Frank Cole, bankrupt businessman and sometime sleuth, has taken a second job with the Midnight Taxi Service in Exile, Florida, when one of the drivers tells him about a teenage boy who hailed his cab near the site of a police drug bust the night before. It doesn't sound like much at first, but the driver disappears just as people start coming by the cabstand inquiring after the mysterious passenger.
First there is the private investigator from Atlanta, who seems genuine but knows the kid by the wrong name. Then there are the two bounty hunters from Mobile, who have the right name but are wrong in every other way. And finally there is the kid's girlfriend, a blond drifter who never leaves a fingerprint.
As if that all weren't enough to ruin Frank's night job, a body turns up holding a Midnight Taxi Service roadmap. And once again Frank Cole has to find the answers without even knowing the questions.
In this entertaining sequel to his first novel, Vincent H. O'Neil takes his readers on a dark Florida taxi ride with his likable sleuth.
About the Author
Vincent H. O'Neil holds a B.S. from West Point and an M.A. in International Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His first novel, Murder in Exile, won the St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Contest. He lives in Cranston, Rhode Island.
Read an Excerpt
We were swabbing out the taxis when I first learned about the kid. Cleaning out the cabs was one of the morning rituals for the five drivers of the Midnight Taxi Service, and there was usually at least one interesting tale from the previous night's fares.
"I mean, I've had people practically throw themselves under the tires before, but this kid sure was in a lather." Billy Lee was the driver doing the talking, his heavy Southern accent always making him sound like he was pulling your leg. Tall, lean, blond, and blue-eyed, that morning he was wearing jeans and an aqua-blue bowling shirt with "Billy" embroidered in gold lettering on the chest pocket. At first I had thought "Billy Lee" was his first name because all of the other drivers always addressed him that way, but working as night dispatcher gave me access to the drivers' time sheets. Lee was his surname.
"Runnin' from a motel? You never seen that before, Billy Lee? Particularly at this time of year?" This came from Tony Ng, at twenty the youngest driver of the group. Though only one generation removed from Vietnam, Tony was born and raised right there in the Florida Panhandle and spoke with as pronounced a Southern twang as Billy Lee. It was hard to put that accent together with his dark complexion and the jet-black hair that he parted down the center of his head so that it bobbed when he walked.
"Oh, I'm not sure he was runnin' away from anything, Tony. He was in one heck of a hurry to get somewhere, though, and with all those flashing police lights I wasn't sure if I wasn't going to get hauled in for aidin' and abettin'."
I straightened up when I heard about the police lights. I had been brushing the beach sand out from under the backseat of Tony's cab when Billy Lee had begun his story, but now this was getting interesting. Besides, Tony wasn't making any effort to clean up the front seat of his rig, and I was unwilling to do the whole job, new guy or not.
"Police cars?" I asked as I reached for the Styrofoam cup of coffee sitting on Tony's roof. The Midnight taxis were a collection of different makes, colors, and sizes, and Tony's was a beige four-door that had been bleached almost white by the Panhandle sun. That sun was just making itself visible in the east, starting to shoot rays onto the placid waters of the Gulf across the street from where we were parked.
"Yeah, Frank, and a lot of 'em, too. Musta been half the Davis police force there. You know the motel I'm talkin' about, right? The Seaview?"
"Nebraska's got a better view of the sea," Tony threw in, leaning back against his vehicle and blowing on his coffee to cool it. The taxi service's owner, Mr. Dominic Corelli, paid for everybody's morning coffee even though he didn't come in until well after nine. He'd stayed on for my first two evenings as night dispatcher before deciding I wasn't going to put him out of business, and the morning coffee run had become one of my duties.
"Now you don't know that, Tony." Again it was hard to tell if Billy Lee were serious or not. "I'm sure if you climbed up on that flat, droopy roof of theirs you'd have a fine view of the sea."
"What about the cops?" I tried to get them back on track, but the Midnight Service's drivers took great delight in ignoring their new night dispatcher, who was college-educated and a Yankee to boot.
"I bet more than one Seaview guest has gone up there, too. I mean, a two-story drop might not kill you, but West Davis is a pretty depressing place and when a man's depressed he'll try anything."
