A Deal's a Deal
By Ash Ibrahim
“Where to?” Raj asked the silhouetted trench coat that jumped into the back of his yellow cab from the outside blackness.
The trench coat, wicking the night’s downpour into Raj’s cab, slammed the door shut with a deep thud as lightning lit up the car in an over-exposed purple-white flash. For a second, Raj caught the bulky outline of a hatted man in his rear-view mirror. The thunder interrupted to usher back the darkness and with it, an inexplicable dread.
Raj’s instinct to escape caused him to floor the gas pedal, lurching the car forward in a screech. He glanced at the mirror again, readying a slew of apologies for the unintended launch, but the figure sat motionless, as if the dictates of physics feared him. Perplexed, Raj drove on without asking again for a destination.
Two traffic lights later, Raj reached for the meter, realizing he had never started it when he picked up his fare.
“No meter,” the figure said in a deep and imperative voice. It left no amplitude for disagreement. “I’ll give you a grand to drive me uptown. Shouldn’t take more than an hour of your time.”
“How uptown?” Raj asked, trying to mask the quiver in his voice.
“For a grand’s worth, I’d say all the way uptown.”
“Highway’s flooded from the storm, so we’ll be taking the streets.”
“Good. We’ll talk.”
“Two grand,” Raj blurted, and flinched when he realized how dissonant—and stupid—that sounded. “I mean, it might take a while with the lights and flooding and all.”
The figure said nothing, amplifying the shower’s metallic drumming on the car. Raj remained suspended between assent to his counteroffer and retribution for his insolence. Another traffic light passed.
“Bit surprised I picked someone up on a night like this,” Raj said after clearing his throat. “Downtown too. Most everybody would get an UBER or a private driver in this weather and this hour.”
“You make it sound like fortuity brought us together,” he responded. Lightning again flooded the cab in a sudden flash. This time Raj saw the square jaw, deep-set eyes, and scarred cheek that spoke back to him in the rear-view mirror.
“What do you mean?” Raj asked before the thunder punctuated their conversation.
“I don’t believe in chance. You can’t in my line of work.”
“What would that be?”
He paused. “I’m in the cleaning business.”
Raj almost gagged at the idea of someone in the cleaning business hailing a cab downtown and paying two grand for an unmetered fare at a ghastly hour. He floored the cab to make a yellow light, but stopped at the next one, his attempt to time the lights uptown foiled by fate. The wait at the light piled on to the weight of the silence in the car, broken only by the crashing thunder and the heavy rain patter on the windshield.
“I’m Michaels,” he said over the thunder’s roar without raising his voice.
Raj wanted to lie with a fictitious name. Maybe an “Ash,” or a “Jacob,” or even a “Vikram”—something not Raj. Instead, he replied, “Raj.”
“Why do you drive a yellow cab, Raj? Who does that these days with all the ride-sharing apps and private cars?”
“It’s all the same,” Raj said out of habit. Practiced and familiar, his lie rolled off his tongue. Was he really going to disclose the suffocating debt around his neck from the medallion he purchased, the constant lying to his wife and his failing partnership with his brother-in-law to a complete and terrifying stranger in his cab?
“Hard work, I’m sure.”
“No doubt about that.”
“Think you deserve more?”
Michaels shifted and leaned in toward the partition between Raj and the back seat as if his voice would penetrate the perforated plexiglass, but he still spoke in the same deep voice.
“You drive eighteen hours a day in exhausting, sleepless shifts. You can’t find a partner because the medallion business is dying, and you lost your shirt on the car and the license fee. You had a good life before you chased the dream in America. Now you’re a maggot surviving on the good land’s excrement. Sound about right?”
Raj’s fingernails nearly tore through the steering wheel vinyl as he cruised to a red light. The night sky’s torrent pummelled the windshield. He let the frantic squeak of the windshield wipers answer for him.
“And to make it worse, some loser who doesn’t yet have access to his trust fund drives his father’s car on some app to score enough weed for the week. Or better yet, your own friend down the street didn’t take the bone-headed advice to put your life savings in a cab medallion and instead opened a corner Pakistani food mart working half as hard and making twice as much.”
Thunder echoed Michaels’ soul-piercing soliloquy. For an instant, Raj considered slamming the brakes and screaming.
Michaels leaned back into his seat. “Problem is mindset,” he sighed. “Things like fairness, entitlement, equality. They’re all ingrained. And warped. Impossible to redirect without lasting damage.”
“What do you mean?” Raj whispered.
“I’ll tell you something, even though the Boss doesn’t like it when I talk. Maybe it helps you. I hope it does. I’m going right now to settle a dispute between two groups of—uh, well, groups in the cleaning business.”
“At this hour?” Raj bit his tongue. Of course at this hour. Isn’t that when “cleaners” met?
Michaels ignored the question. “You see, Raj, one group thinks like you. They contracted with the Boss for a month’s work. Nice pay too, for thirty days of solid work. So they get working the—uh, laundromats—and two weeks into the month the Boss sends another group to help them out for the remaining two weeks. I should tell you it’s a lot of work, the dry-cleaning business. You can’t really have enough people earning. Limitless potential.”
