“Because some of us are pirates and some of us are damned
But all of us need all of us to ever find the land
And though the passage of good hope may seem
Like a needle’s eye
We’re floating on tranquility
On this beautiful night.”
– Josh Ritter, “Beautiful Night”
The windshield was speckled with raindrops as soon as she left the garage. Ingrid Elliot drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and decided to go west, without any real reason. As she pulled out of the driveway, she thumbed the remote to close the garage door behind her. Someone on the street raised his hand, and she almost pulled over before she noticed the cell phone in his hand. People were always taking pictures of her when she was working, amazed to see an actual checker cab out on the street. She continued on after he snapped the picture, on the lookout for real customers.
She wore her black hair underneath a Kangol cap; not exactly uniform, but she didn’t have to answer to anyone but herself. She did attempt a uniform of sorts. Every night, she wore a crisp white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, gray slacks, and a black vest. Though the majority of people only saw her right shoulder, being in uniform made her feel more like a professional.
Ingrid reached the first stoplight before someone waved her down. She pulled to the curb and the man opened the door to lean in. “Grant and Eighth?”
The man climbed into the car and shook the lapels of his coat, running his hand through his hair. “Didn’t think it was supposed to rain today.”
“I’m not surprised, as humid as it’s been.”
Ingrid was grateful when the man’s cell phone rang and spared her any further commentary about the weather. Sometimes she wondered who decided that the weather became the default topic of conversation between strangers. The rain, really just a drizzle, was already starting to die off anyway.
“…raining there, too? I’m still in New York.”
Ingrid glanced in the rearview mirror at the man in the backseat. It wasn’t her place to catch him in a lie, but she found the lies her fares told to be entertaining. She only got to be a part of these people’s lives for a couple of minutes at a time, but the conversations were always worth listening to.
“Hopefully the storm won’t delay the flight. No, eight. Yeah. No, I’ll just take the shuttle or something. Yeah. Miss you, too. Love you. See you tomorrow.” He hung up and slipped the phone back into his pocket, his urge for conversation obviously expiring. He looked out the window and Ingrid was grateful for the silence. When she reached Eighth Street, she said, “Where on Grant?”
“The third brownstone,” he said. “The one with the archway in front.”
She pulled up to the curb, and the front door of the building opened. A blonde woman in a clingy robe stepped out onto the porch. She hugged herself and craned her neck out, getting her hair wet as she looked at the clouds.
“Six seventy-five,” Ingrid said.
The man handed her a ten and said, “Keep the change.”
She thanked him as he climbed out of the cab and hurried up the stairs. He put his hands on the robed blonde’s hips, bent to kiss her, and shuffled her back into the apartment building. Ingrid checked over her shoulder and merged back onto the main street. She turned on the radio and hummed along with the music as she drove down Grant.
Technically, what she was doing was illegal. She wasn’t licensed as a cab driver, but cabbies started to dry out as the city began to decline, and the few who were left were unwilling to cross the invisible barrier to No Man’s Land. The cops knew about her and they left her alone, for the most part. She routinely went in to let the cops know she was working, that her driver’s license was up to date, and that she wasn’t a danger to herself or others. As long as she kept everything kosher, they were happy to leave her alone.
She drove at night because that was the time she liked the best. Most of the city was shut down, and the few places that were open stood out like beacons in the darkness. Plus, at night, it was harder to notice the downslide the city was taking. The night covered buildings like a veil, so it was easy to ignore that windows were busted out or that sidewalks were cracked with weeds growing through them.
Her cell phone rang and she placed it on the seat next to her. She flipped it open and answered without looking, turning it to speakerphone. “City Cab. Where can I take you?”
“I need to get to the waterfront. You got anyone going down there?”
“Yes, sir. I just need the pick-up address.”
He gave her an address three blocks away. “All right, sir. I’ll have a car there in about five minutes.” She hung up and left the phone next to her on the seat. People usually assumed the person they called was a dispatcher. No harm, no foul. It would just make people suspicious if they knew she was operating on her own.
