He wasn't really a criminal, was he?
What a farce. This whole thing's a farce. Maximum security? Paul laughed out loud, then spun around, startled by the echo off humid bricks. He resisted laughing again. He stood motionless, taking in the skritch and squeaks of bugs and rodents. One over-zealous rat vaulted over his shoe top as the rest of the vermin scuttled around. Stomping them didn't appeal anymore. They weren't the enemy.
The ride had been lacking in creature comforts of all kinds. Scrunched partially inside a hatchless wheel well, he imagined himself a pinball during extended play. He was sickened from the exhaust by the time Betty opened the trunk, and he upchucked shortly afterward.
Here, sugar, she'd said. Take a Coke with you. It'll settle your tummy. His hand reamed the pockets of the borrowed coat. The rolled up bills were still there. Cool. The drained Coke can sailed a good length of freedom before hitting a dumpster. Dogs barked and he ran, giddy with good fortune. Morgue Duty had unexpectedly opened the rusty iron gates at the State Institution for the Criminally Insane. The cadaver had no place to spend his stash now. On the other hand, Betty had "house payments to make." Paul slowed to a forced casual pace, reminding himself the worst was yet to come. He drank in the smell of rain.
The cab was exactly where Betty'd said it would be. The diner was closing and the residuals were swept out with the dust. One of them sported a symbol of his trade: a black hat with rigid visor. The man's tap-reinforced work boots clip clopped toward a tired old Buick. A bad paint job had almost obliterated the vehicle's former tour of duty. "Washburn County Cab" seemed destined as its final assignment.
Paul waved an arm. "I need a cab. Are you busy?"
The man flipped a tooth pick into the gutter before swinging open the door to the back seat. "Nope," he said to the murky interior. Then he turned and faced his client. His eyes were expressionless, but his hand made an expansive gesture. With a shiver, Paul obeyed, sinking into the protesting springs and matted lumps of foam rubber. The heavy steel door slammed. Claustrophobic. Like a prison cell. The yellowed dome light came back on as the cabbie got in front. His hat wasn't a snug fit and moths had sampled his greasy jacket.
Paul's attention wandered. The latest Rustler magazine centerfold, clad only in stars and stripes, was duct taped to the back of the driver's seat. Her hair was cinnamon colored. Like Shelly's.
Paul glanced up and caught the cabbie's gaze in the mirror over the dash. "So where we goin', stranger?" he asked.
Paul composed himself with great effort. "To the bus station in the next town. Belvedere, isn't it, if you head north?"
"Yeah. But it's a long ways. Sure you got the funds? Don't see any luggage. Not even a backpack."
"I guarantee it." Paul pulled some twenties from his pocket and displayed them. "I lost everything. Well, almost. I have enough money, but I'd rather not go into all that. Got ripped off and I'm embarrassed, okay?"
"In that case, make yourself at home and call me Jake." The engine coughed then started up. "Can't remember the last time I got embarrassed."
"Rats," Paul whispered, then laughed.
The cab did a swerve. "What say?"
"I just gave you my name, kid. What's yours?"
"Oh. Paul. It's Paul." His knees began to shake.
"Hey, whatcha think of this, Paul? 'Bout to get myself married again. Maybe. I'm probably nuts. My ex was a snobby bitch." He sighed explosively. "Yeah, women are trouble. Better than the alternative though."
"Being alone. Can't stand that." The cab barreled down a street that was darker than dark.
"I don't mind being alone now. I killed the woman I loved."
Jake screeched to a halt at the deserted intersection. "What the hell did you just say?" The traffic signal swabbed the windshield with flashes of red. "Lemme get a good look at you. Another crash-out from the state institution, I bet."
Paul's scalded eyes narrowed. "No."
Jake swiveled, his hand lunged over the back of his seat and yanked Paul's coat open, buttons flying. "Is this the new get-up for street punks? Hospital PJs?"
Before he could respond, Paul felt the seat knock the breath out of him.
Jake floored the pedal and yelled above the engine's roar. "The decent folks in this town never had a say about buildin' that crazy-house here. They wanna get rid of you loonies, but gettin' rid of a problem doesn't always mean it's gone. You think you're the first wife killer I had in my cab?"
Paul's eyes locked with his tormentor's in the mirror over the dash. He gaped, desperate to speak, to regain control. He wouldn't go back.
