MURDER ABOARD THE 

NUMBER EIGHT BUS

 

By Bruce Harris

 

 

The second thing off-duty cop Ted Charles noticed upon entering the number eight express city bus was the license of T. Ortega displayed above the windshield. The smiling gap-toothed driver in the small black and white photo was different from the face he saw slumped over the large steering wheel. The first thing he saw was the knife’s handle protruding from the back of the driver’s neck.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Charles and his police officer wife Bebe had the day off. He sat on a park bench a block away from the Lincoln Tunnel when the horns began blaring. Bebe, next to him, drank coffee and munched a cinnamon chip muffin. The horn honking increased and they began to hear shouting. Bebe looked up to see that a city bus was the cause of the commotion. They fought the temptation to ignore it, but the two off-duty officers reluctantly knew they’d have to get involved.

Traffic backed up inside the tunnel. The stalled bus had just cleared the tunnel’s exit. Ted Charles wormed his way through what was now a growing angry and curious crowd. He displayed his shield as he forced his way to the bus. He used a utility key to open the bus door and entered. He immediately asked Bebe to call for backup and to secure the area. In addition to the dead driver, four passengers, three men and one woman sat scattered on semi-reclining seats. The man in row three, nearest the driver had close-cropped salt and pepper hair, pinstriped shirt, suspenders and a bowtie. He struggled with a folded newspaper as he stared, in a confused state, at Charles. Two rows back and to the left sat a younger man, dark hair greased and parted on the side. He wore a collared polo shirt with a well-known company logo. He appeared absorbed in whatever spewed forth from his earphones. Several rows behind the young man sat an extremely nervous looking woman. She stood at her seat to get a better look, sat down, and stood up again. Charles estimated her age to be early fifties. If Charles had to guess, he’d figure she was involved in some capacity in real estate. Sitting alone in the bus’ last row was a gentleman with papers haphazardly spread across the entire row. He seemed uninterested in what was currently taking place. Rather, he was totally engaged in shuffling through papers. A stained and beaten brown leather briefcase was secured between his ankles. Ted Charles was taken aback by the small ridership until he realized it was President’s Day and that most people were off from work. He showed his badge again.

“What the hell’s going on up there?” said the man with the worn briefcase from back of the bus.

“I’m officer Ted Charles, New York City Police Department.” That got the remaining riders’ attention. “Are you aware that your driver is dead? Stabbed in the neck?”

Three aghast-looking faces glanced up. From the back row again, a disinterested, “What’s that? Dead? Our driver is dead? What next?” He grunted, then raised a pair of dangling eyeglasses to the tip of his nose and continued shuffling papers.

Charles addressed the man in the back row. “Yes. That’s what I said. The police are going to be here shortly. But, as this is an active murder investigation, I’m going to ask everyone a few questions.”

Charles surveyed the occupants of express bus number eight. His gaze stopped on the lone female traveler. “I’ll start with you, ma’am, if you don’t mind.”

She covered a yawn. “Yes, that’s fine. This is very upsetting.”

“I’ll ask everyone the same questions, so please, listen to me.” Charles moved his gaze around as he spoke. “First, your name. Second, what you are doing on this bus this morning. In other words, where are you going? And third, do you know this bus driver?” He addressed the woman. “Ma’am, you’re first.”

She straightened up, suddenly feeling very important. She kept her gaze on Charles and spit out the words as if she were a low ranking soldier addressing a general. “Mary Strickland is my name. I’m on this bus because I work and I’m going to Exotic Travel World’s home office on 46th Street. I’m a travel agent and no, I don’t know the driver.”

“So much for my Sherlock Holmes deduction that she was a real estate agent,” thought Charles. “Thank you, Ms. Strickland. I’ll get back to you.” He turned to the man with the newspaper. “You’re next.”

The man cleared his throat. “Happy to help our law enforcement in any way I can. “I’m George Betancourt and I’ve been with the Metropolitan Insurance Company for 31 years. We have offices all over Manhattan. My cubbyhole is located at 5th and 23rd. I can’t say that I know the driver, but I’ve certainly seen him before. We all have.” His hand swept across the bus as if to include the other passengers.

