Black Orchid Novella Award

In 2006 we inaugurated a writing contest in partnership with The Wolf Pack, the official Nero Wolfe society, that celebrates the novella form, of which Nero Wolfe’s creator, Rex Stout, was a master. Kudos to the 13th BONA winner, Ted Burge, for his tale of a crime of tomorrow that shows just how wide the latitude is for stories that feature traditional detecting.

The Red Taxi

by Ted Burge

“His death has been in the news for weeks now,” said Deacon Franks, a young engineer friend I had mentored years ago when Silicon Valley didn’t just simulate silicon, but made it. “How could you not know about it?”

I looked at him and shrugged. “I’ve been offline, taking it easy. Hey, I’m lucky to remember to pay my phone bill and to keep the thing charged. You’re lucky I even got your call.” I leaned back against my dilapidated Mustang parked on a steep San Francisco slope, with a view that tumbled off Nob Hill. My Mustang wasn’t from the sexy Steve McQueen era or the revived series with airbags. No, I plucked my Mustang from the vulgar boxy dynasty in between. Unlike my choice in cars and my downward spiral of jobs, I had comfort in knowing that my wife had been the one correct decision I had made. Lately, I had been distracted a lot about that.

“You have at least heard of my company, right?” asked Deacon, gesturing with some agitation.

When we had met up a few minutes ago, my former coworker already seemed peeved. As I parked, he had paced about, finally putting his phone in a back pocket of his dry-cleaner-pressed jeans, which he cuffed at the bottoms with an inch of inverted fold above his polished Oxford shoes. So I had made a point to approach with a relaxed swagger in my rumpled cargo pants and sandals. I knew his anger couldn’t have been my fault. I had only been a little late.

“Yeah, of course. Red Cab,” I said, pausing. “Inc. something.” I tried to fake some assurance. Nodding always seemed to help. “The self-driving red-domed thingies that took over the city.” I looked up and down the empty road. “Weird,” I said. “I remember when parking here was hell. You know, I don’t see any parked cars for blocks. Did the governor evacuate the place?”

Deacon’s hands mirrored the same up and down gesture with each beat as he started exec-splaining: “That’s Cabble, as in the Red Cabble Car Company. It’s a play on cab and cable cars. That’s why they’re painted red.”

“Cabble? Doesn’t a Cabble Car sound a little too much like a cattle car?”

“We tested it. People in San Francisco get it.”

“What about tourists from Colorado? They still eat steak there.”

Deacon huffed, turned around, and started waving down one of his self-driving mechanical minions. Some occupied cabs drove past, entirely ignoring him. At that point, he signaled with both hands, hoping an empty red taxi farther up the hill would see us. Looking down California Street, a view above downtown showed nothing but red self-driving bubbles dotting the streets. One or two trucks mixed into the crowd, but those had real people behind the wheel.

I had to give Deacon credit. He had taken over the city’s entire taxi industry. Even personal car ownership declined. I had even read that the shared economy of private drivers evaporated. No one made money doing pickups through the Web anymore.

A moment later, one of the four-door red domes approached. Mounted on its roof, a silver tube stuck up like a stubby tin chimney. Taking a closer look, I saw something spin inside the cylinder.

Deacon held the door open and answered my stare at the gumball machine on top of the car. “It’s LIDAR, as in laser radar. A light beam shoots around sensing the distance. It assembles a high-res image of the environment. Right now, the car is actually scanning us.”

I scoffed. “It’s rude to shoot lasers at someone without asking permission.” Sitting in the forward passenger seat, I found it to be a backseat bench installed in the front. No bucket seats for this car.

“Scoot over.”

I slid over to the driver’s side of the padded bench, which had no controls in front of it. “I don’t think I feel comfortable handing my life over to a car.”

“It’s safe,” said Deacon, getting in next to me and closing the door. He barked an order at the car, “The Century Vegan Restaurant.”

An automated female voice replied with a nauseating enthusiasm I could never muster. “Buckle up, and let’s ride the Red Cabble Car!” A familiar double bell rang, imitating the nation’s only moving monuments, and our cable car impersonator drove off in a quiet whir of an electric motor.

The seating felt a bit cramped with us being shoulder to shoulder, but I could stretch my legs forward on the driver’s side given the absence of any typical, and for me necessary, steering controls and foot pedals. Of course, I wasn’t a driver in this thing. So I tried to kick back, use the headrest, and think pleasant thoughts. But with the bench seat, I couldn’t recline. Plus my muscles kept tightening as I grimaced scanning incoming traffic, watching out for possible accidents.

