White Knight


By J. J. Lamb



It's the creeps in this business that really get to you. I mean, there's one helluva lot of people in this dizzy-ass world who should never, ever be given the opportunity to ride in the back of a taxicab.

Not that the three-year-old Chrysler minivan I wheel around is a limo, or anything close to it, but after twenty-some years as an indie cabbie, I sure wish I could afford to be choosey about who I cart around.

Take the night before last, for instance.

It was one of those slow nights, mid-week. Nothing moving, no excitement. Maybe the weather was a little too nice for people to be cooped up in a cab. Happens that way in San Francisco sometimes. If you're one of those June-moon-swoon, romantic types, you might call it a lovers' night.

So, me and some of the other cabbies get into a discussion at the St. Francis Hotel taxi stand about, what else, chicks. Mainly, we're talkin' about whether a guy should take advantage when a chick's defenses are down, like her getting fired from her job, or seeing her fiancé stepping out with another good-looker, or any number of things.

I argue my head off that it ain't the gentlemanly thing to do. I say those are times when a chick needs a shoulder to cry on, someone to talk to. Last thing she needs or wants is some horny bastard tryin' to get into her panties.

The consensus of my knuckle-draggin' cabbie cohorts is, get it when and where you can.

We bat the subject back and forth. I can't seem to get through to these doofus clods that being a good guy now and then can't hurt, may even have a payoff down the road. Like, what goes around comes around, you know?

But I can't make my point; a minority of one.

"Never happen, putz," yells this big Russian mafia-type who drives for one of the multi-cab franchises. "I got twenty bucks here says if the opportunity comes your way, you'll jump."

"Jump it, or hump it," says another one of the jerks. They all start laughing.

Now I'm pissed. I climb back into my cab, give them a very firm digital salute, and hit the road.

I check out a few other hotels, see nothin's happenin' downtown. So I decide to cruise some of the fancier apartments and co-ops on Nob Hill, in Pacific Heights, and down along the Marina. Never know when someone'll decide to take off for a late dinner or hit a club or two.

I'm on the prowl no more than 15-20 minutes when I see this twenties-something, dressed-for-action dude standing curbside under the awning of one of the classier Marina co-ops. He's giving his watch a no-nonsense frown, which I take to mean he's probably called for a town car that's failed his get-here-now test.

I do a slow drive-by and get what I'm hoping for — a whistle and wave-over. As I pull up, I'm thinkin' he's got to be in a hurry to get someplace, which usually means a bigger tip.

"Downtown?" I ask.

"Pacific Heights." He gives me an address.

"Running late?" I say.

"Not at all," says he.

Disappointing. But a fare's a fare on a night like this.

Since there's no hurry, I start to make with the usual cabbie small talk — Giants, Forty-Niners, weather, stock market, city politics, whatever. But a glance in the mirror tells me this guy's already deep into one of those fancy smart phones — BlackBerry, BlueBerry, StrawBerry. Whatever.

I think he's probably about to call whoever he's going to meet, chick or dude, but the flip-open never goes to his ear. His thumbs are all over the tiny keyboard, a skill I've yet to get the hang of.

So maybe it's not a late date. I've been wrong before. Part of the fun of jockeying a cab is creating scenarios about where people may be going and what they might do when they get there. Had a writer tell me once that it's the "what ifs" that make life fun, interesting. I been keepin' track — think he's right.

What isn't fun are traffic snafus, like one I spot in the making just as we're about to cross Lombard; I see it's too late to take evasive action. Some ding-bat with out-of-state plates tries to make a U-ie across three lanes of green-to-go, oncoming traffic. He gets spun one way by a Bimmer, spun back around by a pickup, and all three end up blocking the whole damn intersection.

"Can't get through here," I toss over my shoulder.

"What?"

He's seen nothin', his eyes still on the stupid smart phone, thumbs busier than cliff swallows building mud nests. Or maybe he's getting a head start on tomorrow's stock market. Who knows?

"Gotta go another way," I say.

"Whatever."

By now there's a couple of cars stacked up on my back bumper, but with a little yelling and a lot of arm waving, we retreat to the intersection behind us and it's off onto another cross street.