Charles raised eyebrows. “How’s that, Mr. Betancourt?”

“George. Please, call me George. One of the tricks of the insurance trade, informality, you know? People buy more when they are relaxed and the setting is less structured. There are studies that prove that. But, that’s for another day. He’s what you call a substitute driver. Whenever Thomas, he’s our regular driver, is out for vacation or whatnot, this gentleman is our driver. Can’t say that he ever told us his name, though. At least, not to me, I can assure you that. I never forget a name. That’s a career killer in my line of work…forgetting names, that is. Poor guy. Seemed like such a nice man, always polite and an excellent driver. I wonder if he was married? I hope he had life insurance. Just goes to show you never...”

Charles cut him off. “Thank you, George.” Mary Strickland thought Charles had made eye contact with her again so she chimed in. “That’s right. He’s our backup driver. I don’t know his name, either.” Charles ignored the comment, walked down the narrow aisle past Betancourt, the young man with the headphones, and Mary Strickland. He stopped a few feet from the last row. He turned back and faced the three riders he had just past. “No one move, please. Stay seated.” He then faced the passenger in the back row. “And you?”

The seated man mumbled something, flicked his eyeglasses off his nose so they again dangled from a black nylon string, and looked up, perturbed. “And me, what?”

Summoning inner strength, he asked again, “Tell me your name, where you are going this morning, and whether or not you know the deceased bus driver.”

The passenger scratched exposed skin where his socks didn’t quite meet up to the bottom of his jeans. “Oh for heaven’s sake. What is this? Dragnet? I’m Professor Drucker. Professor Peter Drucker and today, like every other day, I’m going to the City University where I work and have worked for the last three decades, if it’s any of your business.”

Charles shot back. “It’s President’s Day. Isn’t the university closed today?”

“Of all the ridiculous questions. It’s closed. Yes, it’s closed. It’s closed to classes. That doesn’t mean there isn’t work to do. I ride this bus every day of the year so that I can be in my office and that includes Christmas and New Year’s. That’s what a professor does!”

“Do you know the deceased bus driver up front?”

“Of all the ridic…no. Of course not! Thank goodness,” Drucker shot back.

One passenger remaining, the young man, and Charles stood over him for nearly four minutes before the distracted rider realized Charles was there. He removed his earphones, looked upward and began speaking. “Chris Buck is my name. I’m a union rep for local 344 of the transportation brotherhood. I take this bus a couple of times a month, whenever I have to report to the union offices on Delancey Street. Never saw the driver before.” He smiled and then returned the earphones to his head. It was another four minutes when Buck realized that Charles hadn’t moved. Disgustedly, he removed the headphones again. “What?”

“Today is President’s Day. If I’m not mistaken, the union offices are closed today.”

Through clenched teeth Chris Buck made an unintelligible sound. “I don’t remember saying I was going into the office today. In fact, now that I think about it, I know I didn’t say that. Fact is, I worked last night and I’m going into the city today for fun. Is there a law against that? Does that make me a murderer?”

Officer Charles had to remember the sensitivity training to which he had been recently exposed. He bit his lip. Calmly, he strolled up to the front of the bus. Standing next to the dead driver, he faced the four riders. “Where does this number eight bus originate?”

George Betancourt volunteered a response. “It’s an express bus from Northern Jersey into the Port Authority. It’s usually the same people on this bus. Funny, I see them every morning, yet I don’t know their names. Did I tell you in my line of work…”

“Yes,” shot back Charles. “What time do you board the bus in the morning?”

“I’m picked up every morning at 7:10. I’m not the first stop. The bus is usually half full by then. It takes only 30 minutes to get into the Port Authority. The bus is so empty today because of the holiday. I think most of the people who normally take this bus work on Wall Street or in government offices. Yet, and this is a funny thing, the four of us still sat in our usual seats. Except him.” He pointed to Chris Buck, the man with the earphones. “He’s in a different seat. At least, I think he is. Oh well, what difference does it make? I’m in the same seat.”

“Did anyone see how this could have happened? How the bus driver was stabbed?”

