accursed sense of judgment.

Four days ago, at his sister's wedding, he stumbled and sloshed his way up to the front of the hall and began a very touching toast by asking, "So how many of your came in through the door and how many came in over the wall? No, seriously though, I have to admit that this is the first time that I have ever been in a room with this many Mexicans in suits, and not a single one of you standing next to an immigration officer. Have you heard the one about the Mexican firefighters named Hose A and Hose B?"

Although the groom's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Alvarez, accepted the jokes with a slight smile and a polite nod, poor Jimmy was found an hour later standing at the urinal in the men's room with his dick in his hand and a salad fork in his right eye.

I saw the end of his lifeline four weeks ago, when he first showed us the wedding invitation. But how do you tell someone that they are going to die without being able to give any details and without sounding like a nut bag? I keep that sort of thing in mind whenever I start to wonder if I could really change the future. Mostly though, it's the thought of the reciprocal backlash that I might have to eat for interfering in such a well ordered Universe.

***

"Wanna grab some dinner?" That was from Kayla Daiches.

"It's ten thirty in the morning," I replied as I entered the Contract Distribution Center.

"How about lunch, then?" Her accent was faded Soviet.

"Sounds good," I replied. "I'm gonna hit Pat's and grab a cheese steak, what are you going to do?"

"You're a real jackass, you know that?" Kayla was a second-generation employee at Blue Cab. Her mother had run the Contract Distribution Center on the sixteenth floor for years until a small tear in her aorta took her before anyone could scream for the medics. The company unofficially adopted Kayla, and soon she had surrogate aunts and uncles everywhere who made it very clear that no cabbie was to even think about making a move on her. In my time here, two had tried. One requested a transfer abroad after being released from the hospital, and the other went out for lunch and was never seen again. However, the burned-out hull of his cab was found three weeks later in southern Jersey. I only scratched my way up to the sixteenth floor a little over two years ago and was promptly reintroduced to the rules the second I started to drool.

"What kind of woman do you dream about?" She asked. Either no one had informed her of the rules, or she had some sick desire to see me executed by my peers.

"Not you," I replied. In the beginning I had tried to avoid her, but she always had my contracts. After a while I finally stopped thinking that was just a coincidence. Please, don't let me be misunderstood. I really liked her. In the beginning I spent quite a few weeks awake trying to figure out how to make it work. But the drive to be the best had always overshadowed everything else. The need to close contracts was the driving force behind everything I did. At one time I must have liked the job, but now it was the contracts. I had to complete more of them, better and faster than anyone else. She knew that, and yet she continually tried to trap me.

She leaned in close enough to cause me to step back and whispered, "Tell me and I stop asking."

"I'm looking for a real slutty woman with a God complex.” I really was. I find this amazingly erotic. “Five eight, five nine, long, blue-black hair, olive complexion with almond eyes. She should have good-sized tits, a narrow waist, a tight ass, and a heart of flint. I'm talking about a woman who would show no difference in emotion between sticking a knife in me and spreading her legs for me. That's what I'm looking for."

"Well how about that?" she said. "You just described me."

"Really," I said raising an eyebrow. "And which part described you?"

"Physically, anyway," she replied.

Had I? Somewhat, yes. More than I was comfortable with admitting, anyway. But love is a distraction, sex can be purchased, to be the best meant closing the contracts, and closing the contracts meant money. That was my mantra, and I repeated it several times a day to myself. I was a true disciple, like everyone else on the sixteenth floor.

"Mentally I described Matilda. And did I mention, not you?"

"Yes," she said somewhat caustically, "you made that rather clear the first time. I can become just like Matilda."

"No you can't," I said. "Listen, why don't you just find yourself a nice guy who'll do things for you? You know, like put you up on a pedestal, buy you pretty trinkets and shiny baubles. You know, that shit that all you women like."

"Because I don't want to be put on a pedestal," she replied. "I want to be tied to your bed naked with Christmas lights."

No images. No images. Don't think about it. Love is a distraction, sex can be purchased, to be the best means closing the contracts, and closing the contracts means money. "Do you have a contract for me or not?" My voice almost cracked as I asked.

"Here," she said, frostily thrusting a packet into my chest. "The one you were waiting for finally arrived. Private contract with you as the sole recipient. No general bidding."

I turned around to leave but stopped, looked at her, and asked, "Christmas lights? What would your mother say?"

Without missing a beat she replied, "She would say that if it was good enough to conceive her daughter, then it would be good enough to conceive mine."

