“You actually met him?” Elaine leaned so far over the table that I felt fairly certain she would tumble onto it and might even begin crawling across towards me.
“Well,” I countered, “I wouldn’t quite say ‘met.’ But I did give him a ride in my cab.”
“You met him?” The verve in her voice rattled her glass of Coke, rippling the dark fluid within. “I can’t believe it! You have to tell me every detail. Everything.”
“Who is he anyway?”
“He’s only the most famous blogger ever,” she said.
I shrugged. He was just another fare—a strange fare, yes, but still just another fare.
“Fine… I’ll start from the beginning.”
* * *
Phoenix is a big city. Sure, I don’t think it’s much compared to someplace like New York or London, but Phoenix is still a fairly big city. As with any city of reasonable size there’s always a sense of staid mediocrity punctuated with abrupt diversions from the ordinary—and sometimes from reality as well.
After a long evening of shuttling fares through the clogged streets of the city I decided to deadhead out of Apache Junction instead of trying to find a fare on my way back to Tempe. The night was young and I’d just received the extremely reasonable tip of a double sawbuck on top of the expensive fare. Good thing Da wasn’t around; else he might have vetoed the radio call from Gary before it even reached my ears.
Needless to say, I was quite pleased with the outcome of the night’s haul and didn’t think much of it when I saw a billowing sail of nylon, swelling and crumpled by the side of the road in the midst of a field. The cab’s headlights illuminated the dark colored material for only a moment, but long enough for me to see it bore a sort of camouflage. The matte black expanse of cloth would have been nearly invisible had I been looking up from the ground into the cloud scudded night, but parked limply on the ground it stood out in stark relief.
I watched the formless puddle of shadow vanish around a curve in my rear-view mirror before shrugging and speeding on. In my mind, I was quickly developing a plan that would put me at a night club with no less than one hundred and twenty comforting decibels of dark EBM to massage stress of the day away.
That’s when I saw him. An uncanny wind kicked up, blowing dust and desert debris across the road and caught his crimson cape with an almost-superhero snapshot pose as he leaned into the gale.
He saw me, waved, and managed a shrill cab-call whistle. Having turned to face me, I could see that aside from the dashing red cape, he also wore a pair of blue goggles. Even if I had considered passing him up, the sheer novelty of his costume compelled me to pull to a stop only a few car lengths past.
The radio, which had been playing something guttural and death-metal on my drive out of AJ, abruptly switched to a piano ditty that reminded me of a Prohibition era Speakeasy riddled with the pops and cracks of static. The door opened and entered my newest fare—goggles pushed up onto his broad forehead, now nestled in his close-cut hair and red cape yanked in as he closed the door against the night. Closer up, I could see that he wore heavy rimmed spectacles beneath his goggles that framed cheerful eyes. Though unshaven, his beard appeared cultivated, even under the layer of dust deposited by the windstorm struggling against the closed windows.
“I couldn’t help but notice,” he said, "you have an EFF sticker on the back of your cab.”
“Yeah.” I shrugged. “One of my friends gave that to me. She bought me a lifetime membership. After she told me what they do I stuck it on there. Not exactly regulation, but I’m not a regular girl. Where can I take you?”
“Before I can answer that, could you tell me where I am? Judging from the desert brush and Joshua trees I am hoping California.”
Okay, that struck me as a little strange, but he was wearing a cape, after all…
“Same desert, wrong state,” I said. “You’re in Arizona, right outside of Phoenix.”
“Curses,” he breathed. “What is the fastest way to reach San Diego from here? And, please, if you like you may get under way.” He produced a wallet of cash and extended me a fifty.
I waved him off. Chances were this fellow would be going to the airport and I could make change for him there. “I can get you to Sky Harbor airport in about half an hour…maybe less.”
On the road again, I pushed the cab up to speed and watched the empty desert whip past on both sides as the light of Phoenix built in the distance.
“No airports.” The sudden sternness of his voice caught me by surprise. It must have caught him as well because he backpedaled. “They probably have spies among the TSA, I wouldn’t make it out of the queue. No… Is there a rail station?”
“Would a Greyhound bus station suit you?” I don’t think there are many passenger trains that pass through Phoenix anymore.
His manner and speech, coupled with the odd choice of music from the radio, struck me in a weirdly romantic spy noir fashion. Right down to the tingle along my spine that warned me that something was not quite right. Not about the man in my back seat—although seemingly eccentric, he had no malice about him—but instead I got the definite sense that we were being shadowed. Years of experience have taught me not to dismiss my second-sense as nerves. Just to be sure, I checked the wizard wards cast along the skin of the taxi. Unlike me, they don’t suffer from such human frailties as an overactive imagination. They too appeared to be on edge, emitting a sense of alertness as if itching for a fight.