“Can’t say,” answered Betancourt. “Strange. It’s a mystery to me. I had my head buried in my newspaper. Read it cover to cover every morning.”

“I was sleeping,” answered Strickland. “It’s the only time I can nap. Sound asleep, I’m afraid.”

“How about you professor? See anything? Hear anything?”

“Not a thing. I’m too far away anyway. I can barely hear you.”

Charles raised his voice. “Mr. Buck. Did you notice anything unusual?”

Chris Buck said nothing. He shook his head.

Charles questioned him again. “Are you in the same seat you normally sit in?”

A wave of the hand as if to dismiss the policeman, “I don’t have a regular seat. I already told you I don’t take this bus every day.”

“I don’t know,” said Betancourt. “You seem to be sitting closer to me now than when I’ve seen you on this bus in the past. Like I said, I could be wrong.”

“You are wrong. And, mind your own business.”

It was time for Ted Charles to resume control. “Who boarded the bus first this morning?” he asked.

“I was first. The bus was empty when I got picked up at 6:55,” Mary Strickland replied. She looked back toward the professor, but he was busy looking for something in his briefcase. “The professor back there was next,” continued Mary, “then…”

“Then I came aboard,” interrupted Betancourt.

“So,” said Charles, “Mr. Buck was the last passenger on the bus. Did anyone get off the bus after Mr. Buck boarded?”

“No,” said Betancourt and Strickland simultaneously. “It’s an express bus. No one gets off until the Port Authority.”

Charles walked closer toward Buck. “So, if Mr. Buck was the last person on board, then isn’t it likely he is the one who put the knife into the driver’s back?”

“Nope.”

 “Why are you so sure if you were busy with your head in your newspaper?”

“It’s not possible, unless a dead man can drive a bus.”

“How’s that?” asked Charles.

“I’m not thrilled about speaking for the young man, but like the rest of us he boarded the bus in New Jersey. After he was seated…damn…I could have sworn he was a few rows back…oh well…the driver drove the bus at least ten miles and through the Lincoln Tunnel before he slumped over and the bus stopped. It’s impossible.”

“Yet,” countered Charles, “the driver was stabbed to death. So, how did he, or she,” he glanced in Strickland’s direction, “do it?”

Charles looked at his watch. The backup units couldn’t be far away. He needed help and fast. Bebe seemed to have things under control outside of the bus. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he detected the faint sound of sirens. The policeman snapped his fingers. “I got it! While the bus was in the Lincoln Tunnel, someone got up and walked to the front of the bus and stabbed the driver and then returned to his, or her, seat.”

It appeared as if only two riders were focused on Charles, Betancourt and Strickland. Professor Drucker continued poring over his papers and young Buck beat a phantom drum with his thumbs. “Not possible, officer,” said Betancourt.

“Why not?”

“Because as luck would have it, today my back hurt, so as the bus entered the tunnel, I stood in the aisle to stretch. I can assure you no one walked past me.”

“Well,” chimed in Mary Strickland, “maybe you’re the one who stabbed him then?”

A slight smile crept across the insurance man’s face. “True. It’s possible, I grant you that, but I assure you, it wasn’t me. You see, a while back, I suffered a stroke. I still don’t have full use of my right hand. And, I don’t have the strength to slice warm butter with my left hand. Old age is a bitch, if you don’t mind me saying so.” Charles scratched his head. Betancourt continued. “I know. Maybe we all took turns stabbing him? You know, like in that Orient Express Agatha Christie story. What do you think?”

From the rear of the bus came a shout. “Will you all stop this nonsense. I’m trying to get some work done. If anyone had a motive to kill that driver, I did!”

Silence followed. Even Ted Charles, a veteran on the force was taken aback. He regained his composure. “Want to tell me about that, Professor Drucker?”

“Not much to tell, really. About five years ago or so the bus drivers went out on strike. Crippled the city. Management used nonunion outside drivers to run the routes. The dead man up there was one of those fill-in drivers. First day on the job, he got us all lost. Idiot didn’t know how to get to the Port Authority. I was up for tenure and had an important meeting that morning and missed it because of this buffoon. Luckily for me, and for him,” he pointed toward the dead driver, “the committee went ahead and approved my tenure in my absence. Ha! Half of them didn’t make it in that morning either. Looking back, I guess it was a good thing I missed the meeting. I might have said something stupid.”

