Everyone has lurking within them a bit of silliness that demands to be set free once in a while. On one occasion, mine escaped while I was writing, so I decided to take on that most hackneyed of opening phrases, “It was a dark and stormy night … “. I planted my tongue firmly in my cheek and picked up my pen. The Night Driver is the result of my silly spell.
It was a dark and stormy night – a real nasty one – the kind I’ve come to dread ever since that night. I was sitting quietly, enjoying my beer, when I noticed the guy staring at me. I ignored him as I do anyone who is rude enough to stare. Then I sensed him coming over.
After a bit of small talk, he stopped talking and just looked at me. I looked back. “What, you want to hear about the time traveller?”
“If you wouldn’t mind telling me,” he said, signalling for refills for both of us.
I thanked him, then said, “I don’t mind telling, if you don’t mind listening. All I ask is that you don’t interrupt too much, because I don’t really like talking about it.”
He agreed and, after a sip of the beer, I started.
“It was a dark and stormy night “ I stopped as I saw him glaring at me, then I said “I know, I know – any story that starts that way has to be pure bull, right? Hear me out, then you tell me.
“As I said, it was a night much like tonight and as usual, I was working the night shift, but in a cab for a change. That I was even working that night was a fluke. My usual job was night dispatcher and I was scheduled to be off, but a couple of drivers were out sick, so the owner took over dispatch and chased the night guy out into a cab and called me in to drive. So, I got another chance to meet some of the people behind the addresses and voices I heard over the telephone. It was also the last time I ever drove.
“I had just dropped a customer and decided it was time for coffee and a smoke, so I headed for my favourite coffee shop. It has long been my view that people who work in the taxi industry, drivers or dispatchers, are fuelled by caffeine and nicotine and my tank needed refilling. As the company has a strict policy against smoking and eating in the cars, I planned on a fifteen minute break. At that time of morning, I knew the chances of getting a call were slight, so I wasn’t worried.
“Anyhow, I was cruising along quietly. As usual whenever I drove in bad weather, the AM/FM was off, so the only noises in the cab were the rain pounding the roof and windshield; the wipers losing their battle to keep part of the windshield clear, and the occasional sound from the two-way. The dispatcher called the code for the stand serving the area I was headed for. Silence. Then I heard ‘Car for the area.’ A couple of guys booked on the call but they were farther than I was. I keyed the mike ‘21 – Parkway and Elm.’”
“‘21 – Parkway and Elm. Anyone else? Looks like you’re the lucky winner 21. Parkway and Main. Call me on the phone.’”
“‘Rog’, then I called the office. While I punched the number, I tried to figure out who the hell would want a cab from that corner at two in the morning. That was probably the most desolate spot in town at that time of night, with the shopping mall being the only thing there and it had closed two hours ago. Perhaps the cops had stopped some guy who was now going home without his car while his car went to impound.
“‘City Cab’ Jerry answered.
“‘Hi Jer, it’s Sue, what’s up?’
“‘Sweet Sue, Queen of the Night. Thanks for calling. Listen, this sounds odd somehow. Guy called from the theatre entrance at the mall.’
“‘Okay. Kinda late, but maybe he’s one of the cleaners just finished.’
“‘Yeah, I know, but I didn’t recognize the voice as one of the usuals from there. I don’t know Sue, the whole call made me edgy. You know how you can usually hear some kind of background noise, or line noise, especially on nights like this, well, there was nothing like that at all. Just dead silence until he spoke. His voice gave me the creeps too. It sounded dead – no emotion at all and it sounded like he was at the bottom of a deep well. Just be careful, sweetie. This one sounds weird.’
“‘Thanks Jerry. My doors are locked and if I don’t like his looks, he ain’t gettin’ in darlin’ and I won’t care how hard it’s raining! Did he say where he was going?’
“‘Uh, no, not exactly. All he said was County Road 5. Look Sue, this sounds like a setup for a robbery. Do you want to pass the call?’
“‘No, I’ll take it. Like I said, I’ll check him out first, then let you know. I’ll radio in with the exact destination and I’ll call you again the instant I’m clear. I promise. I’ll use the usual codes if there’s trouble.’ Then I hung up, shaking my head at Jerry’s concern. I should have taken his offer to pass the call, for although I didn’t know it, my night was about to get very strange. I headed to Parkway and Main, humming to myself.
