(Download the audio version of this story here — read by Juliana Quartaroli. Story illustration by Galen Dara.)
Tony hasn’t been a taxi driver for going on 14 years without developing a sixth sense about his fares. This one, he decides, is trouble with a capital T. Without a word, she slides into the front passenger seat bum first and swings two stiletto-clad feet inside after her. Her glossy leather skirt rucks up her thighs as it squeaks across the cheap vinyl upholstery. Her blouse is perilously low-cut. Between her breasts nestles a silver scimitar-shaped pendant. A tiny black tattoo adorns one slender ankle.
“No smoking in the cab,” he says sharply, then blinks, confused. He could have sworn… but there is no cigarette, neither between her lips nor in her gloved hands. He shakes his head. I’m getting too fucking long in the tooth to be working the graveyard shift.
“Too many foreigners driving cabs in this city,” she says. “Don’t you think?” Her face is shrouded in shadow.
So she’s going to be one of those passengers… Tony presses his lips together in a thin line.
“I got no problem with them,” he says.
“What about you…” – she leans forward to examine his ID card – “…Tony. Where are you from?”
“Born and bred here,” he says, pointing at the ground. “Never been outside the city.” It’s a perverse point of pride for him. He senses the woman smile in the dark.
“Good, good,” she says. “I need someone who took his first steps on this soil to give me safe conduct.”
He’s used to hearing all kinds of racist comments in his line of work, but this is the most oddly phrased. Fruit loop, he thinks.
“Tell me, Tony,” she continues, “have you been a taxi driver for long?”
“All my adult life,” he says.
“And your father—what was his profession?”
He wants to say, none of your fucking business, but instead he finds himself answering her.
“My father? He was a cab driver too. A good man, my father was. Good provider.”
“And his father before him?”
“What? Why…look, if you must know, he was the skipper of a passenger ferry.”
The woman claps her hands delightedly. “Oh, the stars are in alignment tonight! I have found myself a true ferryman.”
No, just the grandson of a ferryman, you mad bitch, Tony thinks. Annoyed now, he turns on the interior light and gets a good look at her face for the first time. She’s hot, beautiful even, with full lips and sculptured nose and high cut cheekbones, her features reminiscent
of some unidentifiable distant shore. Not that that’ll cut any ice with him. He gets propositioned at least twice a week, “a ride for a ride” they laughingly call it at the depot, but he’s a good family man, got a wife and two kids at home, and besides, he’s not that stupid.
He taps the sign on the dashboard.
“Fare has to be paid in advance, love,” he says. “New rules and all that.” He steels himself for dissent—she doesn’t carry a handbag, nor can he see any pockets from which she can produce cash—but her hands flick through the air like a conjuror’s, and two notes flutter into his lap. He picks them up and examines them.
Two hundred dollars.
“How far you wanting to go?” he asks. “’Cos I haven’t got much change…”
“Just drive,” she says. Her voice is low, silky, devoid of accent. She waves in the general direction of the meter. “Drive until the money runs out.”
He hesitates, and she pouts mockingly at him.
“Come now, you are a true ferryman, are you not? A true ferryman would not turn away a passenger who bears the right coin.” She winds down the window and sniffs the air like a
dog. He opens his mouth to tell her not to, it’s freezing outside, then she turns and looks at him
(eyes, black, so black)
and his protest dies unspoken.
“Take me somewhere dangerous,” she says, and before he even realises, he’s put the car in gear and is pulling away from the curb.
Despite the icy air blasting through the open window, he is perspiring, feverish, and he dashes the sweat out of his eyes with the back of one hand. He wants to ask what do you mean, somewhere dangerous? But he knows, or at least his gut does, and he steers the cab toward the part of town where cops and taxis fear to tread.
This chick gives him the creeps, although he would be hard-pressed to say exactly why. He desperately wants her out of his cab, but with her two hundred dollars
(slave, in chains, with whip-striped back)
she has bought him, at least for the next couple of hours. Unless she does something illegal or destructive, he’s stuck with her.
He drums his fingertips on the steering wheel.
“So… you just got off work, have ya?”
As soon as the words have left his mouth, he regrets them. At 3 a.m. and dressed like that, there’s only one line of work she could be in. Whether she’s a prostitute or not, she will resent the assumption. Normally he doesn’t give a shit if he offends his customers with his ‘banter’, but this one… no, he really does not want to piss her off.
Mercifully, the implication goes over her head. That, or she doesn’t care what he thinks of her.
“No,” she says absently, “I’m… looking for something.”
Aren’t we all, love, aren’t we all.