Two minutes later, she saw the man standing outside of his apartment, hands in his pockets, hunched against the rain. He stepped to the curb when he saw her approach and slid into the backseat. “Anywhere specific you need to go?” she asked.
“Just down to the waterfront,” the guy said. “Anywhere is fine.”
Ingrid nodded and drove. The guy settled back in his seat and sighed heavily, rubbing his chin and then running a hand through his hair. “Is it supposed to keep raining all night?”
“Not sure.” Ingrid prayed she wouldn’t get roped into another conversation about the weather. Anything but that.
“Someone told me about your cab. Not many willing to go down so close to No Man’s Land, especially this time of night.”
“Just cuts down on my competition.”
The man chuckled and checked his watch. Ingrid kept an eye on him in the rearview mirror. One of the dangers of working only at night and crossing the line to No Man’s Land meant that she had been almost robbed a half dozen times. The cops who okayed her business didn’t know about the gun in her glove compartment, but she doubted they would have much of a problem with it. She had to protect herself, after all.
But the guy in the backseat kept his hands in sight, and seemed more interested in the world going by the window than he was in her.
Ingrid drove the man to the waterfront in silence, listening to the radio playing quietly. She was grateful for the people who didn’t feel the need to make conversation. The rain had stopped and the few working streetlights reflected off puddles of collected rainwater on the sidewalks. A handful of people were out on the streets, despite the late hour. She figured half of them were homeless, the other half criminals.
She stopped at the T shaped intersection with the waterfront directly ahead of her. “Here we are, sir. That’ll be twelve ten.”
The man fumbled with his wallet and withdrew a ten and a five. He handed it through the slot in the safety glass between the seats. “There you go. Keep it.”
“Thank you, sir. Have a good night.”
He got out of the cab and Ingrid waited until he was a few feet down the streets before she drove away. She drove along the waterfront and thought about why it always seemed to be brighter near the water. She spotted a few women standing on a nearby corner and realized she had forgotten a demographic of the nightlife: prostitutes. One of the women waved, and Ingrid lifted her fingers from the wheel in the barest minimum of politeness as she drove by. They weren’t flagging her down, they were just acknowledging the passage of another night owl.
Ingrid meandered through the streets of downtown, skirting the edge of No Man’s Land as she looked for fares. There were a few bars she knew she could stake out, waiting for someone to stumble out and discover their keys have mysteriously vanished. She parked down the block from the Bat’s Belfry and waited for the first drunk of the night to show up.
She didn’t have to wait long. She kept a book under the front seat for times like this, but she barely read one whole page before someone knocked on the window. She lowered her head to peek at the person, who was bent at the waist and looking into the front seat. The woman gestured at the back seat. “Are you available?”
Ingrid nodded and replaced her bookmark as the woman and her friend got into the backseat. The woman was in her forties, upswept black hair, and a business suit that passed its eight-hour lifespan at least four hours earlier. The man was tall, bald, his shirt unbuttoned at the collar and his fingers were working the buttons of his shirt cuffs. The woman sighed and settled against the seat, digging in her purse for something. Ingrid waited and then twisted in her seat. “Where to, ma’am?”
“Oh, uh, just home.”
The man said, “She needs the address.”
The woman sighed and touched two fingers to her forehead. “Oh, oh, oh. Uh, six. Six Monroe Street.”
Ingrid started the engine and the woman sagged back in her seat. The man finished unbuttoning his cuffs and rolled his sleeves up to the middle of his forearm. Ingrid eyed him carefully as the woman groaned and rubbed her forehead. “Everything all right?”
“It will be once I finally discover what my limit is. I’m getting closer. I’ve only been trying to find it since I was nineteen. One of these days…”
Ingrid smiled. “Don’t worry, I’ve only had seven so far tonight.”
The woman just grunted. The man ignored them both.
Ingrid shrugged and mentally figured out the quickest route to Monroe Street. She turned next to the bar her current passenger had exited, and the woman said, “Bunch of thieves and liars in that place. Talk about bullshit.”
“Why don’t you just let it go?” the man said, trying to keep his voice low.