Tony was right about that part. We were parked at a little rest stop in Davis proper, a small grassy area with a couple of picnic tables and a sweeping view of the Gulf of Mexico. Although there was technically no such place as West Davis, the money people who lived in Davis proper and the surrounding area referred to the bad part of town as West Davis whenever they could. I am told they even tried to get the place officially labeled that way a few years before, but a sharp street lawyer from a West Davis strip mall had run circles around them in court; still, the rich folk kept the unofficial name going by word of mouth.
Another taxi rolled up and Manny Batista, one of the older drivers, got out. Manny had come to America from Cuba as a teenager with the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, and he liked to tell people that he was one of the inmates Castro had released from Cuba's asylums at the time. He lived two towns over to the east in a small place called Exile. That was where I was currently living and I had gotten to know the police chief quite well, so I had it on good authority that Manny's story was a bit of an exaggeration.
Manny was a short guy, with a barrel chest and arms that looked like they could twist a fire hydrant in half. He wore a pink guayabera, the long Latin shirt, with red roses running down one side. He carefully adjusted the skimmer that never left his head and came over to my car to get his coffee.
Manny's arrival brought Billy Lee and Tony back to the topic of the police; the older man usually had a dampening effect on the younger drivers. Manny had mastered the art of the scornful stare, and seemed to apply it to Billy Lee and Tony more than anyone else. I personally think it was because he regarded the two twentysomethings as being only one step removed from the college kids they drove around the Panhandle in the spring.
He didn't need The Stare today, though, as he had driven past the Seaview on the way to our little daily rendezvous.
"You should see the circus at the Seaview," he told us. "Newspaper people, television people, cops all over, and even a couple of suits and ties." He concentrated on his coffee, making a face even though I knew I had gotten his preference perfect this time.
"Still?" Billy Lee asked, slightly subdued. He began to take pieces of trash paper from his front seat and drop them in a garbage bag. "They were there last night around eleven, all flashing lights and blasting radios; you'd think they'd be done by now."
Tony had taken an interest in cleaning out his rig, too, so I stayed on break. Maybe Manny would get Billy Lee to keep talking.
"Television camera works better in the daylight," Manny offered as if he were mulling it over instead of pointing out the obvious. "Maybe they waited for sunup to do the formal announcement. You have any idea what it's about?"
Billy Lee came out of the backseat of his cab still holding the garbage bag. "Naw. The place was all lit up as I was driving by, I probably wouldda stopped to look but like I was telling Frank, this kid came running out in front of me and flagged me down."
Manny gave him The Stare.
"Oh, come on, Manny! He might not have even been in the motel at all! Like I said, he ran up to me on the street. He wasn't carrying anything, either, so what was I supposed to do?"
The Cuban kept the gaze fixed on Billy Lee for a moment or two longer before cracking a smile and laughing deep in his chest. "I'm just havin' fun with you, Billy! It's not like we're supposed to grill the fares just because the cops are around."
"Excuse me, sir." Tony had emerged from his taxi and spoke across the vehicle's roof with a deep, authoritative traffic cop's voice. "Have you been involved in any criminal activity this evening? If you have, I may be required to place you under special citizen's arrestYou have the right to remain silent . . ."
Just then, the final two Midnight drivers rolled up together. They were just returning from a late call for a big party trying to get back to their Panama City hotel.
The Midnight Service had two minivans for occasions like that, and the stories of jamming twice the acceptable number of passengers into those rolling meat lockers were legion. I had been allowed to pilot one of the regular taxis when we were hurting for drivers, but the vans were another thing entirely.
Both vehicles had been dull yellow when I joined the company a month before, but now one was blue. A nasty sideswiping one dark night in a crowded parking lot had made a new paint job pretty much mandatory.
The yellow van made a big turn and ran its two right tires up onto the curb. This was the signal that it needed to be rinsed out, and I went to get the hose. A spigot stood up out of the ground near the picnic tables, and I began attaching it while Ruby Sears worked his way out of the van.
Ruby was probably fifty years old and the most senior driver. Even Manny did what Ruby told him to do, which was a pretty solid testament to Ruby's common sense and leadership skills. It might also have been recognition of Ruby's enormous size, but I had not yet summoned the nerve to ask. Ruby was probably six feet tall, and he weighed close to three hundred pounds. So there was no way he was going to drive one of the normal rigs.