I walked away without saying a word but was absolutely sure that reply would stay with me for a long time.

***

Jeannie Aiken sat at my desk happily flipping through images on my terminal. Her hands flashed quickly across the terminal controls as she jumped from one pixelated image of sandy-white-beach-with-clear-blue-water to another. She picked her head up and gave me a big, lopsided grin as I approached.

I took her home with me after discovering her last night and introduced her to my kitchen, where she proceeded to clean me out of food. From her appearance it looked as if she had been scavenging for quite some time. Either that or just being dead really gave you an appetite. After eating everything I put in front of her, she curled up on the floor and fell asleep. I moved her into the bedroom and spent the next several hours running scans against the Civilian Public Database and contacting missing persons, every Philadelphia city hospital plus a few suburban ones, and the city morgue. No one was able to claim her.

I went back and forth on what to do with her. There was no money in a girl, alive or dead, who didn't have a contract associated with her. But her lifeline had terminated and she was still up and walking around. On a few levels that scared the hell out of me, and I needed to understand how it was possible.

We stopped off at the Gallery on the way in to the office and got her dressed in something a bit better than the plain clothes she'd worn the night before. The labels in her old clothes gave no obvious clue as to where she came from, but I had them in a bag in my cab in case they became useful later.

"Having a good time?" I asked.

I was rewarded with another lopsided grin.

"Who's this?" A voice asked from behind me. From the slight accent and inflection, I didn't have to turn around to know that I had been followed.

"A missing person," I replied.

"I have all your contracts," said Kayla, "and you don't have any that involve a missing person."

"I found her after last night's run. She was just sitting there." I walked behind my desk and found Kayla staring at me intently.

"There's no money in her," she said.

"I know."

Kayla stared at me for a moment more, as if deciding something about me, and then moved over next to Jeannie. "What's your name, honey?" she asked softly.

"Alpha, six, deuce, whiskey, six, beta, three, one, foxtrot, niner," Jeannie returned in a singsong voice.

Kayla looked back at me and asked, "Is she all right?"

"I don't know," I said with a small shrug.

"Is that why you picked her up?" she asked.

The question irritated me. I felt my face flush, and I stepped backward defensively. "I picked her up because it was cold and she was alone, sitting in a guard's booth next to a large pile of trash," I spat.

Kayla stared at me again and then asked, "You're not taking her along on your contract today, are you?"

Damn, I hadn't thought of that. I couldn't take her with me, not where I was going. Then Kayla saved me the trouble of asking for a favor that I couldn't possibly repay.

"I can watch her," she said. "She can sit in my office while you're out. No one will bother her there."

I gave her my best squint eye and thin-lipped stare that plainly said I was looking for her angle, but she went poker face on me, and I came up with nothing. I nodded slightly at Kayla, hoping she was catching all the suspicion that I was throwing at her, but she said nothing more. Moving next to Jeannie, I put my hand on her shoulder, and she looked up at me. "Jeannie," I said. Big grin. Looking back at Kayla, I said, "Her name is Jeannie Aiken. At least, that's as much as I got out of her last night." I returned my gaze to that smiling face and continued. "Jeannie, I have to go out, and I need you to stay with Kayla for a little while, okay?"

Her answer came in the form of her hand latching onto my wrist so fast and so tightly that I wasn't sure whether my gasp was from shock or the pain of her grip. The tips of her fingers were white where they pressed into my skin, and for a moment I wondered if she had snapped my wrist. Her eyes seemed focused for only the second time since I first met her; the look on her face was sheer terror.

"It's all right, it's all right," I said as soothingly as I could while trying to ignore the fact that the bones in my wrist were being ground into a fine powder. "I'll be back very soon, I promise, okay? I'll be back very soon."

Kayla saved me a second time by getting the girl's attention and distracting her enough for me to break free. "It's okay," she said smiling. "Richard is my friend. You can come and sit with me for a little while, okay?" She gently guided her up and out of the chair and walked her to the door, softly patting her on the arm. I massaged my wounded wrist as she led Jeannie back toward the Contract Distribution Center, and I heard her say again, "Richard is my friend. Of course, he could be much more than that if he wasn't such a putz."



Chapter 3




Anthony D'Angelo was a piece of shit. His childhood was a twelve-year nightmare for the kids and parents in his neighborhood and school. He was the worst kind of bully—the kind who practiced terror for terror's sake. During his teen years he delved into petty theft, and by the time the mandatory years of state education were over, he had finally graduated into grand theft auto.

