David wen avatar
David Wen
Entrepreneur, software developer, management consultant. He was once addicted to Minesweepers (61 seconds on expert)
Red Handed

He opened the door with his left hand as I reached for my gun with mine.

“Would you mind opening the trunk?”

He asked without stepping into the vehicle. This guy was sharp. I let go of my Colt Python to pull the trunk release.

He came back and sat in the front seat. Summarily, began to smoke, despite the blatant no-smoking sign on the dull grey sunshade in front of him. When I quietly objected, he coolly told me to call the cops. It was as if he knew.

For the past year or so I have picked up all sorts of people. Tourists, armed with disposable cameras and misleading guidebooks, were generally overly prepared and overly enthusiastic. Nightly bar-goers, armed with slurred words and infidelity, were generally cacophonous assaults on the senses – especially smell. Elementary students, trying to fit their entire debate team onto one cab to save money, lacked money. But even then, they were preferred to the average local. The average local would have recognized me.

“You look awfully familiar.”

I knew this day would come. If only I had paid closer attention he wouldn’t have been able to open the door so quickly.

“We taxi drivers all look the same.”

He blew smoke out the right side of his compressed lips while cocking his head to examine me. He had a neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard, thin steel-rimmed glasses, and the thick face of a man that has been through war and survived. His leather jacket was a well-worn dusty red colour only on the front, and it fit well on top of his broad shoulders and his fit physique. When the back of his hand rested on his thigh, cigarette still burning, I saw a thin but distinct line going vertically down the thumb.

He explained to me that when he sees a face, he never forgets it. Apparently, he used to work as a bellboy at the Sheraton – got more tip just by remembering people’s faces and their names, so he figured he’d better be good at it. After I grunted in acknowledgement, he still gazed boldly at me, half as if trying to figure me out, half as if he already knew.

Smoking until there was barely any room left to hold his cigarette, he rolled down the window a tiny slit, and attempted to flick the stub into a street-side gutter as we were driving by. Smiling, as if he knew it went in, he closed the window and exhaled his last tobacco-filled breath while reaching into the small backpack he had brought. As he fiddled through its contents, I saw watches, necklaces, and pendants slide out of an aged sweater that was wrapping them safe from harm. There was also a pair of binoculars. He took out a diamond ring with his handkerchief and examined it in the soft dawn light still filtering through his lingering smoke. A familiar glint caught my eye.

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. At the next red light, I lowered my left hand back to my left side. This was partly to be again closer to my weapon, but more so to hide the fading imprint of the ring that used to occupy my fourth finger. I adjusted the rear-view mirror to divert attention away from my hidden left hand, and as I did, I caught a brief glimpse of myself. My new self. So far removed from what I was just a year ago, when I was working on the other side of the country in a respectable hospital saving lives. Back then, I was immaculate, clean shaven, with short, neatly trimmed hair. I was the type that would buy a new shirt instead of wearing one that had yet to be ironed. I did not like dirty, untidy things. Things like smoking.

I was admired at work. They called me Dr. Holmes not for my looks or persona, but for my ability to piece symptoms together to form a diagnosis and see the real story as presented by the facts. Once, I was able to have the diagnosis ready for the patient before he even told me the story of what was wrong with him. I told him he needed a Foley catheter because his enlarged prostate was blocking his urethra and thus enlarging his bladder, causing him the abdominal pain that he came in for. When he asked how I knew, I told him that as amazing as it would be, people don’t have bladders the size of footballs; his clearly was when I saw him waiting in the hall. The way he winced while bent over signalled stomach pain. Add on old age, an enlarged prostate leading to a blocked urethra was the most likely diagnosis. The theory fit the evidence. The perfect story. Clean.

I knew my passenger was a thief. Moreover, he had probably just finished robbing a jewellery store last night. He likely picked the lock with a classic thin tension wrench held by his right thumb, and easily entered the store. Chances are he was lying on a red brick building across the street last night in the same jacket he was wearing now. He knew the security password from using his binoculars and watching the store-owner close up shop. He then spent the entire evening picking the various locks inside the store and finished up as dawn was breaking. It must have taken him so long because he didn’t use a torch for fear of raising suspicions from any late-night passer-bys. Like I said, sharp guy.

