REAY JESPERSEN:
WRITER OF, AND DABBLER IN,
MANY THINGS

NYC Midnight Short Story contest, Round 1 entry

The parameters were: 2500 word limit, comedy, subject was a taxi driver, object was a legally binding document. I found out in late March that it had landed me in second place in my category -- categories, to my understanding, each usually consisting of 30-40 people -- which pushed me into Round 2. Here it is in its entirety.

 

HELL OF A RIDE

The Los Angeles traffic was typically horrible.
     As Liam stood on the curb trying to hail a taxi, however, it seemed to be getting steadily worse.
     More horrible, he thought. Horribler.
     The creative part of his brain liked the sound of the non-word and he pulled out his p hone to make a note of it. A writer never knew what mental tidbits would prove useful at some point
down the road.
     As he glanced up from the phone, he caught an empty taxi sailing by in an unusual stretch of traffic that actually moved.
     Liam’s hand shot up. “Hey!” He yelled. “Hey, taxi!”
     The driver ignored him and instead pulled over a hundred feet up for a far more attractive man who had hailed it with a half-wave that of sheer confidence. Like he knew that he didn't have to bother much to get what he wanted.
     The handsome jerk probably had women lined up at his door. Meanwhile, Liam, decent looking but too shy for his own good, had just last week thrown out a box of expired condoms that was still sealed.
     He gave his head a shake and reminded himself that he was running late for his meeting across town.
     He’d finally managed to get a pitch session with Dante and Rayna Kennerson, a mysterious but very influential sibling TV producer team. He’d been after them for two years.
     But his shot with them was fading fast.
     Another empty taxi cruised by, ignoring Liam’s shouts and waves.
     Liam reeled on the sidewalk, thrashing his courier bag around, angry that he hadn’t gotten ready faster to avoid all of this. But he had to shower. Or did he? Maybe a couple of wet wipes and keeping his arms down...?
     Had his hygiene been his undoing?
     “Goddammit!” He yelled to the heavens.
     A taxi appeared on the road in front of him, wedged into the traffic. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. Had it? And how could a taxi look this good? Like it had just rolled off the assembly line. Like the very depiction of a perfect taxi. It almost glowed.
     The creative side of his brain piped up again: Almost...?
     Liam leaned sideways to peer through the passenger window of the unfathomably pristine
vehicle. A cartoonishly presentable, cheerful taxi driver looked back at him and gestured to the
back seat with a wink and a smile. He looked like what a taxi driver would be through a Mary
Poppins lens.
     There was nothing normal about any of it, but having moved here from his hometown of New York seven years prior to get closer to more writing opportunities, Liam had come to accept that in places like L.A. and New York, the concept of normalcy filled not just part of the spectrum, but the whole damn thing. If you weren’t ready to experience otherworldly beauty along with stomach-churning disgust in the same day, or to feel heart-soaring promise and soul-crushing depression within a 24-hour period, these weren’t the cities for you.
     Plus, he didn’t have a lot of options if he wanted a hope in hell of making his meeting.
     Liam opened the back door of the taxi and jumped in.
     “Going to Red Studios,” Liam said, making sure he had his wallet on him and settling into the seat. “Cahuenga an-”
     “And Willoughby, I know it,” came the taxi driver’s rumbling voice.
     Liam looked up to see the red-skinned, horned head of the Devil turn to look at him from behind the wheel.
     Gawking, Liam made a tiny sound as a puff of air slipped from his throat.
     “Sorry for my bait and switch illusion from the outside,” the Devil said. “It’s a bit catfish-y, but you can’t argue with the results. Now, please do up your seatbelt. We wouldn’t want any
accidents.”
     Liam’s hands scrambled for the belt, pulled it across himself and clicked it closed, all without breaking eye contact.
     The Devil gave what seemed to be a sincere smile and turned forward, easing the taxi into traffic.
     He kept glancing at Liam in the rearview mirror, who continued his look of both shock and
horror. “You’re staring.”
     “Sorry,” Liam said. He swallowed loudly. “Sir.”
     The Devil waved it off. “No problem. I get it all the time. And thanks for the formality, but
there’s no need for Sir. Right now I’m just a taxi driver.”
     “But,” Liam ventured, “you’re...”
     “The Devil?” The Devil asked. “Lucifer? Satan?”
     “Yes,” Liam said.
     “Beelzebub? The Prince of Darkness? Lord of Flies?”
     “Those, too.”
     “Well yes, I’m all of them,” the Devil said. “Or they’re all me. Whichever.”