They travel in silence for several kilometres. The streets gradually become more dimly lit, more strewn with debris, and the buildings degenerate as they pass until it seems like the graffiti is the only thing holding them up.
“Down there,” she commands, arm outstretched through the open window. “Slowly. Very slowly.”
It goes against every instinct to kerb crawl in this part of town, but she is right; it would take more than a rough neighbourhood to make him turn down two hundred bucks. He glances anxiously about him. Over half the street lights are broken. The denizens of the night, the drugged, deranged and down-on-their-luck, find shelter in doorways and side alleys. The street opens up abruptly into a plaza, its paving cracked and filthy, probably built as part of some urban beautification project that has spectacularly failed. It reminds Tony incongruously of a fairy circle in the woods, with bird shit-splattered concrete seats and sagging, half melted rubbish bins forming the outer ring.
“Stop,” she says, holding up a palm. “Wait.”
Stop? Here? Are you fucking nuts?
The sensible, if self-serving, thing to do would be to take off the instant she gets out of the cab. But he’d never abandon a fare, especially not a lone woman. He puts the car into neutral and hauls on the hand brake, but keeps the engine running. Anxiously, he caresses the baseball bat mounted on the inside of the driver’s door.
The woman peels off her gloves and places them on the dashboard, then opens the door and steps out. The rhythmic click of her heels on the paving draws out half a dozen deadbeats. Tony holds his breath.
Like prisoners emerging from a dungeon into daylight they come, cowering and blinking, hesitant hands reaching out to her. She passes her own hands palm downward over their heads as if in benediction. One barefoot man weeps. She whispers into one supplicant’s ear, then another. They pass the message amongst themselves and disperse much more quickly than they came. The woman stands alone in the glow of a single functioning street light and waits.
A few minutes later, the roller door on a nearby derelict workshop rattles open, making Tony jump and curse. A man emerges and approaches the woman. He is not like the others, not a patient failed by the mental health system, not an addict, or if he is, his addiction is not physical. He is
straight-backed, clean, proud. Beneath a black leather vest he is shirtless, leanly muscled and seemingly impervious to the cold. His skin gleams as if oiled.
He and the woman could be brother and sister.
The man stops a few paces from the woman and opens his arms wide in a gesture that is part welcome, part challenge.
“You did not have to send them to fetch me,” he says. At this distance, Tony should not be able to hear him clearly, yet his voice is as distinct as if he sat in the passenger seat. The man says the woman’s name, or at least, that’s what Tony assumes he says, because in that instant the acoustics of the place go screwy, and it’s like he is listening to a not-quite-correctly-tuned radio station broadcasting in a foreign language.
“I felt you here. I would have come anyway. What – did you think I would be afraid?” The man arches one eyebrow and crosses his arms across his chest. He flicks a glance in Tony’s direction.
Wish all these nutcases would stop calling me ‘ferryman’, Tony thinks.
“How much did she pay you? Whatever it was, it was not enough.”
Tony smirks. What is this, a B grade movie? He half-expects the man to offer him double. Take me back to the city, he imagines him saying. Leave that bitch behind.
The woman murmurs something, lowers her gaze and shakes her head. A message has passed between the pair, the import of which eludes Tony. For a moment he thinks she is defeated.
And then she laughs.
The man backs away, looking far more terrified than he should at the sound. Tony sympathises; he feels it too, a primal fear chilling his bowels, as if he has suddenly come face to face with a snarling tiger. The woman moves with preternatural speed to close the gap between her and the man. Gentle as a lover, she places her hands on either side of his head and leans in to kiss him on the lips. Again Tony gets the impression of smoke, swirling from the corners of the woman’s mouth and obscuring his vision.
Although the man’s mouth is still covered by hers, he screams. It is like
nothing Tony has ever heard before. Years later, Tony will almost convince himself that it was a hallucination, a mere trick of the light exacerbated by fatigue. But right here, right now, he sees the man turn inside out. Skin splits. Bones splinter. Muscles contract wetly. Brain and heart and lungs and intestines hover untethered in mid-air.
Then the illusion is over. The man is whole and unmarked. The woman releases him and steps back. For a couple of heartbeats, his eyes stare blankly over her shoulder. His mouth lolls open. Then he collapses to the ground, his crumpled form somehow diminished by more than just his state of unconsciousness.
The woman strolls back towards the cab. She licks her lips, her tongue quick and furtive.
Then she begins to lick her fingertips clean.
By the time she resumes her seat, Tony is gibbering.
“Is he dead? He’s… you… I saw… the scream… he must be… should we call someone? He’s dead, isn’t he? Isn’t he?”