Charles was about to say something, when Mary Strickland jumped in. “He’s right, you know. And, now that you mention it, I lost a huge sale and commission on a Park Avenue condominium that morning because I missed the final contract negotiation and signing. Cost me a pretty penny. I was ready to murder him…” She stopped short. “…at the time, that is.”

Charles stared. “I thought you said you are in the travel agency business?”

“I am now, but back then when the drivers went on strike I was in real estate. Turns out it was the best thing to ever happen to me. My career was going nowhere with Planet Realtors. After losing that sale, I changed professions and haven’t looked back since. Thank goodness.”

It was as if Ted Charles had just eaten a gourmet seven-course meal topped off with a Cuban cigar and a rare brandy. “So, you were in real estate? You don’t say?”

“Yes, but why…”

“Oh, never mind,” was the smug response.

Everyone looked around. Siren sounds were definitely audible and getting louder as police backup units neared the stalled bus. “Let me get this straight,” said Charles as he refocused attention on the case. “The deceased was a replacement driver during the bus driver strike half a decade ago?” Three heads nodded agreement. Chris Buck fiddled with his earphones. Charles continued, “Once the strike was settled, the city hired this man as a permanent substitute driver? Is that it?”

“That’s right,” responded Betancourt. “Whenever old Thomas Ortega, he’s our regular driver, is out, we get the man now slumped over in the driver’s seat. And, since everyone has a story from that first day, I’d like to add mine.” He looked for Charles’ approval, received it, and continued. “That first day when he drove all over creation, I had an early morning meeting with Metropolitan’s CEO. My boss had built me up for weeks. Needless to say, my not showing up wasn’t too healthy for my career. I could have strangled that man.” Realizing that he had possibly incriminated himself as Strickland had moments prior, Betancourt quickly added, “but that was a long time ago. And, as luck would have it, I ran into the CEO on the elevator at the end of the day and things worked out beautifully. We went out for drinks and really hit it off. Fate. It was fate.”

The policeman was now laser focused on Chris Buck. “What’s your story about that first day?”

With deadpan face, “Don’t have one.”

“No?”

“No. Like I said a hundred times before, I never saw the guy before today. How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t always ride the bus into the city like everyone else in here.”

“Wait. That’s not true.” It was Betancourt.

“What? Mind your own business old man!” snapped Buck. “What’s your problem?”

“I’m sorry, but there’s been a murder here. Am I right, officer?” Charles nodded. “That first day of the drivers’ strike, I remember telling you to watch your mouth. Filthy it was, and with a number of women on the bus at the time. Such disrespect.”

Chris Buck raised a vulgar finger at Betancourt. “Oh, so what? That was this guy up there? I really don’t remember, or care. A scab is a scab is a scab. He was no different than any of the other strike breakers.”

The backup patrol cars had arrived. A number of uniformed and plainclothesmen bulled their way through the growing crowd. Detective Mel Gates entered the bus. The others joined Bebe outside on crowd control detail. Charles showed Gates his badge. “What’s going on, Charles?” Gates asked.

Bebe Charles interrupted Ted Charles and Detective Gates. “Found this,” she said and handed her husband a laptop computer.

“Where?” asked Ted.

“On the ground, just outside the bus. It was under the seventh window on the left-hand side.”

Ted Charles stared at the laptop. He didn’t speak for nearly two minutes. Then, he turned toward Gates. “You’re just in time, detective, to witness the arrest of Chris Buck for the stabbing murder of this innocent bus driver.

Three mouths were in the shape of “O’s,” including the professor’s. Chris Buck spoke. “You’re crazy! You have no proof. Remember, the driver drove us for miles after I boarded the bus in New Jersey. That’s been established. I couldn’t have stabbed him!” He looked around at his fellow passengers for confirmation and support, but only quizzical expressions returned his plea. “Oh, and I suppose after I killed him I drove the bus as well? Jeez.”