"Relax, kid. I'm not a judge." The car veered onto a highway ramp. "Just a good citizen doin' the town a favor. One less murderin' psycho's the way they see it."
"I didn't murder her."
"Make up your mind."
Hysteria grabbed Paul and shook the words out. "I didn't murder her. I didn't kill her. B-but I loved her and she's dead--she's dead because of me." Suddenly he was enraged. "I didn't say she was my wife either--my girlfriend, okay?" he shouted.
Jake grew quiet and gradually matched the posted speed limit. "I'll take my fare, and in advance," he said. "Puttin' my ass on the line here."
Paul's heart thumped. "Do you mean..."
"I'll get you to that bus station, kid. Got a feeling that you're guilty of nothing but feelin' guilty. Like I said, I had a real psycho wife killer in this cab before, and he ain't like you or me. He made a big splash in the papers, statewide. Name was Don Taylor. Ring a bell?"
"Wow, what am I thinkin'? You're way too young to remember. What are ya, 'bout nineteen?"
"I'm twenty four.
"Sorry, old man. Hey, it gets lonesome out here. If you wanna unload, I'll listen this time."
"Her name was Shelley. We were both medical students." Paul's head dropped into his hands. "I-I don't know if I want to talk about it."
"No pressure. I'll turn on the radio if ya want...hmm, a doctor. That's somethin'."
Shelley...why didn't I let you do the driving that night?""Her spine got messed up in a car accident." I was drunk, and too stupid to admit it."She got hooked on painkillers, trying to study, to sleep. Sh-she got to the point of injecting Oxycontin. Crushing and mixing the tabs for injection can be lethal. But she was in so much pain. Confused. So I took charge." Paul's fist clenched. "She didn't have a lot of choices after her prescriptions were cut off. So I started stealing whatever I could...'adjusting' supply records at the hospital. It was there and she needed it. But then I screwed up."
"I got desperate to break the cycle before we both got caught...or worse. I had a close friend who had all the answers. Said to have the guts to make the "correct ethical decision." Do the tough love shit. Make her go to rehab by cutting her off. Well, I did. I thought she was all out. But she wasn't. Oxycontin. She still had a few. She knew not to go the IV route, but at that point, the way she saw it, she was alone. And that's how I found her. Alone and cold, with the needle still in her arm."
"Hey, that's really rough. Bet your friend felt bad too, y'know?"
"Yep. He sure did. Especially after I held a whole class hostage with a gun in his face. But I'm crazy, remember? It was a toy gun. He pissed his pants because of a toy. I couldn't stop laughing. Not until I woke up in the hospital."
"A toy?" Jake whistled. "The only guy in danger of gettin' killed was you. Christ, that's just plain..."
"Crazy? Not really. Just a simple matter of ethics. That's the first lesson at doctor school. First, do no harm: the Hippocratic Oath. Ever heard of it?"
Jake's shoulders tensed. "Well, I feel for ya, no kiddin'." He lit a cigarette and puffed for awhile. "How 'bout a rest stop? No bus leaves 'til nine in the morning in Belvedere. They won't be looking for you 'til later than that, if they do at all. And once you're over the county line, they won't bother. You can bank on it." He skidded down the Belvedere exit. The roadhouse perched on the side of a steep bluff, beer signs winking.
"Let's sit here." Jake dragged a chair up to the only table with a view. "I like to see what's goin' on outside and behind me at the same time. Shit, I can't see the cab. She looks like a heap, but the engine's cherry. And she's solid. Ain't too many things harder to kill than a Buick." His smile faded. "Wonder what joker took my parking place?" He twisted and scanned the room. "Don't see no strangers. None other than you."
"Yeah? I guess you caught me then."
Jake looked perplexed. And not amused.
"The stolen car I had in my pocket. Had to park it somewhere." Paul's grin was shaky, but earned a belly laugh. He appreciated the drafty spot Jake had chosen. His ill-fitting coat was conspicuous, but exposing the pajamas underneath could be a one way ticket back to the loony bin.
"You drink beer, dontcha?"
"Good. Don't mean to preach, but dope makes you a dope. 'Round here we do just dandy with a couple beers."
Paul mulled over the fact that Washburn County was notorious for meth labs. Oxycontin's 'Hillbilly Heroin' around here, Jake dude, he thought. A loud chuckle slipped out.
