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Reduced Circumstances

Chapter One

We were swabbing out the taxis when I first learned about the kid. Cleaning out the cabs was one of the morning rituals for the five drivers of the Midnight Taxi Service, and there was usually at least one interesting tale from the previous night’s fares.

“—I mean, I’ve had people practically throw themselves under the tires before, but this kid sure was in a lather.” Billy Lee was the driver doing the talking, his heavy Southern accent always making him sound like he was pulling your leg. Tall, lean, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, that morning he was wearing jeans and an aqua blue bowling shirt with “Billy’ embroidered in gold lettering on the chest pocket. At first I had thought “Billy Lee” was his first name because all of the other drivers always addressed him that way, but working as night dispatcher gave me access to the drivers’ time sheets. Lee was his surname.

“Runnin’ from a hotel? You never seen that before, Billy Lee? Particularly at this time of year?” This came from Tony Ng, at twenty the youngest driver of the group. Though only one generation removed from Vietnam, Tony was born and raised right there in the Florida Panhandle and spoke with as pronounced a southern twang as Billy Lee. It was hard to put that accent together with his dark complexion and the jet black hair which he parted down the center of his head so that it bobbed when he walked.

“Oh, I’m not sure he was runnin’ away from anything, Tony. He was in one heck of a hurry to get somewhere, though, and with all those flashing police lights I wasn’t sure if I wasn’t going to get hauled in for aidin’ and abettin’.”

I straightened up when I heard about the police lights. I had been brushing the beach sand out from under the back seat of Tony’s cab when Billy Lee had begun his story, but now this was getting interesting. Besides, Tony wasn’t making any effort to clean up the front seat of his rig, and I was unwilling to do the whole job, new guy or not.

“Police cars?” I asked as I reached for the Styrofoam cup of coffee sitting on Tony’s roof. The Midnight taxis were a collection of different makes, colors, and sizes, and Tony’s was a beige four-door which had been bleached almost white by the Panhandle sun. That sun was just making itself visible in the east, starting to shoot rays onto the placid waters of the Gulf across the street from where we were parked.

“Yeah, Frank, and a lot of ‘em too. Musta been half the Davis police force there. You know the hotel I’m talkin’ about, right? The Seaview?”

“Nebraska’s got a better view of the sea.” Tony threw in, leaning back against his vehicle and blowing on his coffee to cool it. The taxi service’s owner, Mr. Corelli, paid for everybody’s morning coffee even though he didn’t come in until well after nine. He’d stayed on for my first two evenings as night dispatcher before deciding I wasn’t going to put him out of business, and the morning coffee run had become one of my duties. “Now you don’t know that, Tony.” Again it was hard to tell if Billy Lee were serious or not. “I’m sure if you climbed up on that flat, droopy roof of theirs you’d have a fine view of the sea.”

“What about the cops?” I tried to get them back on track, but the Midnight service’s drivers took great delight in ignoring their new night dispatcher, who was college-educated and a Yankee to boot.

“I bet more than one Seaview guest has gone up there, too.” Tony’s hair bounced as he nodded to his own words. “I mean, a two-story drop might not kill you, but West Davis is a pretty depressing place and when a man’s depressed he’ll try anything.”

He was right about that part. We were parked at a little rest stop in Davis proper, a small grassy area with a couple of picnic tables and a sweeping view of the Gulf of Mexico. Although there was technically no such place as West Davis, the money people who lived in Davis proper and the surrounding area referred to the bad part of town as West Davis whenever they could. I am told they tried to get the place officially labeled that way a few years before, but that a sharp street lawyer from a West Davis strip mall had run circles around them in court, and so the rich folk had been forced to keep the unofficial name going by word of mouth.

Another taxi rolled up while Billy Lee and Tony were nodding their heads at me, and I almost forgot about the police show at the Seaview motel as Manny Batista, one of the older drivers, got out. Manny had come to America as a teenager with the Mariel boatlift, and liked to tell people that he was one of the inmates Castro had released from Cuba’s asylums at the time. He lived two towns over to the east in a small place called Exile, and as I currently resided there and had gotten to know the police chief quite well, I had it on good authority that Manny’s story was a bit of an exaggeration.