“Did you say vegan?” I said, trying to focus on something else. “I’d hope we’d eat real food. I could use an early brunch.”

“It’s near where the murder took place.”

“It’s murder, then?”

“It has to be. Someone sabotaged my company with this incident. The press just ran with it.”

The car signaled and performed a U-turn, which I questioned the legality of. Maybe mid-street about-faces were always legal and I had merely wasted my time being fearful of doing the evil deed in front of a cop. During the surprising turnabout, other Red Cabbles slowed. They cooperated in a conspiratorial manner, which in LA or New York would require a lot of honking and middle fingers to orchestrate.

We lurched forward in a new direction. It felt strange riding in a car with no steering wheel. I found myself holding out a hand tensed against the front dash as if worried the car would suddenly stop and eject me through the windshield.

“Don’t worry,” said Deacon, noticing my tension. “Despite the news reports having a field day about a Cabble Car supposedly going rogue, killing Greg Piatek, whom the press falsely calls my rival CEO, accidents in the city have dropped to nothing. Except him, there have been zero accidental pedestrian deaths in the last six months.”

“I hope you hadn’t started seven months ago.”

“I meant zero accidental deaths for everyone,” said Deacon, “citywide, not just our cars.”

A voice from the car started up. Video ads filled the windshield.

Deacon waved his phone over a pay receiver. It beeped. He explained, “The rides are free as long as you look at the ads. The camera here uses face recognition to track eye contact.” He pointed to a little lens in the dash panel. “For fifty bucks, you can turn the commercials off. I have an override code.”

“Fifty? Wait, if I ride a few lousy blocks it’s—”

“Same price. Across town or one block, it’s fifty. If you want to skip the videos, that is. With ads, the ride is completely free. Of course, there are people who can afford half a hundred without batting an eye. They’re a huge revenue source. We call them whales. It’s how we make the real money.”

The animated billboard that displayed in the glass of the windshield at first eclipsed the sunlight. One second, a video played of a guy walking on a beach uncertain about his bladder. The next second, after Deacon’s override, a clear windshield left me with a full view of California Street sloping down to the waterfront. Ahead, dozens of sailing ships dotted the bay.

“I knew the person killed,” said my friend. “Greg and I had a falling-out a few months ago. He left and started his own company with offices downtown. He called it Rydar Research. Every night he ate at the Century restaurant like clockwork. Heading home, a Red Cabble Car—allegedly—ran the intersection he was crossing and bashed right into him. The police say the body shows markings as if the car backed up to hit him again. What little skid marks left proved inconclusive. And worst yet, after we checked all our cars, we’re missing one. There’s a Cabble Car that still hasn’t been found yet. It just disappeared, two days before the incident. Cabble Car 918. Poof. Gone. None of our other ten thousand Cabble Cars have a scratch. Worse yet, the press heard about 918. They mocked up a wanted poster for Cabble 918, giving it shifty evil eyes for headlights.”

Deacon checked his phone and continued, “We’ve been saying that someone somehow altered it, reprogrammed it. We’ve been in constant contact with the police and the mayor. Still, yesterday the police ruled it an accidental hit-and-run by a malfunctioning machine. Our IPO evaluations tanked. I’d rather the story had been that someone hacked a car over the network. We could at least spin-control that by saying we patched a security hole. Everything would be fine. But to have one of our cars labeled as going rogue, that’ll kill us. Protesters even forced a public hearing next week. They want all Red Cabble Cars off the road.”

I still held onto the empty dash panel with one hand. My other hand held near my chest seemed to be subconsciously driving an invisible steering wheel. “Well, a lot of people lost their jobs because of you. I could see that being an impetus for public rancor.”

We made a few more turns and began to slow down.

“It’s progress,” Deacon scoffed. “Those jobs were going away. In a few years, no one’s going to waste their time driving a car. They can read something instead.”

“Watch ads?” I said.

The car stopped.

“Yeah. That too.” Deacon jumped out, leaving the door open. He stood on the curb answering his phone, then texting.

I slid over, setting my feet out the door, and asked, “What do you want me to do about it?”

“Huh?” said Deacon, looking up from his phone. He back-pocketed it. “Remember years ago when we designed motherboards for that one PC company? They had thousands of computers in the warehouse boxed and ready to go, but then found out a huge chunk of them wouldn’t work because of a bad batch of flaky chips. Something like that could have killed any business.”

“Oh, yeah, the ugly translucent computer with the opaque keyboard and the glowing mouse. I figured out a power-up sequence that activated it despite the defect. Ah, the good ol’ days of manufacturing. We had to repackage everything, but it was just a software change. I still remember the multicolored plastics. Looked more like a hard candy.”

