Dead K's

by Wayne Deeker

(Author's Note: Dead K's, an Australian taxi-driver's expression, refers to the kilometres travelled during a shift, often those between jobs, that do not receive any income. You might also call them empty miles. You'd want to minimise these.)

A noise from the busy footpath drew Bill's attention from his dog-eared paperback. He surveyed the street-scene before him, admiring the sunset hues reflected in the shop windows, but saw nothing except evening shoppers: young parents pushing strollers; a group of young women laughing in shorts and bikini-tops; an elderly man with a wide- brimmed straw hat, window shopping arm-in-arm with his wife; a queue of people at the autobank. Out of habit, Bill glanced in the rear-vision mirror, watching a slender man struggle towards him, half-dragging a large box. Might get a bit of work for a change, Bill thought, nothing but dead k's today.

The man wore light-blue motorcycle leathers, reinforced at the knees, elbows and hips; his partially open jacket revealed an olive business shirt and red tie beneath. He paused several times, placing the parcel down to adjust his grip, panting and wiping his forehead with a frayed handkerchief. As the man drew closer, Bill heard bells and the sound of new leather creaking: unscuffed red boots, buckled to the knees.

With a final heave and grunt, the man thrust his box towards the taxi's rear. Bill popped the trunk-switch, repeatedly tugging at the door handle. Must get that door fixed, he thought. Standing on the road behind the car, Bill met the man's eyes, and nodded. Bill squatted, taking the other side of the cardboard box, almost dropping it. "You got bricks in here, or something?"

The man grimaced as they lifted the box into the taxi. Bill returned to the driver's seat while his fare remained on the footpath, drawing a spiral notebook and a gold fountain-pen from inside his jacket, pouting slightly as he wrote. Then he spoke though the passenger window, holding the note lightly between his thumb and middle finger, a fake Rolex glittering under his cuff, "Do you know this address?"

He was pale, with fine, nearly delicate features; his sandy- blonde hair was darker and clipped short at the back and sides, longer on top. Harmless enough, Bill thought, but he gives me the creeps.

The man, presenting a thin, slightly one-sided smile, seemed preoccupied, his opaque gray eyes darting around the interior of the cab. Bill took the paper, avoiding the man's fingers, and scanned the meticulous handwriting. "Yeah."

"Will you take this box there? I'll follow you on my bike in a minute."

Those eyes, Bill thought, and that voice. Shit.

The man almost skipped off, without waiting for Bill's reply. No worries, Bill thought, watching the man in the mirror. He flicked the meter on, looking over his shoulder for oncoming traffic, and paused for one final check of the rear-vision mirror, catching the man admiring his reflection wriggling in the shop-windows. He blew himself a kiss, then swaggered off.

Jeez, thought Bill.

* * *

Bill turned into the man's street, relieved the houses were clearly numbered. He counted down to the man's house, and turned in, the loose gravel driveway crunching beneath the tyres as he came to a stop; the headlights illuminated the right side of the house and garage. Single-storey red brick, perhaps twenty years old, he noted.

Well-maintained gardens framed the padlocked garage; large grevillea and banksia shrubs obstructed a view of the backyard. Bill sat a moment, and then turned on the dim interior light; the dashboard clock read eight-thirty. Waiting for the man, he drew out his paperback, glancing occasionally at the darkened house, not really listening to the constant taxi-radio chatter.

Bill looked up from reading: eight forty. Where the hell is he? It doesn't take fifteen minutes to get here. He glanced at the house, then into the rear- vision mirror, and over his shoulder into the street.

The taxi-radio's silence a precursor to an announcement instantly attracted Bill's notice. After a moment, the gravelly voice announced, "VH1-ED to all cars. Which car is waiting for a guy in the driveway of 26 Harrison Street, Campbell?"

"Tx-201, I'm waiting there. Been here fifteen minutes." Bill stared into the radio microphone.

"Well, go back and pick him up. His bike has broken down."

* * *

Slowly, Bill cruised along Brierly street, scrutinising each figure in the footpath's gloomy mustard light. Near the rank, Bill saw a peculiar orange stripe bobbing in the headlights. Must be his helmet, he thought. As he drew near, the stripe darted into the road. Bill stomped the brake-pedal, the tyres screeching. Jesus Christ! Stay on the goddamned path, dickhead. The taxi jerked to a stop in the centre of the road, locking Bill's seatbelt.