“That,” commanded Charles, “Is exactly what you did!”

Professor Drucker challenged Charles. “How’s that? That unctuous fella drove the bus? I assure you, he did not. He was seated just where he is now during the trip.”

“How do you know?” questioned Charles. “I thought you said you were deep into your work?”

Drucker responded. “Don’t play me…us…for fools. One of us, myself included, would have noticed if that man had driven the bus. He didn’t and everyone here will back me up.”

Betancourt sported an amused grin. “True enough,” he shouted. “I agree with the college professor. He didn’t drive the bus.”

“No,” chimed in Mary Strickland. I wasn’t asleep when he boarded, and he clearly took his seat immediately. In fact, he hurried to his seat. This whole thing really makes no sense.” She had a puzzled looked as she stared at Buck and the seats in front of him.

Chris Buck had a look that said, “Too bad, cop. What now?”

“Explain yourself, officer,” said Detective Gates.

Ted Charles cleared his throat. “Chris Buck was the last person to board the bus. He stabbed the driver at that time and immediately took his seat. In fact, Ms. Strickland, you just pointed out that he hurried to his seat. Your word.”

“Yes,” she said with interest.

“However, the seat he took is not the seat in which he now occupies. He actually sat four rows behind Mr…um, George Betancourt when he boarded the bus. And, at that point, the unfortunate substitute bus driver was dead. Stabbed.”

“But, he drove the bus for miles after the young man was seated, wherever that was. It can’t be.”

“Yes, it can,” answered Charles, “and this is how he did it.” Everyone, including Chris Buck and Detective Gates were laser focused on off duty officer Ted Charles. “Mr. Buck, by his own admission, was at work last night.”

“What of it?” interrupted Buck.

“Where did you work last evening, Mr. Buck?”

The young man licked his lips. “None of your business. I don’t have to answer that.”

Charles grinned. “True. I’ll answer it for you. You were at the bus depot working on this particular bus.”

“What?” asked Detective Gates.

“I’m far from an expert in these matters, detective. It’s best left up to the IT boys. But, Mr. Buck here rigged up this bus somehow last night so that today, with his laptop, he controlled the bus. It has something to do with a connection to the bus’s engine diagnostic port. Buck was able to override the vehicle’s own computer and disable the bus’s transmission and brakes. Buck managed for several miles to take over the steering and gas pedal. It’s all part of this new self-driving vehicle technology. Something must have malfunctioned after the bus entered the tunnel. Perhaps a lost connection? I’ll leave that to the boys who know. I’m certain Buck planned to drive the bus into the Port Authority, park it and make an escape. Too bad, he and the bus became stuck. Buck panicked. When he lost control and the bus stalled, he had to think fast. He opened the window and tossed his laptop out, hoping I’m sure that a fellow New Yorker with a ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’ life philosophy would pick it up and disappear. Unfortunately for Mr. Buck, Bebe found the laptop and now it’s evidence against him.”

“You’re nuts!” shouted Buck.

“You’ll be charged with first degree murder, Buck. After you tossed the laptop out, you changed seats. You moved two rows closer to the front. No one noticed you move, although George Betancourt made known his suspicions. Just because a man tries to make ends meet by taking an available position while union workers were striking is no reason to kill him.”

Detective Gates interrupted. “But, why did he wait five years to kill him?”

“Excellent question. We’ll never know Buck’s inner demons and why he decided today to exact revenge. Of course, the technology to pull off this type of murder wasn’t readily available to Buck at the time. And, he needed the right day when there would be very few riders and our victim was behind the wheel.”

“The scab took away a job from a union man!” shouted Buck.

“Well, the good news is your union will soon have another opening. Specifically, your position.” He turned toward Gates. “Detective, it’s my day off. Would you mind arresting Mr. Buck?”




Bruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type.

His short story "50,000 Witnesses to Murder"  appeared in omdb! in October, 2015.  Where's Olive?  appeared in March, 2015,  “Time to Think” in October, 2014,  “Heads or Tails?” in July, 2014, and  Written Out appeared in omdb! in June, 2012.


Copyright 2018 Bruce Harris. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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