“Why don’t you shut up, Leonard?” she snapped. She rearranged herself in her seat, body language drawing a line between her and Leonard. He shook his head and looked out his own window. In the rearview mirror, Ingrid saw tears glistening in the woman’s eyes. She’d had her share of emotional drunks weeping all over the backseat. But when you were ferrying drunks home from the bar, tears were preferable to any other bodily fluid.
The woman said, “When did people become such assholes?”
“Are you talking to me, ma’am?”
The woman didn’t seem to be expecting an answer, and ignored Ingrid’s question. The el train rumbled by overhead and Leonard said, “See, I told you we wouldn’t have gotten to the stop in time.”
“Oh, shut up,” the woman muttered, her lips stumbling over the words.
Monroe Street had once been a pretty nice neighborhood, but apathy and gang activity ruined it. The crime rate went up and people started moving out. No one moved into the empty apartments, so they either sat empty or became squats for the increasing number of homeless people. A fire had laid waste to the first building on the corner, turning it into a husk of a landmark. The upper three stories were exposed to the air like a cutaway dollhouse.
Ingrid slowed and began looking for the address. The man said, “Just up here on the left. The one with the mailbox in front of it.”
Ingrid stopped in the middle of the street, since there were no spaces available, and checked the meter. “Eight fifty-five.”
Leonard paid her as the woman climbed out of the cab. Ingrid watched as Leonard put a hand in the small of her back, guiding her between two cars and onto the sidewalk. The woman put her arm around his waist and sagged against him, forcing him to all but carry her into the lobby of their apartment building. Their disagreement in the cab was apparently forgotten as he ushered her inside.
Ingrid had seen all versions in her backseat; yelling arguments, attempted physical fights, sobbing accusations, and more than her share of attempted sexual reunions. She tried to ignore them as much as possible, but once or twice she had been forced to call the cops and let them deal with the violent or amorous passengers.
She stopped at the next corner and rested her hands on top of the steering wheel. Her three fares of the night had taken her progressively deeper into No Man’s Land. People running toward her car now were equally likely to be trying to mug her or steal her wheels as to be potential fares. The el train she passed on the way to Monroe Street rattled overhead again, and she leaned forward to watch it pass. The windows glowed, an oasis of light in the darkness, and she glimpsed a handful of people inside and wondered where they were going.
Ingrid was about to pull away from the stop sign when something hit the back bumper of the cab. She reached instinctively for the glove compartment and pulled out her gun before she looked out the back window to see what happened. A woman with layered blonde hair had apparently run into the back of the cab and was trying to pull up the handle on the driver’s side door. Ingrid always kept that door locked so people would have to get in on the passenger side and she could keep her eyes on them.
The woman shouted, her voice muffled by the glass, and pounded on the window once before she pushed away from the cab. Behind her, Ingrid saw three men in hoodies running down the middle of the street. The one in front was carrying what appeared to be a belt. Ingrid cursed and pushed open her door and stepped out into the street. “Hey! Lady!” The woman was at the intersection, apparently torn about which was to go. The deer in the headlights effect, frozen by a multitude of options.
“Lady, get in the cab,” Ingrid said. From the corner of her eye, she saw the woman look at the cab and then run back toward her. Ingrid raised the gun and fired over the heads of the men. They were nearly to the cab, and the gunshot echoed off the buildings around them. All three men skidded to a stop as Ingrid lowered the gun to center mass. “Stop right there. Turn around. Go home.”
Ingrid fired, twitching her wrist just barely so the bullet hit the ground in front of them. “You might want to rethink that. Back away.”
The trio seemed to consider their options. The farthest two began to back away, and the leader tightened his grip on the belt. “You’re in for a world of hurt, sweetheart.”
“That’s a real nice cab you got. Real nice. Distinctive.”
Ingrid said, “I have four bullets left. I won’t waste them.”
The man pointed at her before he turned and ran off with his two friends. Ingrid waited to make sure they were far enough away that they couldn’t ambush her, then got back into the cab. The woman was sitting on the passenger seat, knees pulled against her chest, hunkered down so that as much of her as possible was hidden by the back of the seat. Ingrid said, “Get in the back.”
“The… door’s locked.”