Deacon’s Larry King shirt, with French cuffs and gold cuff links, showed how far things had changed. Back then, I used to earn more than he did.

“You’re great at figuring out problems,” Deacon said. “You’re like the last real hardware guy in the valley. I’ve hired detectives, but I think I need an engineer now. I need to know what really happened. I can pay a good fee if you’d consider coming out of retirement.”

“You know I’d do it as a favor for you.”

“I know, but the company has money. It’s business. I’ll pay.”

I hemmed and hawed. “This isn’t an electronics issue. I can’t just hook a logic analyzer to this. Besides, I don’t have a license to investigate crimes. I think I would need to be a detective for something like this.”

“Don’t worry. We’re good. Technically, my lawyer’s the one who will hire you. You just say you work for his law firm. It makes it official. You can even question the police investigators. They have to cooperate. They closed the case after all, so it’s not an ongoing investigation anymore.”

We stood in front of a dark, lacquered wood-panel entrance stolen from colonial Boston. Looking above, a sign read, “Century: Vegan Gourmet.” In the door, a sign said closed.

I objected, “I thought we’d be grabbing a bite.”

“No time.” Deacon started a quick march across the street. “Every night, Greg, the guy who died, left here at O’Farrell Street and walked around the corner past Ellis Street. He then continued along the edge of the Tenderloin toward his condo. You know, he left my company to start another self-driving project. The press keeps calling him a rival CEO. What annoys me is that I was so close to getting him to return. He was the best engineer I had. He probably lost millions cashing out so soon. Red Cabble is just starting.”

“It’s hard to predict the unicorns,” I said, loathing the horned horse, which had become the metaphor of choice in the valley for a company that took off big-time. Everyone wanted their meek miniature pony to turn magically into a blazing white unicorn dropping piles of rainbows behind it in the street for straggling eager employees to step in. For my career, the mystical beast with its lure of stock options pretty much only impaled me and my petty fortunes.

Deacon and I continued to walk a path that Greg Piatek would have taken. Down Ellis Street, several of San Francisco’s homeless marked the start of skid row. The buildings all had cages protecting the doors and windows. Blocks away, multimillion-dollar condos sold to techies, working at new start-up offices, cannibalizing each other for space in downtown.

Here in the Tenderloin, people lived in boxes. The lucky ones got roach-infested single-room occupancy units, SROs. I had seen them and would rather live in my car before an SRO.

“Right there,” said Deacon, pointing to some orange spray-painted lines on the street. “The detectives marked where the car, allegedly,” he said, adding air quotes, “hit Piatek, backed up, and then spun off. Except for two passersby, no one saw a thing.”

I saw how homeless populated the street. A van about a block down the road stood out to me, clearly a home on wheels.

“You mean they wouldn’t talk?” I said, noticing the smashed streetlights. “No cameras anywhere. At night, it had to be dark. Perfect place to steamroll someone. I find it scary that a car might spend two days planning out a murder plot. Seems coincidental to find such a good spot for it. Of course, there are a lot of stragglers constantly crossing the street. One of these folks saw something. Someone’s holding back.”

Some vagrants glanced at us for a second, but they kept to themselves.

“The police,” said Deacon, typing on his phone, “interviewed two tourists walking to their hotel. They saw the Cabble hit Greg Piatek and drive off. But that’s it for witnesses. So. Are you in?”

“I’ll try.” I shrugged.

“Great. I just sent you the address of my lawyer.” He wagged his phone in the air and pointed to me. “Check your phone. And keep it charged. My lawyer is an odd one. But you’ll like him.” With that, he waved his hand and jumped into a Red Cabble Car. “Thanks, man.”

The taxi’s electric motor carried my friend swiftly off, until it stopped for a jaywalker pushing a shopping cart. A couple of other pedestrians, not caring a smidge about keeping the road clear, also forced Deacon’s ride to pause a few more times.

In a city like New York, a typical driver out of frustration would start to slowly push through a crowd. But the red machine chose to drive like an overly worried grandmother. I shuddered to think how it handled Critical Mass, when militant protesting bicyclers hogged SF’s streets on Friday nights. Deacon’s car kept hesitating for anything on the wrong side of the curb. It clearly wanted open space. Finally, getting through the crowded part of skid row, the car zipped off and away.

Following Greg’s path in reverse on the fateful night, I returned to the restaurant and found an open garage door to the right of the colonial facade. A delivery truck parked on the street in front ran its engine. The rumble echoed into the empty garage space. A guy carried a box of produce into a walk-in refrig.