     “Right, got it,” Liam nodded, the gears of his mind spinning so fast they were about to strip and fly apart. “And... sorry, why are you driving this taxi?”
     “A contract I made with God,” the Devil said. Liam was quiet. The Devil looked at him in the
rear view. “Can you keep a secret?”
     “Do I have a choice?” Liam asked.
     “You always have a choice,” the Devil said. “I should know better than anyone.” He winked at
Liam in the mirror.
     “Ok,” Liam sighed, not wanting to be involved in any such thing but too busy trying to prevent himself from screaming and throwing himself out of his window to decline. “Yes.”
     “You sure?” The Devil asked. “It’s a doozy. And you’re the first to hear it.”
     “Yes,” Liam sighed, eying the button that rolled down his window, just in case. “Yes, I can keep a secret.”
     “Ok,” the Devil said, shifting in his seat, excited. “God and I are in discussions.”
     “Oh,” Liam said, mulling it over. “Like about the Oscars, or...?”
     “No, no,” the Devil said. “About... and this it the part that’ll blow your hair back: About me
going back to Heaven.”
     He watched in the mirror for Liam’s response.
     Liam thought about it.
     Blinked.
     Thought some more.
     Then he finally seemed like he was about to talk.
     But that went away.
     Then it came back in a hurry, and Liam said, “What?”
     “I know, right?” The Devil said. “Who would’ve thought it? I mean, a few millennia ago, it all
seemed great. Had a falling out with Him, cast down to Hell... that sucked... but then, Hey, I’m
the boss here, right? So I get to work, getting people to trespass, leading them to temptation and whatnot. It’s all good in the ’hood. So a few hundred years go by, then a few more. But then a thousand? Two?... it kind of gets a bit... I don’t want to complain, but... boring.”
     “Boring?” Liam asked.
     “Listen, I’m the first to say I never would’ve expected I’d get tired of giving a nudge to get guys rolling on war and murder and coveting neighbor’s wives, but if I’m being honest” -- he caught Liam’s eye in the mirror -- “and I feel like I can be honest with you, Liam... the truth is, it’s all just exhausting after a while.”
     Liam hadn’t missed the use of his name when he’d never given it, but that was surely a scant
parlor trick to The Father of Lies. There were bigger issues afoot. “So you and God came to
some...” he gestured vaguely with his hand. “... arrangement?”
     “Oh, nothing so casual,” the Devil said. “You don’t just chat about something like this over a
coffee at Starbucks with the Creator and bullet-point some key items on the back of a napkin.
No, this is a full-on formal document. A legally binding contract. But... like... cosmically legal.”
     “And this contract...” Liam was still trying wrap his head around any part of this. “... involves
you driving a cab?”
     “I mean, not verbatim,” the Devil said. “The idea was to start off by doing good deeds to start atoning.”
     “And part of atoning for billions of people going to hell since the beginning of time is driving people to power lunches?”
     “You have to start somewhere,” the Devil said. “I figured driving people where they need to go is helping them. I’m also cutting people a deal on their fares, by the way, I didn’t even mention that yet.”
     Part of Liam’s mind that wasn’t shrieking in the corner of his head was genuinely happy to hear that.
     “And what else can I-- wait, hang on a sec,” the Devil said, suddenly distracted by a car in the next lane edging close to them. The Devil buzzed down his window. “HEY!” He yelled at the
other driver. Liam slid down in his seat, wanting no part of any of this. “Put down the phone and watch where you’re going, asshole, you’re almost in my lane over here!” There was a pause.
“Oh! Hey, I recognize that finger! I have one, too, right here, see? I used it on your mother last
night.”
     Liam heard the window buzz back up. Saw the Devil peek back over his shoulder. “Sorry,” the Devil said. “Old habits die hard. But you know what? I really am improving. Not long ago, I
actually would have used my finger on that guy’s mother.” He smiled widely, evidently pleased
with himself.
     Liam forced a smile and gave a thumbs up.
     “So anyway, what I was about to say was, what else, aside from getting you where you’re going withOUT BEING HIT BY ASSHOLES” -- the Devil glanced to the other car again -- “can I do for you?”
     “Oh, no,” Liam slid back up in his seat, giving the driver next door a wary look. “I’m good,
thanks.”
     “C’mon,” the Devil said. “There’s got to be something. Here, let’s start with this: You’re going
to a studio. What are you doing there? Shooting a movie? Maybe it could get a goose to be a
blockbuster?”
     “Thanks, but no,” Liam said. “Just pitching a TV show to some producers.”