I pull up in front of the address he gave me, which turns out to be one of those very elegant stone mansions in Pacific Heights, with a view out across The Bay that adds at least a million to any real estate listing. I reach over to drop the flag, knowing it's taken me about twice the time it should have.

He taps my shoulder, a little harder than necessary. "Hold it. I'll be right out."

I can dig the waiting 'cause it's almost pure profit. I'm beginning to wonder, though, what this guy's up to. I know if it'd been me on the way to do the town with a hot date, I'd have been out and about hours earlier.

After about fifteen minutes or so, I'm wondering whether I've been stiffed. Can't even go knock on the door 'cause he was buzzed through a tall, heavy-duty, wrought iron gate, then disappeared down a curved flagstone walk.

I decide to give him another ten minutes, which turns out to be a good thing. I see him comin' up to the gate with this very lovely young thing on his arm, a chick like you've never seen before. Well, like I've not seen before in my forty-eight years.

I'm in such a hurry to get around to the other side of the cab, so I can hold the door open for her — them — that I almost lose the driver's door to a passing, horn-honkin', big-as-a-tank SUV. I let it pass 'cause I mainly want to get a better look-see at this gorgeous creature I'm about to chauffeur someplace; hell, anyplace.

She's all smiles and wearing one of those lacey summer shawls over bare shoulders that rise out of a scoop-neck silk blouse that sings with a swirling pattern of so many colors I can't count 'em all. A black, flowing skirt swishes with every step; a hem of uneven, upside-down spearheads bounces around her knees to set off smoothly curved calves. I'm in love.

Then she gives me this really extra nice smile, which turns off quick-like when the dude steps around her and jumps into the rear of the cab first, leavin' her standing at the curb, surrounded by the delicate aroma of a gotta-be-expensive perfume.

Now you can bet I want to say something smartass to the dude, but I just stand there and wait until she's settled in her seat before I slide the door closed. She stares straight ahead, lips an unwavering horizontal line, hands atop one another in her lap, and a big, fat solitaire on her left ring finger bouncin' back every street light in sight.

"SoMa!" the dude orders when I'm back behind the wheel, then barks the name of a club like he's making a side bet that I've never heard of the South-of-Market joint. My nod calls his bluff. Not only do I know how to find this dive, I also know it's no place he should be takin' this fine-lookin' lady, with her shoulder-length auburn hair and sparkling green eyes, fiancée or no fiancée.

As soon as I'm rollin' again, I check the mirror: her statue-like expression hasn't changed one freckle's worth. He's back to manipulating the damn smart phone, and the two of them are sittin' about as far away from one another as they can get. This is lookin' to be one weirdo evening.

When we get to the club, he commands — doesn't ask — me to wait. The still-running meter prevents a nasty response. I cool my heels and walk across the street to grab a couple of chicken tacos from a Mexican café I try to hit whenever I'm in the neighborhood.

No more than thirty minutes later the dude's comin' out of the dump, the chick trailing two or three paces behind. He stands by the cab, doing the impatient thing with his foot while I skip around to open the back door for them. Same deal: he gets in, she follows. I get the impression that in the short time they were inside, he was hitting the booze pretty hard.

The seating arrangement in the back seat is just as sad as before.

After this non-starter, he directs me to one of the classier clubs, but pulls the same in-and-out-like-a-rabbit routine. Or maybe he's one of those hyper types who can't sit still or hang around any one place for more than a few minutes. The only advantage for me, other than the climbing numbers on the meter, is that by this time, with so much getting in and out of my cab, I've established that the chick is wearing absolutely nothing under the scoop-neck but her, which is a very enjoyable distraction.

Does she know I'm doing a look-see each time? Of course she does. No matter how discreet a guy tries to be, the chick always knows.

It's really getting to me that with each club he leaves her farther and farther behind, both going in and coming out. At one exclusive jazz joint, he's so far ahead of her that the doorman almost refuses her entrance, thinkin' maybe she doesn't have an escort. I want to go over and tell the jerk that this definitely isn't the kinda lady-of-the-night he's being paid to keep out.