“Not the passenger side. Go on.”
The woman got out of the front seat and climbed into the back. Ingrid got behind the wheel and locked all the doors, checking the rearview to make sure their little friends were truly gone. She caught the woman’s frightened expression and said, “Those guys are pussies. As soon as someone steps up, they back off.”
The woman twisted around and looked through the back window.
“Where do you need to go?”
“I-I don’t have any money.”
“Yeah, well, I think it’s a pretty good idea to get both of us away from here as soon as possible. So I might as well take you somewhere.”
She bit her bottom lip and said, “Out of No Man’s Land. Just… somewhere nicer.”
“I can do that. I’m Ingrid.”
Ingrid finally pulled away from the stop sign, keeping an eye on the sidewalks in case their friends decided to circle around and get their revenge. “So, Michelle. Those guys back there friends of yours?”
“They…” She swallowed hard. “One of them kept trying to buy me a drink at the club. I told him I wasn’t interested, like, three times but he wouldn’t take the hint. When I left, he was waiting outside. He tried to grab me, him and his friends. He said if I wouldn’t take his drink, then he would make me…” She swallowed hard and looked out the window. “I stomped on his foot and ran. I thought I was…”
“Well, they’ll probably give up. Guys like that go for the easy target.” She looked in the rearview. “Did they hurt you?”
Michelle shook her head and then looked down at her arms. “The big guy bruised me a little bit, I think, but I’m fine. I-I’m fine.”
“You sure I can’t take you anywhere specific? The police department, maybe?”
“No. But… can you take me home? I just need…”
“No problem. Where do you live?”
Michelle hesitated. “The Cobblestones.”
Ingrid suddenly put all the pieces of the night together. Michelle, and maybe some friends, decided to be “dangerous” for a night. They dressed up and went to a bar in No Man’s Land, tempting fate, proving their invulnerability. Death, pain, danger, it can’t touch them, because they’re young and stupid. Ingrid resisted the urge to give a speech; she was just a hack driver. She changed lanes and took the quickest route out of No Man’s Land.
Cobblestone Square was one of the few neighborhoods in the city that could still be considered nice. The homes were originally owned by the city founders, impressive two-story houses flanked on the corners by two mansions that were converted into apartments sometime in the fifties. The people who lived there still cared about their homes, and had the means to hire people to take care of their lawns. Ingrid hated it more than No Man’s Land; it seemed less real. At least the people in No Man’s Land were honest about who they were. She would trust anyone from No Man’s Land before anyone from this super swanky part of town.
Michelle regained her composure and pointed toward one of the apartment buildings on the corner. Ingrid parked at the curb and turned to look into the backseat. Michelle was hugging herself, staring up at her house, and Ingrid couldn’t resist a bit of preaching. “Look, I know it’s a thrill to go down to No Man’s Land. But let tonight be a lesson, okay? You could have been jumping from the frying pan into the fire when you got into my cab. Maybe you need to get your thrills from TV and the movies from now on, huh?”
“Yeah,” Michelle said. She opened the door and said, “Look, I feel stupid. I feel like a child. But would you mind… would you walk me to the door.”
Ingrid almost refused on the basis she couldn’t leave her cab. But there really was nothing to fear in The Cobblestones. She sighed and shut off the engine. “Sure.” She got out of the cab and walked around to the other side. She led the way up the path and through the front door. The foyer still felt like a house, with a communal kitchen to the left and a flight of stairs on the right. Ingrid was always uncomfortable going into a stranger’s home, especially at night. There was something awkwardly intimate about it.
Michelle undid her jacket and shrugged it off her shoulders. “I’m on the top floor.”
“I think you can make it on your own. Sleep well, Michelle.”
“Thanks. A-and thanks for the ride. And everything.”
Ingrid nodded. “No problem. Glad you got home all right.”
Michelle turned and started to ascend the stairs, and Ingrid stepped back out into the night. Her phone was ringing when she got back to the car, and she answered as she fastened her seatbelt. “City Cab. Where can I take you?”
“Yeah, bartender took my keys, so I guess I need a ride. You come to No Man’s Land?”