The gang that orbited him was held together by a strange mixture of fear and greed. There was no doubting D'Angelo's ability to generate cash, but he often flew into unprovoked torrents of rage that caused everyone around him to scramble to safety.

His early twenties saw his debut into running prostitution and small time loan-sharking. His interest rates were murder, but the service he offered was faster and easier than any bank in the city. Those who were unable to repay their debts, however, and the girls in his stable who were unable to meet their quotas soon saw the extent of his wrath. On bad nights the interns at several area hospitals were given more than their fair share of practice.

Through it all, D'Angelo continued to earn, and people started to notice. Rivals saw his upward mobility as a threat and often sent their muscle to flex on him. But that same muscle would always be found rotting in an alley a few days or weeks later, and more often than not, the men who sent the muscle would be found by others.

Fear of D'Angelo's fury kept his image untainted, and he was never once arrested, accused, fined, or investigated. He had never received so much as a parking ticket. So in retrospect, it could be said that Anthony D'Angelo was a very lucky piece of shit.

Now the first thing any gambler will tell you is to never play cards at a table with six fat Texans all nicknamed Slim. The second thing is that luck has a horrible way of running out when you least expect it.

D'Angelo merged his organization with a larger one run by a man named Salvadore Marconi. Salvadore was a throwback to the olden times when gangsters had class and were revered by the people in the neighborhood. He gave back to the community and never littered in his own back yard. He was regarded as a gentleman and something of a folk hero. Salvadore's crew ran a chain of flower shops in the downtown Philly area that specialized in aromatic narcotics. His business practices were methodical, below the notice of law enforcement and highly profitable.

Shortly into the merger, D'Angelo staged a rage-inspired palace revolt. He walked into Salvadore's home, and unleashed a blizzard of pain. The cars in the funeral procession stretched for miles, and when the crying stopped, D'Angelo found himself abandoned by his own crew and facing Salvadore's grieving older brother, Christian. Having nowhere else to turn and facing imminent elimination, Anthony D'Angelo ran to the police and ratted out everyone he knew, right down to little Kevin Sikes who stole a carton of milk during first grade lunch.

***

Traffic was light this morning on the northbound side of the Schuylkill Expressway. That's thirteen words that don't often get used together. I was making decent time sliding in and out of lanes, and according to the traffic report from my favorite station—that just changed music formats on me again—I would have no problems all the way to the outskirts of Philly. The southbound lane, though? Well, they were screwed as usual.

Down on the ground my cab looked and moved like any other vehicle on the road. When the jump thrusters weren't in use, they tucked themselves neatly away and I blended in with the rest of the earthbound citizens.

For the last eleven months, the police had been squeezing every drop of juice out of D'Angelo. The Philly DA's office was about the happiest group of people you'd ever seen and had a whole team of clerks jacked into the Judicial Web, filing for warrants, wire taps, data system intrusions, etc.

Now that D'Angelo was no longer needed, he was being transferred to a minimum security station, where he would presumably pay his debt to society before being shuffled off into a state-run witness protection system. In other words, this was the last chance for Christian and his gang to take a whack at, well, whacking D'Angelo. The police had had enough of trying to keep him alive, so they contracted out the transportation.

I pulled into the driveway that hid the entrance to the twelfth precinct from the rest of the world. A thumb print, retinal scan, and note from Mom caused the guard at the front gate to finally wave me through. I waited as the steel gates slid open wide enough to admit my cab and continued on up the long, curved driveway.

A young officer I recognized but whose name I couldn't remember flagged me down and instructed me where to park. He carried a small duty bag in his right hand, and as he came over I read his name off the bottom of his badge. The officer's holographic image stared straight out of the center of his badge and then slowly looked right and then left. The security image was supposed to help citizens tell the difference between the real cops and the imposters. Like everything else, it worked to some degree.

Officer Chapman—so said the name on his badge—leaned in, shifted his duty bag to his left hand, and gave me a smile that plainly implied relief. "They're bringing him out now," he said.

"Going to miss him?" I asked.

"No way," said Chapman. "I was there a couple of days ago when we almost got hit. We barely had him out the back before they came in and destroyed the place. I have a hole in the shoulder of my coat where a round nearly clipped me. Take him and good luck. Pop your door."