Manny was a couple of inches shorter than average height, with a barrel chest and arms that looked like they could twist a fire hydrant in half. He wore a pink guayabera with red roses running down one side, the long Latin shirt loose over his bone trousers. He carefully adjusted the skimmer which never left his head before walking over to my car to get his coffee.

Manny’s arrival brought Billy Lee and Tony back to the topic of the police, as the older man usually had a dampening effect on the younger drivers. He had mastered the art of the scornful stare, and seemed to apply it to Billy Lee and Tony more than anyone else. I personally think it was because he regarded the two twenty-somethings as only one step removed from the college kids they drove around the Panhandle in the spring, and removed only because they had not been to college and worked for a living.

He didn’t need the stare today, though, as he had driven past the Seaview on the way to our little daily rendezvous.

“You should see the circus at the Seaview. Newspaper people, television people, cops all over, and even a couple of suits and ties. Prosecutors, probably.” He said all this without looking at anyone, sipping his coffee and making a face even though I had gotten his preference perfect this time.

“Still?” Billy Lee asked in a slightly subdued voice, while beginning to take various pieces of trash paper from his front seat and dropping them in the garbage bag I had brought with the coffee. “They were there last night around eleven, all flashing lights and blasting radios, you’d think they’d be done by now.”

Tony had taken an interest in cleaning out his rig too, so I stayed on break in the hope that Manny would get Billy Lee to keep talking.

“Camera works better in the daylight.” Manny offered as if he were mulling it over instead of pointing out the obvious. “Like I said, probably a couple of prosecutors there, and I never met a prosecutor who wasn’t going to run for office. So I bet they waited until daylight to do the formal announcement.

“Lotta action, though. You have any idea what it’s about?”

Billy Lee came out of the back seat of his cab still holding the garbage bag. “Naw. The place was all lit up as I was driving by, I probably wouldda stopped to look but like I was telling Frank, this kid came running out in front of me and flagged me down.”

Manny gave him The Stare.

“Oh, come on, Manny! He might not have even been in the hotel at all! Like I said, he ran up to me on the street. He wasn’t carrying anything, either, so what was I supposed to do?”

The Cuban kept the gaze fixed on Billy Lee for a moment or two longer before cracking a smile and laughing deep in his chest.

“I’m just havin’ fun with you, Billy! It’s not like we’re supposed to grill the fares just because the cops are around.”

“Excuse me, sir.” Tony had emerged from his taxi and spoke across the vehicle’s roof with a deep, authoritative traffic cop’s voice. “Have you been involved in any criminal activity this evening?”

“If you have, I may be required to deny you service.” Intoned Billy Lee in imitation of Tony’s traffic cop. “Or even place you under special citizen’s arrest—“

“You have the right to remain silent—“ Tony stopped the routine in mid-sentence as the final two Midnight drivers rolled up together. This was expected, as we had gotten a call for a big party trying to get back to their Panama City hotel an hour before. The Midnight Service had two minivans for occasions like that, and the stories of jamming twice the acceptable number of passengers into those rolling meat lockers were legion. I had been allowed to pilot one of the regular taxis when we were hurting for drivers, but the vans were another thing entirely.

Both vehicles bore the half-moon-and-clock-face emblem of the Midnight Taxi Service, but one was painted eggshell blue while the other was a dull yellow. They had both been dull yellow when I joined the company a month before, but a nasty sideswiping one dark night in a crowded parking lot had made a new paint job pretty much mandatory.

The blue van now seemed to lead a charmed existence, as demonstrated when it simply rolled up to the other cabs while the yellow one made a big turn and ran its two right tires up onto the curb. This was the signal that the van needed to be rinsed out, and I went to my car to get the hose. A spigot stood up out of the ground near the picnic tables, and I began attaching the hose while Ruby Sears worked his way out of the van.

Ruby was probably fifty years old and the senior-most driver. Even Manny did what Ruby told him to do, which was a pretty solid testament to Ruby’s common sense and leadership skills. It might also have been recognition of Ruby’s enormous size, but I had not yet summoned the nerve to ask. Ruby was probably six feet tall, but he weighed close to three hundred pounds and so there was no way he was going to drive one of the normal rigs.