“Just give me a cross street, and I’ll be there,” she said.
She heard quick muttering and then the caller said, “You know Van Buren Avenue is?”
Ingrid kept her voice even. “Yeah, I can manage that. It’ll be about ten minutes.”
“Okay, you can pick me up there.”
The caller hung up, and Ingrid closed her phone and tapped it against the steering wheel. Some streets in town had been renamed after Presidents of the United States as part of an Independence Day celebration during the bicentennial. The majority of the streets were named in order – Washington ran along the waterfront, Adams and Jefferson branching off of it. But after a while, things got a little sloppy. But Ingrid was positive that Van Buren Avenue was only two blocks away from Monroe Street, where she had picked up Michelle and sent her pursuers running.
Did any of those Neanderthals get a look at the phone number on the side of her cab? Could she risk it? She took the gun from the glove compartment and checked the load. Four bullets, just like she told the guy. She had ten minutes to get back to Van Buren Ave. That didn’t leave her much time to plan for an ambush.
She got out of the cab and went around to the trunk. She peered inside and looked at the tools she’d acquired. At the time, she thought she was just being paranoid. But that didn’t stop her from stocking up. When you spend your nights in a place like No Man’s Land, it’s best to come prepared.
The cab rolled slowly down Van Buren Ave. Ingrid had the headlights off, but the “off-duty” sign on the roof glowing. She floated down the streets like jetsam on a wave, keeping her eyes peeled for movement. She stopped under a streetlight, engine idling and smoke trailing from her tailpipe to mix with the clouds to obscure the stars. She slumped down in the seat, turned off the interior lights, and waited. The streetlight turned her windows into mirrors, making her invisible to the outside. She used the side and rearview mirrors to watch for her alleged fare.
After about three minutes, they arrived. Belt was in the lead, rolling his shoulders as he strode across the street. She waited until they were just out of arm’s reach, the leader’s hand extended to grab the door, and she pressed her foot down on the gas. The cab lurched forward about five feet and came to a stop again. She was out of the streetlamp’s protection, but she hoped the shadows would protect her.
The leader stepped forward again, and Ingrid lurched again.
“Bitch!” the guy growled, and any doubt was erased; they were the guys who had been chasing Michelle. She let the leader grab the handle and yank it up, but the door was locked and wouldn’t give. She shifted into reverse, stood on the gas, and the tires squealed as she backed up. Belt Man was thrown off balance. His knees hit the ground and his hand was wrenched away from the car door. She reversed until she was behind the three men, and then she switched the headlights on bright.
The guys blinked in the sudden brightness and Ingrid opened her car door. One of the men was carrying a baseball bat, and he swung it at the shape her body made in the beam of the headlights. The bat slammed against something hard and came up short, Ingrid twisted her arm, the aluminum bat in her hand easily pushing away the Louisville slugger. She pivoted on one foot and buried the blunt head in Baseball Man’s gut. He doubled over and Ingrid swung the bat as he fell to his knees. She hit the third, apparently unarmed, man in the thigh and he howled in pain as his muscles contracted.
Belt Man came at her from behind and wrapped his belt around her throat. Ingrid was expecting him, though, and contracted her body. He was forced to compensate, rising onto the balls of his feet. When Ingrid threw herself backward, he lost his balance and they both went down hard. Belt Man took the brunt of the fall, and Ingrid freed herself from his makeshift garrote. She put her hand on his hip, as if to help herself stand, and positioned herself over him as she slipped the wallet from his pocket. She placed the tip of the bat against his cheek as he glared up at her.
“What were you planning to do to that woman tonight? Huh? Whatever it was, I think a bat to the face is meager in comparison. What do you say?” She flipped open his wallet and looked at the driver’s license. “I asked you a question, Eddie Congers.”
Ingrid tapped his shoulder with the bat, pinching a nerve, and Eddie convulsed. She turned and saw that his friends were on the opposite sidewalk, shuffling away. She looked down at Eddie. “Just me and you, Eddie. You think you’re a badass? Think you have to take down a woman because she showed you up? This ends right now, Eddie. You better make me believe that you’ll walk away, or I’ll make sure you don’t ever get up.” She cocked her gun and Eddie winced. “What’s it going to be?”