I reached over and touched the console. The door behind me decompressed and rotated upward. A side door on the building, which blended in exceedingly well with the rest of the wall, slid open. Anthony D'Angelo emerged from the darkness covered in body armor and surrounded by several other officers who looked like they would rather shove him in front of a speeding subway car than do anything that might actually save his life. The side door slid closed, and I immediately lost all sense of where it had been on the wall.

D'Angelo was deposited in the back of my cab, and with another touch of the console the door rotated back into place and resealed itself. The chance of it being forced opened was less than zero. When the doors were sealed, the passenger compartment might as well have been a box of singular construction. A few more touches on the console and all the windows—including the one separating the driver compartment from the passenger compartment—immediately polarized.

A few of the officers who hadn't yet dispersed stood around wearing that same relieved smile that Chapman wore. One officer, however, still stood with his hand on the butt of his weapon looking like he wanted nothing more than to draw and pump a round right through the window.

"What's his deal," I asked.

Chapman took a quick look back and replied, "His partner took one in the gut and another in the leg protecting that dirtbag. He'll live, but it just don't seem right. Not for someone like that. Not for something like this."

"Right," I said. "You have something for me?"

"Oh yeah," replied Chapman, reaching into his bag. He pulled out an envelope, felt the weight of it, hesitated, and then offered it to me. "Here's our part of the contract. Captain Miller sends his thanks." He pulled a palm unit out of the bag and offered it to me as well. "I'll need you to vouch for it."

Now came the part where I made a bunch of new friends. "I'll tell you what," I said as I took his palm unit, shifted my head slightly to the left, and let it scan my right retinal imprint. "I'll vouch for the payment, but why don't you keep it."

"I'm sorry," he said, not trusting his hearing, "what did you say?"

"I said keep the payment. It's been a rough eleven months, right?"

"Oh yeah," he said slowly, "very rough."

"Then keep it. Throw yourselves a party. Relax. Just make sure you include the guy in the hospital."

The man just stared, first at me and then at the envelope in his hand. Feeling its weight again, his eyes lit up, and a smile threatened to consume his entire face. "Thanks," he said. "I really mean it, thanks."

"It's nothing," I said. "Just remember who did this for you. My name is Vandercar. Blue Cab Company. Spread it around."

The officer broke away and ran over to his buddies waving the envelope high over his head. I didn't bother to wait and see their reactions. I turned the cab around and headed back into Philly.

***

The sun glinted off the spires of metal that shot up from the roiling surface of the Schuylkill River, stabbing mercilessly at my eyes. I engaged the autoshade on the console, and the glass tinted to a more comfortable degree. The river currently hides around 90 percent of the evidence necessary to solve every crime in Philly for the last two centuries. It is so packed with trash that when local organized crime wants to dump a body in the river, they take along two shovels and a pickaxe. It has actively resisted two federal Environmental Clean Water Acts in the past several years. In Philly, even the water is tough.

The southbound expressway hadn't cleared up any since my previous jaunt northbound. It was nearing lunchtime, so of course, most of the world would be in a hurry to vacate Jersey. I had lunch there once. The experience had reminded me of a video that they used to show in high school called, "So Now You Have a Tapeworm." I wasn't in a hurry, or I would have engaged the jump thrusters and left the rest of the civilian traffic to its misery. Due to the price of fuel, staying on the ground is an easy way to increase profit margins.

A polite tap on the window caught my attention. I depolarized the divider until I could see D'Angelo's face in the rearview mirror.

"What?" I asked. I didn't need to be courteous. He wouldn't be tipping, so it didn't matter if he liked me or not.

"Hey, asshole. You're going the wrong way." He said politely. Then he expounded on his earlier civility by asking, "Didn't the other shitheads back there tell you that I'm not supposed to be taken into or anywhere near Philly?"

"Relax," I said. "I just have to make a quick stop downtown. So don't worry."

His face turned a shade or two south of indigo and he slammed a meaty fist into the glass right behind my head. "We're not supposed to be stopping anywhere, jerk off!" He screamed. "Do you know who I am? Do you know who I am?" Each question was punctuated with the sound of a dull thud as he again attempted to breach the glass.

"Sure," I said casually. "Sure, I know who you are. You're the man about to meet up with some old friends."

He went from indigo to ashen in a matter of seconds as his hands fell to his sides and his face took on an unnaturally pallid color. Understanding bore straight into him as his mind ran through all the unpleasant possibilities that lay ahead. At that point the flight mechanism kicked in, and he started to punch and kick at the windows and doors in sheer terror. I polarized the glass again and searched for a new favorite radio station.


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