It would be kind to say that most of Ruby’s weight was muscle, but it would not be accurate. Ruby was a big fat black guy who knew more about driving a taxi in the Panhandle than anybody, including Mr. Corelli. Ruby knew all the back routes, all the police, and most of the bouncers at the local clubs. He was also rumored to have chased down two college kids who tried to stiff him just a year before, putting one in a headlock and sitting on the other while dialing his cell phone for the police.

With the hose attached, I unwound the green rubber tube until I was standing on the uphill side of the van. I took a deep breath and worked the latch which slid the big yellow door back on its runners. Ruby did the same on the other side (Corelli had searched long and hard for these models, stressing the desirability of shooting water straight through the vehicle) and I began spraying what looked like a ten course meal off the floor of the van. The hose had one of those pistol grip nozzles, one that allows the user to get a full spray going instantly and shutting it off just as fast.

In case this sounds like we waited until the end of a shift to clean up this kind of mess, that is not the case. Some drivers carried boxes of sawdust, some carried paper shavings, and one even carried kitty litter for the purpose of sopping up this kind of problem until a water point could be reached. Corelli insisted that a liberal dose of disinfectant and some air freshener followed an event like that, and there was always the in-depth cleaning in the morning, when all of the rigs were swabbed out.

Ruby came around to my side of the spray, wearing a light windbreaker despite the heat. A porkpie hat was pushed back on his head, and an inch-long unlit cigar sat in the corner of his mouth. He always looked as if someone had just dragged a set of fingernails across a blackboard, but I had found him to be even-minded and generally unexcitable in the month that I had known him.

“Hoo-wee, Ruby! Was that a bunch of college kids or deep sea fishermen you were haulin’?” asked Billy Lee as he walked over. “Looks like they gutted a Great White right in the back of your rig!”

“From the smell I’d say that red color’s mostly wine. But I did pick that gang up at the yacht club—“

“Which one?” Davis had two. As I said, Davis proper is rich man’s territory.

“The Clover. Like I was saying, I did pick them up at the yacht club, so maybe they were deep sea fishermen after all.” Ruby pointed to a section of the floor that I hadn’t hit yet while continuing to speak to Billy Lee. “Now am I going to find your rig as clean as this one when I walk over there?”

Billy Lee took the hint and moved off while Danny Parsons, the driver of the blue van, crossed the grass and joined us. He was the quiet one in the group, thirty years old like me and also a resident of Exile.

He had once told me that his hair had started receding when he was fifteen, and so he kept the small fringe that was left cut down almost to nothing. He usually wore a baseball cap to protect his scalp from the sun, but this morning the cap was absent. When he handed Ruby a coffee I noticed for the first time that they were the same height. I should have picked up on this before, as the two were frequently paired off due to Danny’s quiescent nature and the fact that he usually drove the blue van. Lean where Ruby was fat and flat where Ruby was round, Danny seemed happiest when he had secured Ruby’s approval.

“You know, at this hour of the morning I would not have expected that to happen.” Danny observed as I dragged the hose around the other side of the van and began spraying the mess down the storm drain. “When we split them up between us I would not have picked that little guy to be able to do all this.”

“Man just had too much fun, is all. Not like we can predict this kind of thing, is it?”

“Now that would be some trick, wouldn’t it Ruby?”

“Yes it would, Danny.” And with that slight acknowledgment Danny was good for the day. He ambled off toward the other cabs, taking the communal trash bag from Manny as he went by and beginning to clean out his cab while I began coiling the hose.

“Thank you, Frank.” Ruby said, allowing the air to work through the listing taxi. He looked at me strangely then, and spoke while moving his head from side to side as if inspecting a horse he was going to buy. “Frank, have you lost a lotta weight since comin’ on board with us?”

Of course he was right, and of course he was the only one who would have noticed. I was wearing a tee shirt which had once hugged a nice little pot belly but now hung on me like laundry drying on the line. I kept the shirt untucked so no one would notice that the cargo pants I was wearing were ready to fall down around my ankles despite the presence of a belt with two extra notches cut in it.