“What’s that you say? ‘The usual codes?’ Oh that. Well, Jerry and I had many discussions on this. I always felt that when a driver called someone ‘a fare’, they are reducing the person to nothing more than a walking, talking ATM. I always used ‘customer’ or ‘passenger’ for I felt it was more humanizing. So, if Jerry, or any other dispatcher, heard me call someone a ‘fare’ they knew I was concerned about something. And if they heard me, or any other driver, call in and give our car number in reverse – in my case, 12 instead of 21, they knew there was serious trouble and they should call the cops.
“As I pulled into the plaza, I saw someone standing near the theatre entrance, silhouetted against the lights from the poster boxes. He was about six-four, skinny as a rake and neatly dressed, although his suit didn’t look like the latest style. But, then again, who am I to judge? When I drive a cab, I’m no fashion plate either. He looked okay, so I swung the car up to him.
“‘Hi. Sorry it took so long. Where would you like to go?’
“He started at the sound of my voice and said ‘Oh! I wasn’t expecting a female driver.’
“‘Well, we were short-staffed tonight, so the owner took dispatch and put me out here’ I explained. ‘Now, where to? The dispatcher said something about County Road 5?’
“‘Yes, County Road 5, number 5280.’
“‘Okay, that shouldn’t take too long’ I said as I grabbed the mike. Jerry was right, this one was creepy. ‘21, I have my fare. Clearing at 5280 County 5.’
“‘Roger. Watch the roads, I’ve had some reports of flooding.’
“‘21, flooding, roger’ I acknowledged and headed further out Main.
“As we drove, I kept an eye on my passenger. ‘Odd’ didn’t begin to describe him. He looked like a tourist, the way he kept staring at everything, which wasn’t much in that part of town at night.
“I don’t know if all cab drivers do it, or if the dispatcher in me is responsible, but even if I have someone in the cab, I still pay attention to the radio. That’s how I knew Jerry was really worried, for I heard him dispatch a couple of cars to the stands nearest my destination. That area is about 90% residential, bordering on rural, so I knew it was a couple of hours before he could reasonably expect calls from there. One of the drivers, George, the biggest pain in the butt to ever drive a cab, complained. Jerry cut him off with ‘Car 10, call the office now!’
“The drivers at City Cab may have considered me the queen bitch of dispatch, but they had learned, first from me, then from the other dispatchers that when a dispatcher said ‘call the office now ’ in that tone of voice, they had better be punching the number into their cell phone with one hand while they acknowledged the order with the other because we didn’t say ‘now’ without a damned good reason.
“I never found out what Jerry said, but a couple of minutes later, I heard a very subdued George on the radio, mumbling ‘Car 10, roger.’
“As I said, the guy had been staring out the window ever since he got into the car. He turned toward me and said in his dead voice ‘What was the purpose of that?’
“I wasn’t about to tell this guy that Jerry was worried about my safety, so he’d sent a couple of cars to stands close to my destination just in case they were needed. I had heard the car numbers Jerry had sent and knew he’d picked the two biggest men working nights. Instead, I gave him a song-and-dance that Jerry probably had a call that George didn’t particularly want. I explained that most drivers, at least the good ones, developed a knowledge of call patterns. In talking with each other, they relayed things like which calls were good; which calls were short runs, and who tipped well. I told the guy George was more than likely trying to weasel out of a short call with a poor tipper. I also mentally thanked Jerry, because this guy was really creeping me out.
“With this exchange, the guy got more talkative. He began by making some comment about how small the town seemed, then mentioned that he didn’t recognize anything. He had on odd way of talking – not the usual speech patterns I was accustomed to hearing, and don’t forget, as a dispatcher, I got to hear lots of accents and speech patterns. His word selection was also slightly different – almost as if he’d learned English by reading a dictionary.
“By now we were approaching County 5 and I turned onto that road. Just after I did, the car took a funny jump and shimmy, almost as if I’d hit a speed bump both too fast and at an angle, then settled down to its normal sounds and feel. I’d been concentrating on the road – there were no lights on County 5 and I didn’t want to hit a rabbit or something larger, like a deer – I saw a car that did that once and it wasn’t a pretty sight – so it wasn’t until I heard that horrible graunching noise of wipers on dry windshield that I noticed the rain had stopped. Looking around, I noticed the sky seemed lighter as well.