Ironically, I felt safer after I knew the guy was a criminal. It meant that even if he recognized me, he wouldn’t report me to the police. Feeling more confident, I let go of my gun for the second time, and turned on the radio. The thief wasn’t examining the ring anymore and begun to strum his fingers to the tune of the Eric Clapton playing on the radio.

“You know the song?” I asked.

“I Shot the Sheriff – from his newest album,” the thief smoothly replied. “Besides being a bellboy, I used to be a busker on the guitar you know? Slowhand Clapton was my hero.”

“Then what happened? You needed to steal to make ends meet?” I posed with a triumphant lilt in my voice, glad to relive the glory days of the past, even just this little bit.

Unperturbed, the thief stopped strumming and replied, “And, detective cab driver, you haven’t ever done anything wrong in your lifetime?”

“Not morally,” I answered with craft. I did the right thing.

“Morals,” the thief chuckled, “I’ve heard that before. You and hundreds of other guys I’ve met in the pen all claim to have mastered it.”

“I used to be a doctor you know – I saved lives! Hundreds of them, from politicians to teachers, and from the homeless to scumbags off the street like you. Some of them didn’t deserve to live, but I saved them anyways. I did that for 15 years! How many lives have you made worse off in those same 15 years?”

I was livid. Who was this thief to teach me about morals? Morality comes down to yourself and what you believe to be right anyways. The world isn’t fair – just because you sacrificed yourself for others, just because you did “what was right” for someone else, doesn’t mean it will be reciprocated. I learned that the hard way. Well, hard to take in anyways. It wasn’t hard for someone of my deductive reasoning to figure out what was going on with my wife and her outings. There was no two ways around it – the story fit the evidence. Even after all I had done for her.

“What if I told you that the store-owner I stole from was not the cleanest character? What if I told you I was selling these items to give to the poor? Wouldn’t I be doing the world justice?”

I could not believe what I heard. I worked so hard this past year to forget the term ‘justice’ – the parasitic paradigm that ate at my own conscience. I did the right thing. There was no turning back. Besides, I had covered all my tracks. Clean. Even if they knew who and where I was, they had nothing on me. My whirling mind was drawn to the repeated slow melody on the radio:

‘I shot the sheriff… but I did not shoot the deputy…’

The thief’s presence made me feel like my thoughts were somehow being broadcasted.

“Anyway,” said the thief, “just drop me off at that park up ahead.”

He paid in crumpled bills and left. I counted the money and recorded the amount on my notepad. I decided to let the car air out his cigarette smell so I rolled down the windows and stepped out to stretch my muscles.

I then remembered the man had left something in the trunk. I pulled the release and walked to the back of my cab. Looking over my shoulders, I instinctively checked to see if I was being watched. Inside the trunk was a dusty small duffel bag that did not look very full. Curious, I opened the bag and looked through its contents. There was a syringe, as well as a vile containing a power anaesthetic propofol. There was also a pair of latex gloves, a hair net, and a surgical mask. Lastly, there was the handwritten letter by my wife that the police had believed to be the suicide note she left behind. I suddenly felt a cold shiver run down my spine as I realized what happening. But before I could do anything, I was already surrounded by officers, telling me to put my hands up and to hug the pavement.

“This is illegal!” I yelled at the “thief”, who had returned.

“Perhaps. But not immoral.” He coldly replied. “With your fingerprints all over these things, we finally have enough evidence to being you to justice.”

With that, he walked over and handcuffed me. He also retrieved from his pocket the ring that he was examining in the cab. I saw it in the morning light then as the ring I gave to my wife when we got married. Clear, simple, clean. He put it on my finger and took a picture of it.

“This is the real story, Dr. Holmes.”

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David wen avatar
David Wen
Entrepreneur, software developer, management consultant. He can spin a book for a really long time.