Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Driver

This week's story is about a very special car service.

Thanks to Myseri for the prompt!

The Driver

Jonathan checked the cooler temperature and shut the back door, wiping the condensation on the sides of his black slacks. He looked down at the streak the water had left on the fabric and sighed through his nose. Maybe it would dry before he got there. In the driver's seat he started the engine and turned the AC as high as it would go. With all the vents pointed at the him he angled the rearview mirror and adjusted his red bow tie. The creases radiating from the knot weren't perfect but he hadn't found a replacement for the satin pre-tied one and there wasn't time to try tying it again. He angled the mirror toward the blacked out rear window and pulled out of the parking lot. 

The new bentley was smooth. Too smooth. He didn't even feel it accelerating and glanced down at the GPS only to see the needle hovering at 84 mph. He eased back on the throttle and took the next exit. 

It wasn't long before he'd left the suburbs behind. In ten minutes the road was surrounded by dense trees and the smell of pine came through the vents. Jonathan took a deep breath. The new car smelled nice too, like leather and now a hint of pine.  

The next turn took him down a cobbled road that made the high beams jump across the brush that hung over the path. Jonathan sat far forward on his seat, squinting into the darkness beyond the reach of the headlights, looking for a sign or a marker. The GPS had mixed up the turns on these old roads before and he couldn't afford to be late.

He saw a flash of lamplight out of the corner of his eye and braked hard, smacking the top of his head on the roof. He swore under his breath and backed up. Two weak electric coach lamps marked the gap in the stone fence the brush had been hiding. 

"Recalculating," the GPS said as he edged through the narrow gate. He turned the sound off. He wouldn't be able to use it once the client was in the car anyway. The boss said it ruined the illusion.

Jonathan winced as low branches swept over the top of the car and hoped they wouldn't leave any scratches. The stone road was rougher here and he dropped the car down to a crawl until he came to carriage loop in front of the house. Pulling up close to the stone steps, he hopped out of the car, leaving the engine running. He put his black cap on and made sure his red vest covered his belt before he rounded the car and jogged up the steps to the door.

He knocked firmly and took a step back, his hands clasped behind him.

It had been a scorching day and the air had stayed thick and humid. He could feel sweat slip down the side of his neck as he waited. Resisting the urge to check his watch he blinked away a bead of sweat that ran down from the band of his hat.

It could have been five or fifteen minutes later when the door opened. The entryway was dark but even in the faint porch light Jonathan could see a pale face and a thin white hand on the door.

"My name is Jon and I'll be your driver tonight." When the man in the doorway didn't speak Jonathan unclasped his hands. "Do you have any bags, sir?"   

The man cocked his head and opened the door wider to reveal a small trunk.

Jonathan took the trunk by both handles, testing the weight before lifting with his legs. He carried it to the back of the bentley and balanced it against the bumper while he opened the trunk. The compartment was roomier than it looked and there was plenty of room for the trunk and Jonathan's small travel case.

When he closed the trunk and turned back toward the house the door was closed and the client was standing beside the car. In the beam of the headlights Jonathan could see that he was wearing a black suit and carried a thin mahogany cane. Jonathan opened the rear door and discreetly wiped his sweaty hand on the inside of his pocket before he offered it to the man.

The client's grasp was cold and hard as Jonathan helped him into the car. Jonathan shut the door behind him and flexed his hand before he got in and pulled back onto the narrow road. He breathed through his mouth but by the time they'd reached the gate a familiar smell, like warm beef jerky, was on the back of his tongue.

"You're not afraid, are you?"

The man's voice was as cool as his hand with a touch of an accent.

"No, sir," Jonathan said with a relieved breath when they turned onto the road that would take them back to the highway. The cobblestones had been making his head hurt.

There was silence again for a few miles then the client spoke. "I could kill you." 

"Yes, sir," Jonathan said as he darted between a semi and a delivery truck to get into the left lane before he set the cruise control. 

The man made a strange grating noise. "This doesn't bother you?"

Jonathan glanced at the readout on the GPS. If they only stopped for gas it was twenty  hours to Flagstaff. "No sir, it doesn't."

There was a huff and the beer jerky smell got stronger. "So you don't care about your life?"
Great. He had a talker. He had been hoping the client would put the partition up and then he would be able to listen to his new audio book. "I care about my life. I also know you aren't going to kill me."

"And how do you know that?" The voice was just behind Jonathan's ear and the accent was stronger. "I could dispose of you and drive this car myself."

There was a coppery smell on the man's breath. Jonathan didn't let himself make a face. "You wouldn't want to. I have Hepatitis C."

"Well," the client said, falling back into his seat with a sigh, "I suppose you don't have to be afraid of me."

Jonathan wished he could see the man's pale face in the rearview mirror. He sounded disappointed. "Well, you wouldn't have to bite me to kill me."

"That's true." The man shifted, making the leather creak. "But then I would have to drive myself across the desert."

A minivan had parked itself in the left lane going exactly the speed limit. Jonathan tapped the gas to turn off the cruise control and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he waited for a gap in the right hand lane. "You could break my neck, dump me and park until it got dark again. The partition and the back windows are UV shielded."

There was that grating sound again. Like a rusty laugh. "Stop, you're making me hungry."

Jonathan downshifted and swung them into the right lane. The engine noise lifted into a higher register as they leapt forward, passing the van. "If you lower the cushion between the seats there's a cooler and glasses."