It would be kind to say that most of Ruby's weight was muscle, but it would not be accurate. Ruby was a big fat black guy who knew more about driving a taxi in the Panhandle than anybody, including Mr. Corelli. Ruby knew all the back routes, all the police, and most of the bouncers at the local clubs. He was also rumored to have chased down two college kids just a year before when they tried to stiff him. He put one in a headlock and sat on the other while dialing his cell phone for the police.
I unwound the green rubber hose until I was standing on the uphill side of the van, and slid the big yellow door back on its runners. Ruby did the same on the other side. (Corelli had searched long and hard for these models, stressing the desirability of shooting water straight through the vehicle.) I began spraying what looked like a ten-course meal off the floor of the van. The hose had one of those pistol grip nozzles that allows the user to get a full spray going instantly and shutting it off just as quickly.
We couldn't, of course, wait until the end of a shift to clean up this kind of mess. Some drivers carried boxes of sawdust, some carried paper shavings, and one even carried kitty litter for the purpose of sopping up this kind of problem until a water point could be reached. Corelli insisted that a liberal dose of disinfectant and some air freshener followed an event like that, and there was always the in-depth cleaning in the morning, when all of the rigs were swabbed out.
Ruby came around to my side of the spray, wearing a light windbreaker despite the heat. A porkpie hat was pushed back on his head, and an inch-long unlit cigar sat in the corner of his mouth. He always looked as if someone had just dragged a set of fingernails across a blackboard, but in the month that I had known him I had found him to be even-minded and generally unexcitable.
"Hoo-wee, Ruby! Was that a bunch of college kids or deep-sea fishermen you were haulin'?" asked Billy Lee, coming over. "Looks like they gutted a Great White right in the back of your rig!"
"From the smell I'd say that red color's mostly wine. But I did pick that gang up at the yacht club"
"The Clover. So maybe they were deep-sea fishermen after all." Ruby pointed to a section of the floor that I hadn't hit yet. "Now am I going to find your rig as clean as this one when I go over there?"
Billy Lee took the hint and moved off while Danny Parsons, the driver of the blue van, crossed the grass and joined us. He was the quiet one in the group, thirty years old like me and also a resident of Exile.
He had once told me that his hair had started receding when he was fifteen, and so he kept the small fringe that was left cut down almost to nothing. He usually wore a baseball cap to protect his scalp from the sun, but this morning the cap was absent. When Danny handed Ruby a coffee I noticed for the first time that they were the same height although Danny was much leaner. The two were frequently paired off, due to Danny's quiescent nature and the fact that he usually drove the blue van. Danny seemed happiest when he had earned Ruby's approval.
"You know, at this hour of the morning I would not have expected that to happen," Danny observed as I dragged the hose around to the other side of the van and began spraying the mess down the storm drain. "When we split them up between us I would not have picked that little guy to be able to do all this."
"Man just had too much fun, is all. Not like we can predict this kind of thing, is it?"
"Now that would be some trick, wouldn't it, Ruby?"
"Yes it would, Danny."
And with that slight acknowledgment Danny was good for the day. He ambled off toward the other cabs, taking the communal trash bag from Manny as he went by and beginning to clean out his own cab while I began coiling the hose.
"Thank you, Frank," Ruby said. He looked at me strangely, moving his head from side to side as if inspecting a horse he was going to buy. "Frank, have you lost a lotta weight since comin' on board with us?"
Of course he was right, and of course he was the only one who would have noticed. I was wearing a T-shirt that had once hugged a nice little potbelly but that now hung on me like laundry drying on the line. I kept the shirt untucked so no one would notice that the cargo pants I was wearing were ready to fall down around my ankles despite two extra notches cut in my belt.
"Yeah, but this was happening before I came to work with you guys. I was dieting. Looks like I overdid it, huh?"
"Yeah, I do that all the time." He smiled. "Listen, your business is your business, but you sure you're just down here for the sun? I mean, a guy with your education usually isn't hosin' out taxis for a living. You sure there isn't somethin' eatin' you? Maybe somethin' unfinished up north?"
For a moment I wondered if he knew the real truth about my current employment with the Midnight Taxi Service, and my current residence in Exile, Florida, but since I had not confided it to any of the drivers I had to doubt that. I smiled weakly.
"Something like that. Yeah."
Something like that. Yeah. Actually, Ruby had hit it right on the nose and I wasn't at all sure that my weight loss wasn't directly related to my presence in Florida. I had been in the Panhandle for almost a year when I took the job with the Midnight Taxi Service. But the beginning of the trouble went back a good three years.