“Yeah, but this was happening before I came to work with you guys. I was dieting but it looks like I overdid it.”

“Yeah, I do that all the time.” He smiled while saying this, but I knew he was deciding whether or not to keep going. “Listen, your business is your business, but you sure you’re just down here for the sun? I mean, a guy with your education usually isn’t hosin’ out taxis for a living. You sure there isn’t somethin’ eatin’ you? Maybe somethin’ unfinished up north?”

For a moment I wondered if he knew the real truth about my current employment with the Midnight Taxi Service and my current residence in Exile Florida, but since I had not confided it to any of the drivers I had to doubt that. I smiled weakly before answering truthfully.

“Something like that. Yeah.”

Something like that. Yeah. Actually, Ruby had hit it right on the nose and I wasn’t at all sure that my weight loss wasn’t directly related to my presence in Florida. I had been in the Panhandle for almost a year when I took the job with the Midnight service, so I suppose I would have to go back a good three years to be at the beginning of the trouble.

Three years earlier I was the proud owner of a mid-sized software company which specialized in tailoring applications for our corporate clients. Roughly fifty people worked for me, I was married to a wonderful woman, and everything was great right up to the point when the whole computer industry went into a nose dive.

Having given much of my early adulthood to building that company, I wasn’t about to watch it go down the drain without a fight. So I did two things the Small Business Administration normally tells people not to: First, I put my own money into the business (which disappeared in a frighteningly small number of months), and then I went outside the normal banking channels to get more.

None of this was illegal, mind you, but when you go beyond normal lending services you are really taking a chance. These people are sometimes referred to as venture capitalists, and sometimes they are called mezzanine finance, but whatever the name they are usually a group of wealthy people hoping to make some quick money. The best thing that can happen is a speedy recovery, in which case you pay huge interest and get away from the mezzanine folks as fast as possible. The more common result is an ongoing relationship, complete with a mezzanine representative sitting in your office. And sometimes, as in my case, the business continues to decline and the new partners push out the old management.

I fought them on that one, and ended up getting forced into bankruptcy. That was when things really went awry, as a psychotic judge decided to add a new feature to corporate bankruptcy law and attached my future earnings against the settlement of my titanic debts. Normally a bankruptcy settles the debts one way or the other, and the slate is wiped clean, but not so in my case.

My old college roommate, a good friend named Mark Ruben who was by then a successful corporate lawyer in Manhattan, stepped in at that point and concocted a plan to get the creditors and the judge off my back. My yearly earnings were not subject to confiscation if I stayed below a certain income level, and so Mark had suggested I relocate to a nice, warm part of the country and do part-time work as a fact checker for local law offices and insurance companies. This kind of work fit my technical background, as much of it involved background checks and court document retrieval, and I picked the Florida Panhandle because many years earlier I had been one of the college kids visiting there on Spring Break.

Probably threw up in the back of a Midnight taxi, too.

Mark believed that the plan would convince my shadowy creditors to give up on ever getting restitution from me, but I’d been at this for over a year and there was little indication that the message was being received. Mark had called the other night with the unwelcome news that my former partners were interested in getting control of a few software innovations created by my company, the first word from them since the court case had ended. I would have been happy to give up the rotten patents to get my life back, but unfortunately they were sitting in an insurance company’s office in Hartford and I currently had no more right to them than the creditors.

At any rate, the fact checking work had actually proven interesting, and it had brought me into contact with some local private investigators who encouraged me to consider joining their profession. As there is a lot of training and licensing involved in PI work, I did not really give this much consideration, but I did help solve a murder that had horsed up one of my insurance investigations along the way. I actually could have benefited financially from that case, but I was still trying to keep the earnings low and so I continued with my fact checking work.

Unfortunately, background checks and document retrieval only pay so much, and I was not the only guy providing this service. I found myself seriously struggling to make ends meet shortly after solving the Gonzalez murder case, and when you consider that I was living in a rented house in the tiny Panhandle town of Exile, you can see I was making almost no money at all.