Leaning into the doorway, I glimpsed a pretty woman amongst stacks of food boxes. “Hello,” I waved.

“Yes. Just bring it in. In fact, we can start to use the garage now.”

I shrugged, grabbed a box, and walked in front of the open refrig door.

“Yes,” said the blonde, pointing to the walk-in refrigerator. “Drop it there.” She checked her clipboard.

Another guy coming out of the cold room gave me a look.

“She said to bring a box.” I handed him the box.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I thought you were with the delivery.”

“No. I’ve just been hired by a lawyer to find out what happened to a Greg Piatek.”

“Greg? Oh, I’m so glad to hear it’s still being investigated. It’s nonsense, what with the police closing the case like that. Just terrible.” She paused. “Whose lawyer exactly?”

“The cab company. They’re highly motivated to find the murderer.”

“I don’t know. They’re just wanting to clear themselves—their car that is.”

“Maybe, but that still makes them someone looking to understand what happened.”

Her serious, determined nature came across like talking with a doctor just after surgery. The white chef’s coat and dark pants were her scrubs, and I started to wonder if she ever wore anything else. Her head bobbed as she evaluated my motives. The pensive movement shook her hair over her shoulders and even shifted her wispy-cut bangs that almost touched her eyebrows. I stopped short of happily sighing, but I liked watching her think, despite being way too old for her. I hated that last thought.

“I guess,” she shrugged, holding a clipboard in her hands, “they might want to really find out what happened. The mayor just wanted to bury it as an accident, but then the protesters grabbed it as reason to shut it all down. No one seems to be really trying to figure it out.”

She continued, “The thing, though, is, I don’t really have time right now. I have to prep.”

I tried to stick in some more queries. “He ate at your place every night?”

“Except Mondays. That’s my night off—our date night. The restaurant is closed then. He had his start-up and I have this.” She raised her hands to the surrounding brick walls and an arched passage to the upstairs. “My place to run.”

“I imagine you’re busy nights. So I guess he’d find a place to chill with a laptop, typing away or something?”

“You’re right. We didn’t get to talk much on work nights. I regret that.”

I thought I should ask a detective-sounding question. “You know anyone who’d want to kill him?”

“No. Of course not. He was just a techie, a PhD in computer vision. His dissertation made Red Cabble possible. It filled in the last crucial pieces. Maybe someone was jealous. Greg’s work surpassed theirs.” She shrugged. “Stop by tonight after nine. We can talk then.”

I thanked her and headed back through the empty garage.

“Oh, wait,” she said, “I’m Abby Stewart, the owner.”

“Oops, sorry. I get too involved sometimes in my own head. I’m Dave Tur.”

*   *   *

It took some walking, but I finally stood in front of a gray stone federal-style structure sandwiched by tall buildings arbitraging takeovers in the financial district. Carved into the gable of the banklike facade was the name Welders’ Institute. Inside, I greeted a guard at the front desk. “I’m here for a Mr. Noel Wescott.”

The guard barely moved, but did manage to build up enough energy to point his finger at a marble circular staircase. He muttered something about a chess room.

I never knew that welders needed an institute, nor that they played chess. I headed upstairs and entered what had to be the fanciest of libraries—of course I’d never visited the Congressional one. A balcony of even more bookshelves surrounded the main arena of reading tables. An overhead Tiffany dome of earth-toned colored glass let God check in at times and maybe check out a book or two, if He were allowed a card.

Only one person occupied the room. With a chessboard all set up in front of him, it had to be my new boss. I approached.

“Mr. Wescott.”

The pudgy, mostly bald guy in a dark suit and deep red tie slowly raised his head from a chess book.

“Mr. Tur,” said the short, thinking suit.

I nodded.

“Deacon’s friend, I presume.” He gestured for me to take a seat on the black side of the chessboard. Then he searched inside his bespoke jacket and extracted a business card that he held out for me.

I stepped closer and leaned over the table, taking the card. “Noel Wescott, Attorney at Law,” it said, and nothing else.

“I’m glad you decided to help.” He gestured at the chair again.

For some reason, I resisted taking the seat. Maybe the guy was a germophobe or maybe he was just a geek not caring about certain social skills, but it suggested some arrogance in not shaking hands or even moving to greet someone. Maybe he and the guard downstairs were friends. I felt like Wescott held some reservations about me, not being exactly glad at all, but that he just played the part maybe to appease Deacon.

I shrugged. “I’m just here to take a look. Try to help out.”

“Of course you are.”

“You know computers can play that game better than people now.”

That seemed to wake him.