“It ends now.”
“You stay out of bars. You don’t speak to women unless they speak to you first. You will keep to yourself and you will convince your friends to take vows of chastity. Because I’m out here every night, Eddie. And I know your face. I know your name, and where you live.” She dropped his wallet on his chest, minus the driver’s license. “You think I have to be scared of you and your boys? You should be scared of me.” She put her foot on his left hand and stepped down, pinning it against the asphalt.
“Do we have an understanding, Mr. Congers?”
“If you and your buddies ever need to get somewhere… walk. Trust me. It will be much healthier for you.”
Ingrid took her weight off his hand and walked back to the cab. She got behind the wheel and waited until Eddie Congers got to his feet before she gunned the engine. She barely missed him with the curved front bumper, forcing him to jump back to avoid being hit. She ignored the stop sign at the end of the block and turned right, leaving Eddie and his goons behind her. She exhaled, rolled her shoulders, and tried to steady her jangled nerves as she drove along the quiet waterfront.
The phone rang next to her on the seat. She picked it up and answered without looking. “City Cab. Where can I take you?”
Ingrid accepted the twenty from the young couple, neither of whom looked like they would make it all the way to their apartment before they ravaged each other. She thought about telling them they were giving her an eleven dollar tip, but they had bigger things on their mind. She watched the man’s hand slip down to the woman’s butt as they climbed from the car, and she giggled and squirmed but didn’t really try to get away. Ingrid had to force herself to look away. It had been a long time since she heard a woman make a noise like that.
She sighed and checked the clock. The sun was rising and the darkness had acquired a velvet blue tint. All-night parties were letting out, people were stumbling away from one night stands, and parents were waking children to meet their bus. It was the moment of the day when Ingrid’s world overlapped with that of everyone else. She flipped the rooftop sign off as she drove through the neighborhood. There was a new gap between two buildings where an office had once stood, now occupied by piles of rubble and a cracked foundation. She wondered if it was a victim of arson, accident or the forward march of progress. Doubtful, on that last mark. Very little marching was going on these days.
Ingrid drove to the waterfront and pulled off the road. She parked with the front of the cab pointing toward the water and opened the glove compartment. Tucked next to her gun was a plastic bag that held a cheese sandwich, an apple and a juice box. She took them both, tucked the keys into her pocket, and walked to the front of the car. She stepped up on the bumper and sat on the sloped hood. She leaned back, propping herself up on her elbow, and unwrapped the sandwich.
Slowly, the city came to life behind her. She ignored it. She was only interested in the night; the day belonged to others. She ate slowly, watching as the light bled across the cloudy sky, spilling diamonds into the waterfront. At dawn, it was easier to believe the city wasn’t too far gone to save.
All she wanted to do was go home, shower, climb into bed, and sleep through the day. She craned her neck, working the muscles, and decided maybe a bath would be better. It wasn’t every night someone tried to choke her to death with a belt. She sighed and took a bite of her sandwich.
“Excuse me. Are you available?”
Ingrid shifted and looked over her shoulder. “Sorry, I–”
The woman was standing on the side of the road, a pair of high heels dangling from her fingertips. She wore a black dress, the kind that looked great on the dance floor but always looked a little sad in the early morning light. Her hair was mussed, and she looked like she had been crying. She was composed now, however, and looked ready to keep walking if Ingrid turned her down.
The woman nodded down the road. “My car broke down.” Her voice was tinged with a British accent. “I spent the entire night trying to convince this bastard to hire me, and then… well, I guess he liked my bar tab better than my résumé.” She grinned and pushed her hair out of her face. “Sorry. I’ll, uh, let you get back to your lunch.”
“No,” Ingrid said. She gathered her lunch and slid off the hood. “I think I’ve got time for one more ride.”
She gestured at the passenger side back door and then got behind the wheel. She watched as the woman slid into the backseat. “Thank you. I mean… really. You’re saving my life here.”
“No problem,” Ingrid said. She turned, arm on the back of the seat, and said, “Where can I take you?”