     “Ooo! What’s it about?” The Devil asked. “Maybe I can help punch it up. I mean, I’m assuming it’s comedy. There’s too much drama on these days. What is it with humans and drama? Seriously, you’re atoms on a spec in a whisp of dust in a warehouse you’ll never understand the full square footage of. Lighten up.”
     Liam didn’t feel any better. “Well, yes, it is a comedy.”
     “Yes!” The Devil pumped his fist. “I knew it! Ok, give me the elevator pitch.”
     “Alright,” Liam said, finally warming up to the idea. It gave him another chance to practice his pitch, as well, and this time not to strangers in restaurants who had almost definitely already heard three other pitches that morning. “So it’s called End Zone. It’s a twist on Big Bang Theory, but it’s these older guys who used to be jocks in high school and college, but they’re older now and and they all hang out together all the time, and--”
     “Wait, stop,” the Devil held up a clawed hand. “No.”
     “... no?” Liam asked, unsure what he meant.
     “No, it’s a lame idea and not an elevator pitch. Here’s what you’re going to pitch: New
stay-at-home dads who’ve initially gathered to create a baby group and then start hanging out
together and with their babies. Hilarity ensues. Call it Dads @ Home, with one of those ‘at’
symbols to modernize it.”
     Liam considered it. “You know what? That’s not bad.”
     “Great. It’s yours. Oh, and it’s good you like the idea because it’s time to go make your pitch. We’re here.”
     Liam looked around, suddenly realizing that they’d stopped behind an Audi R8 in front of Red Studios. He checked his watch. What normally took close to an hour had this time, by some devilry, taken five minutes. “No way.”
     The Devil wiggled his eyebrows.
     “You’ve just saved me,” Liam said.
     “From your mouth to God’s ears,” the Devil said.
     “What do I owe you?”
     The Devil checked his fare calculator. “It says L12G#B^ and 75 cents.” He turned to look at
Liam. “It acts up a bit when I fold space. Let’s call it $20.”
     Liam pulled the $50 out of his pocket that he was expecting to pay anyway and handed it over. “Keep the change.”
     The Devil looked surprised. “You sure?”
     “It’s the least I can do.”
     “Well... bless you, my son.”
     Liam gave him a look.
     The Devil caught it and shrugged. “I’m a work in progress.”
     “Thanks for everything,” Liam said, grabbing the handle and opening his door.
     “You’re welcome,” the Devil said as Liam closed the door behind himself. “Oh!” He called out
and buzzed down the passenger side window.
     Liam leaned down to look in, surprised to again see the apple-cheeked, friendly taxi driver
prototype behind the wheel. “By the way, one more good deed for you: Hurry up to the Audi. I
think someone’s going to need a hand.” He winked and started easing away from the curb.
     Liam had no idea what he was talking about, but stepped up to the Audi as an attractive woman closed the driver's door and was walking around the back of the car.
     As the Devil eased by, he leaned on the steering wheel horn, which blared a startlingly loud first nine notes of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
     The woman shrieked in surprise and tumbled out from the cab door, but Liam caught her. “Oh!” She looked up at him. “Thanks... so much.”
     “Just glad I was here,” Liam said, wondering if he’d ever seen eyes like hers before.
     She held his gaze for a long moment before clearing her throat and pulling back to get upright, blushing somewhat, steadying herself with his help, smoothing her clothes and looping an arm back through her handbag.
     “Are you in a production?” She started walking toward the studio.
     Liam walked beside her. “I hope to be soon,” he said. “I’m pitching something today. You?”
     “Both, actually. We've got a few things happening here, and we're hearing a pitch in about an hour.”
     Liam’s mind raced. “‘Wait. Is the pitch from a guy named Liam, by any chance?”
     “It is.”
     “That's me,” Liam smiled.
     “Ah!” She smiled back and put her hand out to the shake. “Rayna. Nice to meet you.”
     Liam shook her hand, stunned.
     She started walking toward the studio again, talking as Liam went with her. “Well, Liam, you're tenacious, early for meetings, and probably helped me from breaking my arm back there. I have a feeling your pitch is going to go pretty well.”
     They walked in silence toward the studio. Liam stepped ahead and opened the door to for her. Rayna paused and looked at him. “Besides... I figure the better it goes for you, the more likely the you'll be up for a coffee later.”
     She gave him a wink and walked through the door.
     Liam realized his mouth was gaping open. He closed it, tilting his head and smiling before he following her inside. “The Taxi Driver works in mysterious ways.”

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