After our fifth stop, it's quite obvious the dude's not doing much inside each club except slammin' down a quick drink or two. But not the chick. Her walk and talk says she may not have had more than a sip of wine the entire evening — not a hair out of place, not a wrinkle or spot on her clothes to be seen anywhere.

Just to keep things straight between me and the dude, I remind him that the meter's been running all this time and the total's well into three figures — without a decimal point. He glares, belches, pulls a Franklin from his wallet, and tosses the bill onto the front seat.

To my surprise, there's a change in the cab entry routine this time — he steps aside and makes a grandiose sweep of his arm to usher her into the back seat ahead of him. As she dips to enter, providing me with another heart-stopping view, he brings his other hand up and gives her a hefty goose.

She's lets out a little yelp and blushes all the way deep down into the blouse.

"Stop that!" she says over her shoulder.

"Stop that?" he repeats. "Don't start giving orders, babe, not if you want my Daddy to save your Daddy's financial ass by buying into his loser company."

The dude gives me this silly grin, crawls in, and this time sits next to her, actually almost on top of her. Again, she sits with both hands in her lap, her expression almost as blank as the first time she got into my minivan. But it seems to me there may be a touch of anger showing in her eyes, at the corners of her mouth.

We do two more clubs and by this time the dude is really swacked, unable to walk a straight line, but still manages to stay a few paces ahead of her. It would have been funny and a good tale to retell at the taxi stand if I hadn't been so completely taken with the chick — like some damn teenager instead of a guy old enough to be her daddy; the real kind, that is.

There I am waitin' like a lonely puppy to see her again when she exits what I hope is the last club of the evening, arms swinging at her sides, a big grin pasted across her face. I think, Oh-ho! What's this?

Next comes the dude, followed closely by a gent I take to be the manager, who's yapping away a mile a minute.

I can't catch all of it, but the club guy is saying somethin' about "...do not allow that sort of thing on our dance floor."

Then I see the chick is doing the big blush again, but the grin remains, maybe even gets a little bigger. And I notice her blouse and skirt are a bit askew.

She climbs into the back real quick like, but not before the dude goes a lot farther with his manual explorations, rearranging her skirt even more, and getting a firm "Stop that!"

I know I shouldn't, but I'm beginnin' to take all this real personal. But I still got enough sense to know not to stick my nose in where it's not invited. And then there's the fact the chick seems to have things pretty much under control. Why should I risk having them end their evening in some other joker's cab?

I'm thinkin' it's past time to take the chick home, but the dude lays the name of a private club on me even though it's well past two. Then all hell breaks loose in the back of the cab. Because I'm yellin' at some yo-yo who just cut me off at the traffic light, I miss the first part of the boy-girl scuffle.

Next thing I know, I hear this blood-curdling screech from the chick and a big grunt from the dude. The mirror reveals that the expensive multi-colored blouse is now down around the chick's waist and the dude's hands are all over her bare breasts. She lets him have it with her handbag, but it doesn't slow him one bit.

I stomp on the brakes, curse an imaginary stray dog, and the dude goes kerplunk onto the floorboards. The chick grabs the door handle, then realizes she's not exactly dressed for a sidewalk stroll. She collapses into a curled-up heap in a corner of the back seat, starts crying.

Now I gotta say, I can't stand to see a female cry, of any age or description. Just plain gets me right in the old gut. And whenever there's something I can do about it, I do it. This time I whip the cab around the corner, into an alley, and come to a slow, coasting stop.

When I look in the back, the dude is trying to both untangle himself from the floorboards and make a clumsy hand exploration up those very long legs.

I'm expecting her to give him a bash in the head with the purse again, but apparently she's had it. I hear a long sigh from one of them, then she leans back and just sits there, hands in her lap, sobbing.

For me, it's now or never.

I drop the flag on the meter, pull in my gut, and climb out of the cab. The dude is back on the floorboards when I slide open the back door, clamp onto one of his $500-loafer-clad feet, and drag his ass out onto the asphalt. I'm expecting some kind of verbal abuse, but he doesn't move and no sound escapes his pouty lips.