The cushions squeaked as they rubbed against each other and Jonathan turned the AC from circulate to vent. Even with some air coming in from the outside the car was thick with the metallic smell of blood. 

They were turning onto I-49 North when the client spoke again. "Do all of the drivers have hepatitis?"

Jonathan scratched just under the band of his hat. The sweat had dried and was starting to itch. "I don't know. They asked about blood borne diseases on the application so some of them might have HIV or something like that."

"Something like that. As if Malaria wasn't bad enough," The client said, shifting in his seat. "Do you know how many of us switched to cows when they discovered it could contaminate the blood?"

"No, sir." There hadn't been any human blood in the order this morning. Jonathan set the cruise control again. "Do you only drink cow's blood?"

The grating sound was definitely a laugh. "I thought you weren't afraid of me?"

It didn't feel right to say he wasn't afraid at all, the client seemed really invested in it. He changed the subject instead. "Didn't mean to assume, sir. We can pick up something else when we hit Shreveport."

"This is fine. I think I've lost my taste for the real thing." The man sighed and cracked one of the windows. 

The smell of blood was replaced by a deeper, greener smell of wet vegetation. The speed made the air cool but no less humid. The interior was just beginning to feel clammy when the window went back up.

"You're not afraid of death but you don't like blood."

Jonathan had one hand on the wheel, the other readjusting his hat, pressing the band against his temple to scratch it. "Excuse me, sir?"

"You started sweating when I poured the blood." There was a pause and the cool voice was amused.  "Or maybe it was that terrible wool hat?"

"Maybe a little of both." Jonathan put both hands on the wheel and cleared his throat. "I'm a vegetarian."

"A vegetarian?" The client repeated the word as though it was some kind of rare species he'd only seen in books.

"Yes, sir." The notion must have seemed bizarre to someone who could only ever eat one thing. 

There was silence for a moment and then, "No meat at all?"

Jonathan shook his head remembering the burger he'd had last time he was in California and how sick he'd been that night. "No, sir."

"And you don't miss it?"

He'd been sick the next day too and had almost lost a long distance transport assignment. "I lost my taste for it, sir."  

The grating laugh returned and the client thumped the back of Jonathan's seat. "That's good. We've both lost our taste for the real thing." The man's laugh wound down to a wheeze in his chest. "Maybe the desert air will bring it back."

"Yes, sir." The question was on the tip of his tongue but he'd already screwed up asking about the blood. He'd probably never know what made a vampire want to go to the sunniest, hottest part of the country.

"You want to know why," the client said as they passed the first exit to Shreveport.

Jonathan checked the gauges. He wanted to make it into Texas before they stopped. "Sir?"

The client was quiet so long that Jonathan was toying with the button to raise the partition. It would have to go up when the sun rose anyway.

"Have you ever been to the painted desert?"

Jonathan took his thumb off the button and straightened in his seat. "No, sir."

"Neither have I," the man said with a sigh. "I saw a picture of it once. It looked like another planet."

Jonathan didn't think he'd ever seen a picture of the place. "It's very colorful."

"But not at night. The colors won't be there in the dark, it will be just another stretch of desert."

It was a cloudless night and Jonathan could see a few stars through the windshield. The rest of the road was a tunnel of darkness broken only by an oncoming car or a reflective exit sign. If he'd only seen it at night he wouldn't even know they were passing Wallace Lake. "Maybe if the moon is bright?"

"Maybe," the client said wistfully. "Maybe we'll all go out into the desert, throw off our clothes like pagans and soak up the color."

Jonathan's eyes widened and he almost missed the exit for the inner loop. "You might want to wait for a dark night." 

The man laughed so hard Jonathan thought he would choke.

Jonathan pressed his lips together to keep from smiling. "I meant the police-"

"They would run the other way if they came upon some undead ritual in the desert," the client said with another thump on the back of Jonathan's chair.

"They probably would." The speed limit had dropped down to 60 mph and Jonathan glanced at the speedometer, easing off the gas, his expression serious again. It wouldn't be pretty if they got pulled over. 

The client thumped the back of the chair again but his voice was subdued. "Of course we could just eat them."

"Or that," Jonathan agreed, neither of them sounding as though they believed it. 

"The sun will be up soon," the man said in the same quiet tone.

Jonathan looked down at the clock, surprised to see it was already 4:53 am. When he looked back out at the road the sky had taken on the faintest touch of blue. "The partition control is on the door."

The partition hummed for a moment and stopped halfway up. "Will I be able to hear you through it?"

Jonathan glanced in the rear view mirror. A sliver of the backseat was visible over the partition, the flying B embroidered onto the leather at about the height the client's head would be. "It's soundproof. The button next to that is the intercom."

The partition hummed again until it reached the ceiling, leaving only the low sound of the engine and Jonathan's own breathing.

He took off his hat, tossed it on the seat beside him and stretched his neck to one side and then the other until it cracked. He opened a bottle of water and sipped it as the world around the car slowly resolved itself into trees and brush and heavy kudzu. The sky ahead was a deep, rich blue with a few stars still showing. 

"Do you think you can feel the sun behind us, even though you can't see it?"

The cool voice was so clear and so close the client could have been sitting next to him. Jonathan moved his hat from the passenger seat to the floor and pressed the speaker button on the steering wheel. "I can see the trees and the sky is getting lighter."

There was a pause and then, "What color is the sky now?"

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