Then I was the proud owner of a mid-sized software company that specialized in tailoring applications for our corporate clients. Roughly fifty people worked for me, I was married to a wonderful woman, and everything was great, right up to the point when the whole computer industry went into a nosedive.
Having given much of my early adulthood to building that company, I wasn't about to watch it go down the drain without a fight. So I did two things the Small Business Administration normally tells people not to: First, I put my own money into the business (and watched it disappear in a frighteningly small number of months), and then I went outside the normal banking channels to get more.
None of this was illegal, mind you, but when you go beyond normal lending services you are really taking a chance. These people are sometimes referred to as venture capitalists, and sometimes they are called mezzanine finance, but whatever the name they are usually a group of wealthy people hoping to make some quick money. The best thing that can happen is a speedy recovery, in which case you pay huge interest and get away from the mezzanine folks as fast as possible. The more common result is an ongoing relationship, complete with a mezzanine representative sitting in your office. And sometimes, as in my case, the business continues to decline and the new partners push out the old management.
I fought them on that one, and ended up getting forced into bankruptcy. That was when things really went awry: A psychotic judge decided to add a new feature to corporate bankruptcy law and attached my future earnings against the settlement of my titanic debts. Normally a bankruptcy settles the debts one way or the other, and the slate is wiped clean, but not so in my case.
My old college roommate, a good friend named Mark Ruben who was by then a successful corporate lawyer in Manhattan, stepped in at that point and concocted a plan to get the creditors and the judge off my back. My yearly earnings were not subject to confiscation if I stayed below a certain income level, and so Mark had suggested I relocate to a nice, warm part of the country and do part-time work as a fact-checker for local law offices and insurance companies. This kind of work meshed well with my technical training, since much of it involved background checks and court document retrieval, and I picked the Florida Panhandle because many years earlier I had been one of the college kids visiting there on spring break.
Probably threw up in the back of a Midnight taxi, too.
Mark believed that the plan would convince my shadowy creditors to give up on ever getting restitution from me, but I'd been at this for over a year and there was little indication that the message was being received. Mark had called the other night with the unwelcome news that my former partners were interested in getting control of a few software innovations created by my company. It was the first word from them since the court case had ended. I would have been happy to give up the rotten patents to get my life back, but unfortunately they were sitting in an insurance company's office in Hartford and I currently had no more right to them than the creditors did.
At any rate, the fact-checking work had actually interested me, and it had brought me into contact with some local private investigators who encouraged me to consider joining their profession. I didn't really give this idea much consideration, as there is a lot of training and licensing involved in PI work, but I did help solve a murder that had horsed up one of my insurance investigations along the way. I actually could have benefited financially from that case, but I was still trying to keep the earnings low and so I continued with my fact-checking.
Unfortunately, background checks and document retrieval only pay so much, and I was not the only guy providing this service. I found myself seriously struggling to make ends meet shortly after solving the Gonzalez murder case, and when you consider that I was living in a rented house in the tiny Panhandle town of Exile, you can see I was making almost no money at all.
So I began stripping away the luxuries, and as there were precious few of them I quickly got to cutting back on groceries. At first this fit in well with Mark's pull-up-the-drawbridge, half-rations-all-around siege idea, and I saw myself physically embracing the concept of a long campaign of denial. The potbelly flattened out, my office pallor turned into a nice Florida tan, and I felt I was finally making a stand.
I also relearned the standard college kid's tricks for stretching the food budget. It is amazing how a small piece of meat or fish can be expanded with rice or pasta, and you can get a lot of rice and pasta for very little money. The figure I saw in the mirror continued to shrink, and every lost pound was another small victory in the contest of wills.
In a strange side effect, my lowered caloric intake also led to less sleep. It wasn't that I had any trouble dropping off, or that I was having nightmares, but like the food intake, I simply didn't seem to need it as much. It worked in concert with my idea of simplifying my existence, and it did not concern me at the time. The only real problem was the addition of unfilled hours that had formerly been dedicated to sleep, and so I went looking for a side job. A night job would kill two birds with one stone, taking up my slack time and providing me with more money, and so when I saw that the Midnight Taxi Service needed a night dispatcher I went over and applied.
Copyright © 2007 by Vincent H. O'Neil. All rights reserved.