In the dark of the back seat, I could see him clutch something like a leather missive bag. For a moment, he frowned out the window at the gloom and dark. His gaze finally came to fix on the EFF sticker on the back window and afterwards he righted himself and his eyes found mine in the rear-view.
“There is something about which I think I must warn you,” he said. “For if I don’t, I fear it would be ungentlemanly of me. I believe that we are being followed and that I may have mixed you up in something that I should not have.”
“I’ve noticed our tail,” I said, not taking my eyes off of his.
His eyes flickered downward for a moment and then back up again. “So I see.”
I glanced down myself and noticed that I was currently exceeding the speed limit by more than twenty miles per hour—edging dangerously close to reckless driving territory. When threatened, like any good citizen driver, I realize that I instinctually increase speed. My cab is a police auction refit, a Crown Victoria interceptor with the engine “fixed” back to its suped-up condition. She’s capable of faster speeds than that without skipping a beat. And I had to know right then if I was going to need it.
“Who did you piss off?”
I’d heard that acronym before, but I don’t run in quite the right circles to fully grasp its significance. Elaine would rant about how they were collectively destroying music and movies and treated everyone like criminals.
He went on. “The MPAA and the RIAA will certainly want to intercept me. This is why I’ve been traveling by night with the camouflaged balloon. I had to leave it a few miles back.” An expression of sorrow crossed his face. “I figured that I was flying in the right direction, but I lost my star fix and had to slow down to get my bearings. That’s when they fell upon me. Dark shapes like wicked fingers slashed out of the night from all directions, I tried to out run them with the phlogiston overdrive…but the fiends had struck the boiler and then it ruptured.”
He went silent for a moment, shaking his head with disgust.
“I’m sure you noticed the wreckage. I had to leave it behind. It is imperative that I reach the headquarters of the EFF in San Diego as soon as possible. This satchel contains vital information that will allow us to strike at the very heart of the MAFIAA. I suspect they would do anything to get their hands on it.”
In the distance, I could just make out the outlines of another vehicle gaining on us. At this point I was orange-needle into the red at almost one hundred miles per hour, so the vehicular owner of the sallow viridian headlamps must have been gunning at least one hundred and twenty.
“We have company,” I said and indicated that he glance out the back window.
As he did, I checked the fuel gauge—I had enough fuel to keep up an even greater speed long enough to reach civilization. Which, at the current rate of acceleration, I figured we were due to barrel through some stoplight, hell bent for leather. The wards on the taxi flared to life, I could feel them bristling, coiling like vipers in preparation to strike.
The engine roared as the turbocharger kicked in and the wind howled, but still the ominous green headlights paced us and continued to gain. A challenge. Once again a fare had been dropped in my lap who required extraordinary aid, and perhaps serendipity or fate had placed us together. Of course, far be it from me to give up on a fare who had a wallet full of green and a mission. Also, the people after him were violating my turf; some crimes must not go unpunished.
“I accept,” I said aloud.
“I don’t like the looks of that,” he said. His voice became serious and lined with steel. “If you would drop me off, I can fend for myself. I can ask you to go no further.”
I responded with steel of my own. “Nobody messes with my fares,” I said. “I’m not backing down. I might be able to out run them but if it comes to it, there may be a fight.”
“I’m not much use in a dust up…as much as I would like to pay those cretins back for damaging my ride,” he said. “But as for getting away, I have something that may help. Before I quit the ruin of my balloon I disconnected the phlogiston device…if you can hold them off for a few minutes, I can get it installed. It would provide us a celerity that even these fiends could not match.”
I nodded. It just so happened I had come prepared. You never know when you’re going to need extra firepower, so I had packed two wands in the glove compartment. Trying to keep eyes on the road at almost one hundred and ten miles an hour is difficult enough without fumbling in the dark, but I managed it without careening us off the road. Moments later I held the pair of newly minted wands: one made of cold iron and a quartz watch crystal; the other a standard oak twig taken from a very angry tree.
“Hold onto something,” I said. “This is going to get very rough. I hope you’re ready.”
The word “Ready!” had barely escaped his lips when I hit the brake and turned the wheel hard. For an ordinary vehicle, at the speed we were going, this would not be at all advisable. My taxi is no ordinary taxi. The loss of speed registered almost like a punch in the stomach as the world spun treacherously, tires squealed, and the scent of burning rubber filled the cabin. The green headlamps, and the car that owned them, overshot us at speed.
I pulled the parking break and exited the taxi—through the roof.
The transition from the safety of the wards and the cold night stole my breath as I catapulted into the air. The arc of my ejection gave me a good view of the brass back-side of the other car—which appeared to be a heavily modded Cadillac, fitted with copper trim and heavy, riveted windows. Weightless for a moment, I used my high vantage to take aim at the fishtailing caddy as it tried to turn around to face the stalled cab.