So I began stripping away the luxuries, and as there were precious few of them I quickly got to cutting back on groceries. At first this fit in well with Mark’s pull-up-the-drawbridge, half-rations-all-around siege idea, and I saw myself physically embracing the concept of a long campaign of denial. The pot belly flattened out, my office pallor turned into a nice Florida tan, and I felt I was finally making a stand.

I also re-learned the standard college kid’s tricks for stretching the food budget. It is amazing how a small piece of meat or fish can be expanded with rice or pasta, and you can get a lot of rice and pasta for very little money. The figure in the mirror continued to shrink, and with every lost pound I saw another small victory in the contest of wills.

In a strange side effect, my lowered caloric intake also led to less sleep. It wasn’t that I had any trouble dropping off, or that I was having nightmares, but like the food intake, I simply didn’t seem to need it as much. It worked in concert with my idea of a general leaning-out of my existence, and it did not concern me at the time. The only real problem was the addition of unfilled hours which had formerly been dedicated to sleep, and so I went looking for a side job. A night job would kill two birds with one stone, taking up my slack time and providing me with more money, and so when I saw that the Midnight Taxi Service needed a night dispatcher I went over and applied.

Back to the kid, then. I was done with the taxi service for the night, so I drove east through the moderately successful town of Bending Palms and on to my new home of Exile. The sun was not yet fully up, and the gentle surface of the Gulf of Mexico stretched away on my right as I drove. I was renting a small one-story house a block or two from the beach, and when I got back there I flipped on the news to find that Manny was right about the cameras.

The local channel was jumping with the story of a major drug bust at the Seaview Hotel in West Davis, and there was plenty of footage of the U-shaped concrete block motel. I recognized the district attorney when he got up in front of the cameras and announced the street value of the contraband found in the car of one of the Seaview’s guests, and then the shot switched to earlier footage, probably shot the night before.

The Seaview was a pretty standard model motel that I had seen in other parts of the country. It was cream colored and two stories high, with an external metal walkway running along in front of the doors on the second floor. The doors were also metal, and they bore the same red paint job as the railing. The main drag in West Davis went right by it, so if you were standing in the street you would be facing the parking lot. The long side of the building ran parallel to the street, and the two arms of the U shape came straight at it. The arm on the left held the motel office, announced by a neon “VACANCY” sign in the scene from the previous night.

The parking lot was jammed with police cars, and the flashing lights bounced off the whitened walls of the motel in a glaring series of flashes. The Seaview didn’t seem full up at the time, as there were more empty spaces than slots with cars in them, but then again Billy Lee had said everything had happened around eleven and so perhaps the other guests were out.

The scene flipped to a shot of a flatbed truck carting away a maroon four door sedan that was comically decorated in yellow police tape. There was no footage of the suspect, but the DA came back on at this point, explaining that a forty-five year old office supply salesman had been apprehended the night before. He had refused to allow Davis police to open the trunk of his car, and so the vehicle had been impounded. I assumed the drugs had been found at the impound lot, and began wondering just what had tipped them off when the DA answered me.

“The Davis police department received a complaint late last evening, a report of a car alarm that was sounding in the parking lot of the Seaview Motel. Upon arriving at the scene, Davis police officers were confronted by the suspect, one Ronald Baxter, a guest in the hotel and the owner of the car. Mr. Baxter was behaving strangely, and when questioned by the officers became hysterical and needed to be restrained.

“Once Mr. Baxter had calmed down, he informed the officers that he was an office supply salesman from Tampa, and that he routinely passed through this area as part of his marketing territory.

“The officers then asked to look in Mr. Baxter’s car, and when Mr. Baxter refused this request he was placed in custody and his vehicle was impounded. A search conducted at the police impound discovered the drugs hidden within the body of the car.”

He continued to speak, but Billy Lee’s comments came back to me then. When he drove past the motel, the parking lot had been filled with police cars.

I was getting sleepy by then, and the story really had nothing to do with me at that time, but I did push off to bed wondering just why so many patrol cars had been summoned to a routine car alarm. This made no sense, even when the car’s owner proved troublesome, and I nodded off with the vision of four police cruisers packing a small motel parking lot.

Copyright © 2006 by Vincent H. O'Neil