Fair play says one really shouldn't take advantage of a helpless drunk, but this dude has made me forget all the niceties. I grab him by his linen lapels, lift him a couple of feet off the ground, and toss him onto a stack of stuffed plastic garbage bags outside the back door of a Chinese restaurant.

As he lands, I see something I didn't see before — there's an oval pearly thingy sticking out of the left side of his neck. A trickle of blood trails down inside his shirt collar.

Shit! What the hell have I gone and done now?

I look behind me. The chick is watchin', but not reactin' as I might have expected. Without looking down at her hand, she pulls the engagement ring off her finger and zips it into her small black satin purse.

You can be damn sure I have questions, and it must have shown on my face.

"I told Daddy I was never going to marry that man," she whispers. "He should have listened to me."

I step over to the garbage heap, take hold of the pearly thing, and pull a long hat pin from the dude's neck. After I get back into the cab, I drive around for a while to give the chick time to get back into her clothes and collect her thoughts; not once do I look into the rearview mirror.

On the far side of the Broadway tunnel, I hear a soft "thank you."

I pull over to the curb, look back at her, and ask, "Home?"

A nod and a dab at the tears that continue to flow.

"Need a coffee first, or something else?"

"No, thank you."

"Want to sit up front?" I ask.

"Do you think he's dead?"

"Very."

"Good," she whispers. She slides across the seat, opens the curbside door, gets out, and comes up front to sit with me. Before I can get the cab rolling again, she has her head buried in my shoulder, soaking everything with her non-stop tears.

I slip my arm around her shoulders, strictly for her comfort of course, and take off for Pacific Heights. She makes no move to suggest I should keep both hands on the wheel. In some ways it makes me feel like a protective brother, but there are other feelings that have nothing to do with sibling love.

I'm feeling better when we get to her place — she seems to be pretty much herself again. But I'm also sad at the prospect of having to take my arm from around that firm, young body. The tears have stopped and she even manages a small smile or two at some of my not-so-funny comments about other drivers and the state of the world in general.

It takes everything I've got to remember my manners and not get in a good solid squeeze as I take away my arm. I get out, go around, and open the door for her; she holds out her hand for me to take.

I start to sweat a little because she holds onto my hand as I walk her up to that big iron gate, and she continues to hold on as she punches in the security code. Then she gently tugs me down the flagstone walkway to a massive, carved wood, front door.

Before doin' something stupid like tryin' to give her a kiss, I try to pull my hand from hers so I can get back to my cab, remember who I am, and forget about her. But she won't let go.

Next thing I know, she's takin' me through the front door, across the marble floor of a foyer that's almost as big as my apartment, and up a Gone-With-the-Wind-like staircase. At the top of the stairs, she gives me the sweetest smile I've ever seen and plants a great big kiss right where a kiss should be planted.

I would describe her room, if I could remember it. When I get back to my cab, I feel in my pocket. The hatpin is gone.

The next night I feel an obligation to go look for the big Russian. When I find him in the St. Francis cab line, as expected, I give him a crisp, new Jackson.

"Oh, ho!" he says. "Tell me who, my little friend."

I wiggle an index finger in front of his nose and say, "No way!"

"Hah! Then I suppose I'll never find out who left you that, or why." He points to a brand new yellow Camry hybrid parked at the far end of the cab line, a big red ribbon tied around one windshield wiper.

I walk over to take a better look, see an envelope with my name on it stuck under the other windshield wiper blade. Inside are the title and a temporary registration slip made out in my name, and a note that reads:

"Just between the two of us!"

I look up and give the Russian a big grin.


J. J. Lamb's journalism career was interrupted by the U.S. Army, which provided a Top Secret clearance; a locked room with table, chair, typewriter; and enough privacy to write short stories. Next, a paperback PI series featuring gaming consultant Zachariah Tobias Rolfe III, followed by collaboration with wife Bette Golden Lamb to produce three gritty medical thrillers: BONE DRY, SIN & BONE, and SISTERS IN SILENCE, and a suspense-adventure-romance, HEIR TODAY... .


Copyright 2012 J. J. Lamb. 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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