The woman shrugs. She examines her fingernails and touches the tip of her tongue to one tiny remaining speck of red. Apparently satisfied, she slides her hands back into her gloves.
“Yes. No. Depends what you mean by ‘dead’.” She swivels in her seat toward him, her knees pressed primly together and all-but-touching his trembling hand on the gear stick.
“You have been a good servant, Tony. Faithful. Honest. Obedient. I like that. And you have served me in two capacities, both as my driver and by bearing witness of my judgment. You shall have your reward.” She leans forward and presses her lips to his cheek. The gesture is strangely ritualistic.
The kiss of death… Tony is instantly awash. He sobs and trembles like a nightmare-stricken child. Snot bubbles from both nostrils. He loses control of his bladder, and the acrid aroma of urine fills the cab.
“Oh, look,” the woman says, pointing at the meter, “time’s up.”
It can’t be, the still rational part of his mind insists, we haven’t been out nearly long enough, but when he looks, it is just in time to see the meter click over. Two hundred dollars exactly.
She smiles. Kisses her fingertips and waggles them at Tony. Steps out of the cab and melts away into the dark.
After That Fare, as he thinks of it, things are different for Tony. Belligerent customers suddenly turn meek and deferential within the confines of the cab. Nobody tries to mug him or to do a runner. One young tough, on discovering his wallet empty at the end of the ride, bursts into tears and offers him his watch, his cell phone, the virginity of his sister, anything, only please don’t, please don’t…
Don’t what? Turn you inside out?
The fear in the young man’s eyes sickens Tony, and he waves him away, sending him stumbling for the safety of home.
His dreams are haunted by the memory of what he saw, or thought he saw. Sometimes he is merely the observer, sometimes the victim, sometimes the perpetrator. The only way to stop it, he reasons, is to return to the scene. But it is several months before he finds the courage to do so, and even then, he can only face it in the middle of the day. In the light it is a different place, mundane and harmless. It is deserted save for two council workers in fluoro vests who lean against their truck and share a cigarette. Tony is faintly surprised not to find the man still lying where he fell.
The feeling of her kiss on his cheek never completely departs. It’s a slight, localised sensation, like someone is perpetually blowing on his face through a straw. Some days he even thinks he can see the outline of her lips on his skin.
That’s the reason, he thinks, tapping his reflection in the mirror. He scrubs uselessly at the mark until his face is rubbed raw.
Faithful. Honest. Obedient. That’s my reward.
Tracie McBride is a New Zealander who lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 80 print and electronic publications, including Horror Library Vols 4 and 5, Dead Red Heart, Phobophobia and Horror for Good. Her debut collection Ghosts Can Bleedcontains much of the work that earned her a Sir Julius Vogel Award in 2008. She helps to wrangle slush for Dark Moon Digest and is the vice president of Dark Continents Publishing. She welcomes visitors to her blog.
Story illustration Galen Dara.
If you enjoyed this story, let Tracie know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.
This one gives you just enough and yet leaves you hungry for more. A very good read!
Congrats on recommendation-I had been reading Lovecraft himself, but Mike sent me here. Thanks to both of you.
Congratulations on your Bram Stoker nomination!
It’s not a nomination, it’s a recommendation. 🙂
Wow; you definitely deserve your nomination for the Bram Stoker award! Good luck!
Definitely the best of the bunch. Particularly enjoyed being so deep inside Tony’s head.
Delightful and brilliant!
nicely done, well written, and left me wanting more with that ending.
Dear Tracie, I have her few rides myself, brief, but intensely lived, and ridding my memory of those moments past, imagination of what might have been, the yearning for the impossible to obtain. I remember most distinctly those when she first, on several occasions, she came to my gaze and my entire frame, mind, eye and breath, paused in awe of her. Perhaps your tale derives from the possibility that everyone is capable of such rapt wonder and yearning, combined with the terror of knowing the likelihood of irreversible possession. I enjoyed the story.
aka: Ar Este Pi
That was spectacularly done. Much more spine-tingling than I expected at first! It drew the reader in and kept them there. Superlative!
This was a very well crafted tale. Even with the ambiguous, interesting and very menacing character in the fair, the reader is still more interested in Tony’s accounting in the story. Very well done 🙂
Well written, very eloquent. Tony’s feelings are very well elaborated.
Probably my favorite story in the issue, although they were all amazing. Cannot wait for the next issue now!
Enjoyed this very much, you did a great job getting inside Tony’s head — colloquial, fluent, evocative prose.
I was excited to see your name in the slush, Tracie. Great story!
Excellently creepy. Thumbs up!