"Mighty cheerful for a kid in your predicament if you ask me."
Jake crooked his finger in the bartender's direction. "That's Alicia, my 'intended'," he said. "The lady behind the bar, not the chippy with the tray."
Alicia finished shining a glass, answering Jake's call with a peculiar half-smile. The stools were empty. After a glance at the clock, she approached the table.
"My fare's just passin' through. Decided to stop and wet our whistles," Jake beamed. "Paul, this is Alicia."
"Good to meet you."
"Uh, same here." Paul was startled by her level gaze. He looked away then back again.
"She's a decent gal. Here, baby. Business is good tonight. Start us on the first round." Jake latched onto her collar and pulled her down to his level, planting a wet kiss while tucking money into her cleavage.
"No, honey. I'm doing fine. Really." She removed his hat and ruffled his hair. Her fingers slipped the money back into his pocket.
After a twenty second stand-off, he switched gears. "Aw, okay. But you just might get an extra big tip," he winked.
When he turned, she snapped upright and shot him in the back with an incensed glare. She wiped his slobbers from her cheek and disappeared into the ladies room.
He emptied his bottle and squinted past Paul, somewhere beyond the filthy window. "I'm lucky to make any money at all. Only one cab company in town, but they roll up the sidewalks at night. Except for the taverns. That's where I get my fares. Lotsa good ol' boys'd be splattered on the road without my taxi service. Day driver gets the rich church ladies and those hungry housewives goin' shoppin'. Hungry enough to eat ya raw, balls an' all, is what he says." He loosened his belt and burped. "Well, shit, we play the cards we're dealt." After Alicia returned to the bar, Jake let loose a wistful sigh. "Yessireee, that's one good woman there. Decent."
A pouty waitress headed their way. On her tray she balanced part of the contents from her overflowing blouse, alongside two beers. "Alicia said she'll bring the next round. Here's your check."
Paul was thirsty. He gulped down half the bottle before he realized it and his stomach voiced its resentment. "Do they have any food here?" The juke box started up, drowning Jake's reply. It jangled Paul's nerves. As Kenny Rogers belted out the last chorus of "The Gambler", he chugged his beer.
"What kinda work they have you doing back there, kid? You know, with your education and stuff, I would think they'dů"
"I had morgue duty," Paul said. He began to recite the job description: "Help undress the deceased for the shrouds. Gather the personal effects for the family, if any." Vivid images of his most recent trip to the morgue raced through his brain. A slideshow... The elderly man's smile was hypnotic, especially in death. "The last guy I took down was a friend," Paul said, his detachment wavering. The old guy had seen the Reaper's approach: You know those thick soled shoes of mine, boy? They're hollow. My kin's all gone, so when you take me down to the Cold Room, hide those shoes. There's cash in 'em. Tell Betty I trust you...
Alicia was true to her word, dropping off two more frosty bottles, plus a bonus of nacho chips and cheese. The beer started tasting better and better. Paul's surroundings softened, then Jake's whisper cut through the haze.
"Curious. How'd ya bust out?"
Paul bit back an automatic reply. Damn, almost slipped. Almost betrayed Betty, his angel-in-white. Drugs, Alcohol and Stupid. The Holy Shit Trinity."A careless orderly. Long story, man." He flapped his hand angrily and looked away. "You're ruining my buzz."
Everything and everyone in sight was sepia toned. Paul crammed sticky orange tortilla chips in his mouth, then headed for the restroom. It was filthy, pungent with urine . "You have a promising future ahead of you, Paul," he said to the cracked mirror.
He wobbled on the way back. People clinging to chairs and each other took little notice. Their bursts of idiotic laughter sent him flashing back to the institution. Parallel universe. Small wonder the "decent folks" fear the "loonies." He returned to the table and saw Jake messing with what looked like a cardboard sign lying flat in front of him.
What the hell? "That's a chess board," Paul said, flabbergasted.
"How 'bout that? So it is...and I ain't never been defeated. Not that I can find many to play with. The fella I usually massacre's not around tonight. Guess I'm shit outta luck."
"I play. I'm good too."
"Look, I'm a little nervous for games. I'm wired and tired at the same time. You could say I'm concerned about my future."
Clinks of glass from a nearby table turned both their heads. The waitress, several "empties" clutched between her fingers and thumbs, eyed them while she cleared debris into a large rubber pan.