From my passenger’s description of the attack on his balloon, I knew that I was up against a sciomancer: a master of phantom and shadow. And the best proof against shadow is—
The levinbolt unleashed from my wands rendered the Cadillac’s trunk into molten slag; smoldering wreckage sprayed like shrapnel from the blossom of fire and brilliance that once had been its rear compartment, axel, and tires. The full path of my flight described, I landed catlike behind the now-burning ruin and stood as much in the pool of light as I could—spreading my hands, and thus wands, to my sides for wider coverage.
A shambling phantasm rose up to my left. A mockery of the human form, it lurched as it lunged at me, only to be destroyed by another bolt. Soon, more came, they rose up from the flickering shadows around me and I cut them down mercilessly. Wheeling and pirouetting, I circled the vehicle. The sciomancer must have felt I was the greater threat, else he would have flung his minions at my passenger already and this would all be over.
I could see my crimson-caped fare working at the engine of the taxi and I hoped he could get the job done without breaking her.
I didn’t have much time to worry about that because as I passed the front of the caddy—its viridian lanterns still glimmering feebly against the ruddy flames—I spotted the sciomancer. He was a tall, gaunt man wearing a suit and a top-hat. His pale features illuminated by the summoning sigils he etched in the air, like a painting only half-done, part of his face was lost in shadow. But there, in that dark, I could see the gleam of a monocle.
“It’s done!” my fare shouted back to me from the cab. “Hurry! There are more coming!”
It was time to avenge his fallen balloon.
Leveling my wands, I unleashed a fusillade of light and lightning. Pent up anger about a night ruined by this man-thing fueled my charge. Many of the levinbolts sloughed off of his wards, but those were distractions, the rest pierced his hastily created minions as they attempted to obstruct my path. Intent in my footsteps and murder in my eyes, I bore down upon him.
The sciomancer threw up one last ditch defense by erecting a wall of obsidian darkness between us. I put the oak wand between my teeth and charged headlong into it, steel and quartz leading the way. The wand punctured the tenebrous wall and slammed into his wards. It crumpled and shattered in my hand, like I knew it would. But it had give me some important information about exactly where he stood.
I swung my other hand, already balled into a fist, and put all my momentum behind it.
His wards folded like a cardboard box, and though I couldn’t see it, I’m sure the expression he wore was one of shock before my right hook dislocated his jaw. The satisfying jar of the connect was all I needed to know I struck home. Owrmf! His wall of darkness gone, the fragile sciomancer tottered, lolling, and collapsed in a heap at my feet.
For whatever reason, I felt the need to dust my hands over the fallen wizard.
The taxi drove up next to me, purring like a happy kitten, with my fare at the wheel.
He opened the door and moved aside as I got in. “She’s all yours,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. “How did the installation go?”
“Well... And how did the fight go?”
I flexed my fist. “I avenged your balloon.”
“Good show.” He nodded in approval. “Shall we get a move on?”
I adjusted the rear-view mirror, three more pairs of viridian headlamps appeared in the distance.
“There’s a ley loci about ten miles that way.” I pointed. “I can use it to make this new tail a distant memory. How long do you think it will take us to get there with your device installed?”
He shrugged. “As the crow flies, in the balloon, that would be about two minutes. And—I noticed—the meter has been running. Don’t worry, I intend to fully reimburse you for your services.”
“It has been a pleasure,” I said as I gingerly put on the gas. The cab responded by enthusiastically accelerating, I couldn’t tell if the device was active or not, but she certainly seemed happy I was once again at the wheel.
“Are you ready?” My fare asked, gesturing to a blue, chrome rimmed button, newly installed in the dash near the steering column. The word “ready” had barely left my lips when he pressed the button and we were off…
* * *
“I gave you that sticker! And now you actually met Cory Doctorow!” There were hearts pulsing in her eyes, I swear. “Did you get him to San Diego? Did you have him sign something for you?”
“Yes,” I said. “After we reached the loci, I used the focus to apportate us to San Diego. The rest was smooth sailing.” Then I smirked wickedly at her, knowing she was going to read into my expression. “However, if I had known he was that famous, I would have gotten his autograph…”
Elaine narrowed her eyes. “You’re not telling me something.”
“He gave you something, didn’t he?”
I reached into my coat pocket and revealed a small business card, printed with gold filigree, displaying prominently the name CORY DOCTOROW and the words: If you should ever need my services, fling this card into the air, and assistance shall be at hand.
“You could say that.”
I think, that was the moment Elaine fainted with a soft groan. I laughed. Geeks these days, they do the funniest things.
Joined: 06 Jul 2005 Posts: 400 Location: Tempe, AZ
Posted: Thu Dec 13, 2007 10:35 pm Post subject:
A two-time tradition I started with my story about meeting the Burger King. Basically, it has to do with the fact that Elaine asked me to retell the details of my visitation with Cory Doctorow on the dark roads outside of AJ.
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