“‘That’s strange’ I said to the guy, ‘“two minutes ago we were in a downpour and now the road is bone-dry.’ As I said this, I spotted the entrance to 5280 and made to pull in. He told me just to drop him at the end of the drive. The lane was long and unpaved, so I said to him, ‘You sure? Won’t cost any more to the house.’
“The house must have been a good half-mile from the road, but he told me he could use the walk. He handed me a bill and told me to keep it. As he was closing the door, he stopped, leaned in and, smiling slightly, said ‘In reference to your earlier comment about the weather, it never rains here. Unless we want it to. I advise you miss, for your own safety, to go back the way you came, without stopping, Thank you for the ride.’
“I pulled out of the mouth of the drive and keyed the mike. ‘21, clear at 5280 County 5.’ Silence acknowledged me. No static; none of the other cars; just – nothing.
“As I once again approached the intersection of 5 and Main, I could see no speed bumps or anything that could have caused the car to act as it had. But, again the car did that weird little dance and suddenly I couldn’t see out the window for rain. I stopped and looked in the mirror. Rain was falling on a flooded County Road 5.
“The radio burst into life ‘21, are you out there? Car 21, acknowledge.’ Jerry sounded frantic.
“I keyed the mike. ‘21, I’m here and clear at Main and 5.’
“‘Thank God! Sue, please call me immediately.’ The relief was evident in his voice.
“I still hadn’t moved from the intersection, which made it easier to acknowledge while I hit redial on the phone. Jerry caught it during the first ring. ‘Sue! Where the hell have you been for the last three hours? I didn’t know what to think. I sent George to look for you. Not only couldn’t he find you, he says County Road 5 doesn’t have numbers that high.’
“‘Jerry, Jerry, calm down, you’ll have a heart attack. Now what’s this about three hours? It only took about twenty minutes. And you know George couldn’t find his butt with both hands and a roadmap.’ I was getting seriously mad now. ‘Even if he did miraculously find 5, he couldn’t have missed the place, not all lit up the way it was.’
“‘Okay. Come on in. I want to see for myself that you’re all right.’
“‘Don’t argue Sue, please. It’s just about shift change anyway.’
“I did a slow count to ten, then ‘Fine, I’ll come in. Do you want coffee?’
“‘Hell, yeah! I’d prefer something stronger, but coffee will do.’
“When I got to the office, Jerry just looked at me for a moment, then walked over and gave me a big hug. Next he said ‘Okay, run through this for me. You picked the guy up at the mall theatre entrance. Then what?’
“I ran through the story for him, including the guy’s comment about George’s whining and the remark about how he didn’t recognize anything and finished by saying ‘Jerry, I’ve still got the bill he gave me.’
“Just then, George came in, saw me and said ‘I don’t know where the hell you were, but it sure wasn’t County 5. There’s about a foot of water on it a quarter mile off Main. Damn road’s a lake.’
“Jerry looked at me.
“‘Jerry, I was there. The road was dry. Look, here’s the money’ as I threw the bill on the desk.
“Jerry picked it up, looked at one side, then the other. Still looking at the bill, in a quiet voice, he said ‘Sue, I believe you if you tell me you took this guy to County Road 5 but sweetie, I don’t think it was our County Road 5′ and he handed me the bill.
“The five a.m. news came on as I stared at the bank note with the big ‘20′ on it, the Parliament Building in Ottawa and bearing the legend ‘North American Federation of Canada’ and a date that won’t come about for a couple of millennia yet.
“After my shift, I went back to County 5. George had been right – the road had about a foot of water over it, and the numbers stopped at 3500.
“So, take a look at this, then tell me – is it bull?” I asked him as I fished the twenty out of my wallet.
He barely glanced at the banknote. Instead, he thanked me for telling him the story then left a bill on the bar to cover the drinks, and walked out the door.
The barman came over and picked up the bill, then turned to me. “Very funny Sue.”
“Isn’t this yours?” he said as he held up a bill identical to the one I still held in my hand.
When I drove a cab – number 21 – one of the other drivers referred to me as “The Queen of the Night.”