Jake polished a tarnished queen with his handkerchief. "Now, Cindy over there, I betcha she's a card player. Every time I look at her, I think poker."
Cindy abruptly took flight, leaving her work behind.
"Okay, Jake. You're on." Paul settled in. So did his determination. Defeat wasn't on tonight's agenda.
Two hours later, the roadhouse was nearly deserted. Jake stretched, smug. "Must be like ridin' a bicycle. I think I could go for years without playin' and still beat anybody that comes along. Some things y'never forget."
"I'm sleep deprived," Paul said grimly. "Couldn't concentrate." Dominating his peripheral awareness was Alicia. He'd felt her heat throughout the game.
"They rent rooms in the back. I can drum up some more fares while you sleep off bein' a loser and be back bright and early. Just don't go lookin' for consolation with my woman."
Jake's guffaw pushed Paul to the brink. Paul almost told him that Alicia couldn't possibly be his "woman". She's beautiful, you ignorant bastard. Intelligent. That's my Shelley, ten years from now. That cinnamon hair. Soft slim hands. He could imagine her nude, the smell of her skin. "I need some air first," he said. The knot in his throat was choking him. "I'll be right back, okay?"
"Sure, sure," Jake said. "Gotta go take a piss anyhow."
Paul stumbled out the side exit and tried to orient himself. He wandered until he found the cab, forlorn, at the far end of the lot.
What if Betty was wrong? The toes of his shoes rooted in the crumbling concrete and he swayed, indecisive. An owl hooted somewhere above. A chill rattled his teeth as he grabbed the handle. With a loud prolonged creak, the door opened. Just like Betty said it would. The frigid leather seat was a shock. I can't do this, he thought. He was freezing cold, shaking, his eyes darting in all directions.
They're here! He doubled over, his head grazing the steering wheel--and freed the icy bundle of keys from beneath the floor mat. It was easy to tell which one fit. He'd noticed the laminated chess piece dangling from the ignition during the harrowing highway ride. He'd focused on it...alternating between it and soft cinnamon hair.
"Hey! What're ya doin'?"
I can't go back Paul jammed in the key. Frantic winding. The engine ignited, then paused. It skipped, clattered and died out.
This time the engine roared, triumphant. The headlights lit up Jake, his jaws working, his legs pumping like pistons.
Paul stomped the pedal. Faces pressed against the inside of the picture window. One of them looked like Shelley's. Ten years from now. The Buick mauled Jake, dragging him as a starved beast would. A creak echoed and rebounded as Paul pushed open the heavy steel door. Yanking blindly, he disentangled Jake's jacket from the grill. He pulled him by the shoulders into the patch of ground illuminated by the headlights. The sight of blood had never been a problem. "Let me get a good look at you. Don't worry, I'm a doctor, remember? Hmm, neck injury. You can't move from the neck down. Correct?"
"Actually, that's why I'm here, Jake. To help." Paul felt laughter welling up. "Let's see, the way Betty tells it, her sister forgot to mail in the house payment one too many times."
Jake's mouth opened; a gurgle crawled out.
"Betty has an excellent memory. She remembers when you married her sister, Rose. You really don't remember who you are, do you? All that electricity they ran through your brain blew a fuse, dude. You forgot your seventeen years in the institution, and the whole county's playing along. You creep 'em out. I guess, after what you did to Rose. Does dismemberment ring a bell?"
Paul saw Don Taylor's eyes go wide with recognition just before he rolled him off the edge of the bluff. "You might just say I'm a good citizen doin' decent folks a favor."
Dawn smelled like diesel. Paul hoisted himself into the seat next to the burly trucker. "Thanks, man. Been walking for miles."
"You look like you got the bad end of the stick. You okay? Name's Frank."
"I'm Paul. Yeah, I'm fine." He threw back his head and laughed. "Just a little car accident."
He wasn't really a murderer, was he?
Jane Gwaltney, a member of the Midwest Writers of Horror, is a born pessimist. She finds this trait useful when she's not too depressed to write. Her fiction, poetry, and art appear in Dreams and Nightmares, Wicked Hollow, Whispers From the Shattered Forum, Redsine, Scared Naked Magazine, and others. She has twice received Honorable Mention in the Year's Best Fantasy & Horror.