The man yanked open the car door, plopped into the seat with a huff, kicking the floor in front of him. "Fuckin' bike. Stupid fucking thing," he wailed, his hair dishevelled, cheeks grease-smudged. He slowly clenched and unclenched his gloved fist, taking half- hearted swipes at the helmet between his knees. He regarded Bill, his red-rimmed eyes wide, almost pleading, and sniffed: "Fucking stupid bike."

"What . . . "

"The stupid bloody thing broke down on me. I only bought it last fucking week." Hyperventilating, he scowled accusingly at Bill, his voice low, "I was spending six thousand dollars a year on taxis, so I decided to buy a bike and save some money. That was only last week. Last fucking week."

"So do you want to go home, get some parts for it, or what?"

"Home. Take me home," he whined, thumping the centre console.

Bill chuckled softly to himself, "Actually, I remember one time . . ."

The man looked up, noticing Bill's smile, and turned an outraged purple. Veins bulging on his neck, he shrieked, "It's not fucking funny. It is not fucking funny." The man focused on his hands, then on Bill again, "It's not fucking funny, you shit," he screeched, pounding the centre console. "Fucking taxi shitheads."

Looking forward, his smile gone, Bill stomped on the accelerator, swinging the car's rear in front of an oncoming car. The tyres squealed as he swerved, trying to avoid it. He sat for a long moment, shaken, and squinted into the rear- vision mirror. Watch the road, asshole! He watched the car's tail lights recede, and felt a cold gray stare centimetres from his face.

His passenger, shoulders twisted towards Bill, breathed slowly, evenly. He said nothing, his eyes wide, unblinking. Ten seconds, fifteen, twenty. A droplet of sweat slid down Bill's spine.

Forcing calm, Bill turned his eyes to the taxi-meter: twenty- two dollars, not bad, he thought. The man followed Bill's glance, and, noting the meter, his unremitting gaze intensified. He mumbled, scowling, "Fucking bike. Fucking taxis. Fucking taxi drivers." He thumped the centre console, "Six thousand dollars a fucking year." He pulled closer to Bill, whispering hot, fast words against his ear. "Fucking taxis. Fucking taxi shitheads."

Reflective house-numbers whizzed past as Bill counted down to the man's house: eighty. . . seventy . . . fifty, forty eight . . . thirty six . . . thirty two, thirty. The man continued his frenzied mumbling. Bill turned sharply, skidded slightly on the gravel driveway, slamming the car into "park", throwing the man against the dashboard. "That'll be twenty-four forty, thanks."

The man silently studied Bill a long moment, his eyes lucid, and his voice calm once more. "Twenty-four forty; yeah, mate." He grabbed his helmet, and peered across the lawn to the front door, smiling slightly, "I've just gotta go inside and get more money." He scurried out of the car, leaving the door open. He swished through the dewy grass, looking back regularly over his shoulder at Bill as he approached the darkened house. On the doorstep he fumbled with the keys, then disappeared inside without turning on the lights.

Bill watched the door, squinting into the surrounding darkness and into the rear-vision mirror. Unconsciously, he fiddled with the headlight dimmer stalk: high, low, high, low. He turned up the taxi-radio chatter, glanced around again, and grabbed the pen from its holder, tapping a retreat on the steering wheel. Eight fifty: he revved the engine. Where the hell are you? Hurry up. Come on, come on, come on! He looked at the clock again: eight fifty two.

* * *

The man emerged from the house with a nylon athletics bag. He strode towards the car, eyes fixed on Bill, then flopped into the seat, sitting motionless, the bag across his knees. "Twenty-four forty, was it?" he asked, smirking.

Bill's answer was cut short by the man shoving his bag into Bill's left side. Still in his seatbelt, Bill thought he had been punched hard. There was only disbelief when he saw the long blade pulling bloody from his ribs. Christ! Shit . . .shit! Fucking seatbelt. Damn! Bill tugged at the handle, click, click . . . click, and threw his weight against the door. Open, damn you! Open! Click, click. The seatbelt held him.

Savouring his moment, the passenger whooped as he struck again. Bill screamed in pain, his face a question. Bill struggled a final time, activating the emergency radio switch on the floor, then slumped against the door.

"Fucking taxi pricks," the man giggled. "Fucking taxi pricks!" *


Story copyright © 1995 by Wayne Deeker.


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