“That might be so, but a machine is just doing a task. A game is an interaction between humans. The motive behind the actions will always differentiate us from anything AI.” He paused. “You do realize that we have had many people from police, to private detectives, to Red Cabble engineers all looking into this situation for the past two and half weeks.” He took a labored breath and huffed. “But I’m certain Deacon’s right in bringing in another consultant for me to expend my time on.”

Of course, I got into trouble at most companies for not being a team player. Maybe my instincts skewed toward suspicion too much. “So I suppose you’re the armchair detective genius here, ruling the empire from this library, and I’m supposed to take orders from you.”

“Genius detective? Heavens no. I’m a lawyer, certainly not an investigator. That remains your bailiwick. I am a researcher, though. I know the law. And I check things out thoroughly. I’m sure Deacon Franks avoided a particular topic, so I will express for him our deepest regrets about your wife. With only two months to mourn, it seems imposing for us to bother you with our problems.”

I sat down across the chessboard from him. “So you checked up on me.”

“You were on Mr. Franks’s list. Detectives found your number. Your name and bio stood out to him when we found you. So where will you begin?”

“Some background would be good. What did this Greg Piatek even look like?”

Wescott picked up a tablet computer, tapped on it a few times, and handed it over.

The screen displayed a picture of a smiling, tall young student, arms confidently crossed as he sat back on a compact car, probably rigged to self-drive. Around him stood his friends and fellow researchers, but Greg stood out front and center.

Abby’s assessment was right: Others did take a backseat to Greg.

“The picture is a few years old,” said Wescott, reaching out for the return of his tablet.

Not being the type to worry about etiquette, I swiped the screen with my finger to see more documents. I saw Greg as a cofounder of a company called Blindspot Research, with two other founders: a Javier Alves and Rahul Gupta. The surrounding staff of software engineers showed a nice diversity, totally different from when I started in the Bay Area, when diversity only showed in the type of calculator a nerd had purchased.

Quickly adding a few more swipes to change documents, I saw another picture of Greg with other students, standing around the Berkeley Campanile. I leaned in, trying to memorize the faces.

Wescott got impatient and coughed. “Mr. Piatek left Blindspot after a year with them. We convinced him to join Cabble. His PhD work was an invaluable asset. So where will you begin?”

“I’ll start where the car disappeared and learn about the rogue mind of a self-driving car, plus the technical specs of how it keeps in contact with HQ.”

Wescott leaned back in his chair, checking his tablet and, possibly, if I had seen too much. “Deacon has arranged for you to ride with the Red Cabble Safety Crew. They handle taxis in need of service. Just so you know, everything we discuss to better understand the facts for our client and his company, Red Cabble Car, is strictly confidential. Not even the police can compel you to say anything, as you are hired by me as part of my staff, Mr. Tur.”

“Dave. Just Dave. Who else is a part of your staff?”

“Just you. I’m mostly retired now. Just assisting our mutual friend.”

He seemed genuine there. “Deacon does seem to make full use of all his connections at some point.”

With a quick raise of his eyebrows, he glanced at the game board. “Do you play? Sometime after all this nasty business, we should play a game. I wish we had time now. I can tell a lot about a person in how they play.”

“I thought we had already started.” I leaned forward, my hand jittered about the black pieces as I contemplated pretty much nothing. “The castle thingies can’t jump over the tiny front row guys like the horsemen can, right?” I looked at Noel. If he lectured me on chess, I’d know he was a Silicon geek devoid of sarcasm.

My friendly armchair detective pursed his lips and stayed silent.

I sat back, assuming his silence was calling pfui on my little act. “I’m thinking that I should meet the enginerds who know the intimate details of the cars’ algorithms. If you can arrange that, I’ll take a peek at where car 918 disappeared.”

“The Red Cabble Car Safety Crew will pick you up outside. Make some inquiries with them. Their full-time job is dealing with disabled cars in the field. They know a lot of issues that maybe some engineers missed. I’ll get Cob to join you later. Mr. Franks recently named him as the new lead replacing Mr. Piatek. He’s the best man who can go over design details. He’ll meet you where the car disappeared.”

“Cob? Not Mr. Cobb? Just Cob?”

“I only know of the single word moniker. I’m told this Cob is the new Principal Engineer in charge at Cabble’s R&D—since Mr. Piatek left. The title of acting was recently removed.”

I wondered if this Cob guy might have changed some code, and Cabbled Greg to death. “You want status reports?”

“Let’s meet daily and see where it goes. I wish you luck, Mr. Tur.”

We shook. I left. But was the lawyer sincere in wanting to help?


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Copyright © 2019. The Red Taxi by Ted Burge

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