Another traffic light. Even in the dark shower outside, Raj could tell they were about halfway uptown. Way uptown.
“So you got the two groups working for the Boss for two weeks. Then, with one more week to go, another group from the Boss shows up ready for the last week’s work. ‘Why not?’ the two groups think to themselves. The work isn’t getting any easier, even with all these—employees—and they could use the help with only a week to go. So all three groups push on for the Boss.”
Michaels paused for a moment to look at the wet city splashing by. He then unzipped a leather valise he placed on his lap and shoved both hands inside, assembling something in the darkness. He continued while operating inside the bag.
“Now it’s payday. Last day of work. Plenty of work still left, mind you, but a deal’s a deal and it’s payday for everyone. But that morning, another group shows up to work. Now the groups—all three of them—scratch their heads. What could they do, showing up for just a day’s worth of work? I mean, nobody’s ever heard of that in the, well, cleaning business. Anyway, the Boss sent them for a day and that was their deal, so they all go to work.”
Raj stopped at the next traffic light. He cringed at the muffled clicking, twisting, and cocking sounds coming from the back of his cab. He avoided the rear-view mirror at all costs.
“Now imagine payday. Four groups all sweated for the boss—the first group for a month, the second group for two weeks, the third group for the last week, and the fourth group for just a day. Everyone is ready to get paid. When the Boss comes, he’s very satisfied with all the production. The work never finishes, but you know, the Boss had all these people working for him, so that meant a lot to go around. Economy, he calls it. Whatever that means.”
Raj heard a thud in the back. He hoped it was the sound of the valise dropping back on the floor.
“The Boss then pays the first group at the contracted price for thirty days of labor. Cold, crisp cash. Very generous amount, so they’re thrilled. Then the second group comes forward, and the Boss pays them their contracted price. Turns out, though, the second group—the one that worked two weeks only—had the same contracted price. Now the first group feels like they’ve been stiffed. Half the time and the same pay? They want to complain, but the Boss isn’t done yet.”
Raj slowed down to cross the uptown bridge. They were now way uptown. Refuge only for the forsaken and damned. He kept going.
“The Boss turns to the third group and—guess what—he pays them the same in cash too, because that was their deal. One week of sweat for the same contract price. Well, that sets off the first two groups through the roof. They’re ready to blow their tops, but the last group still hasn’t gotten paid yet. So the Boss turns to the final group—you know, the one that only worked a day—and he admits to them that they didn’t have a contract. The Boss had just told them he’d pay whatever he thought was fair.”
Lightning flashed across the black sky and Raj threw up his hands to cover his head. The car swerved to the other lane and nearly off the street when Raj recovered the steering wheel. He looked in the rear-view mirror. It still reflected deep eyes looking back at him in the eerie glow of uptown’s ancient incandescent streetlights.
“Sorry,” Raj said.
“You haven’t heard the best part yet. The punchline, I’d say.”
“Oh, right. So what happens to the last group?”
“The Boss pays them the same as the other three groups.”
“How is that fair?”
“Yeah, that’s what the other guys said. All the other groups are livid and raving at the Boss. Thirty days of work gets paid the same as a few hours. Funny thing is that everyone is mad at the Boss, even the stiffs that worked only a week. They’re up in arms just as much as the guys with the month-long contract.”
“I don’t think that’s funny at all. Your Boss seems pretty cruel, I’d say. Sadistic sense of humor, don’t you think?”
“Pull over to that building.”
Raj glided to a stop in front of an old apartment building that—perhaps decades ago—might have shown its architectural grace, but now only displayed graffiti and boarded windows on its sad reliefs. For good measure, Raj parked right under the streetlight closest to the entrance.
“Wait here. Should only be a few minutes,” Michaels said as he exited the car with his valise strapped on his shoulder. He headed to the building door, then turned back and knocked on Raj’s window. The rain collected on the brim of his hat and rolled off in massive droplets as he leaned toward Raj.
“Forget something?” Raj said as he dropped the window down only a few inches.
“You didn’t hear the Boss, though.”
“Before you call him sadistic, you didn’t hear what the Boss had to say.”
“When you get back, you can tell me.”
Michaels held Raj’s gaze under the unnatural streetlight. Then he turned back and disappeared into the building without saying a word.
An hour passed without a soul coming in or out of the building.
Raj clenched his teeth. Hadn’t Michaels said it would only be a few minutes? What could take so long? Or was this just a ruse to weasel out of cab fare? He didn’t seem that type, though. Based on a nighttime conversation in a taxicab during a rainstorm. With a guy who lied about his profession and probably his name, too. Carrying a large leather valise into a decrepit building in the middle of nowhere.
Banging his head against the steering wheel, Raj looked for some activity in the building, some sign that Michaels was coming back, but the furious downpour and howling wind mocked him. Of course Michaels was coming out. There was no way he lived here, so how would he return to civilization? No amount of money could coax a driver to venture into this part of town at this hour and in this storm.
Why the pit gnawing in his stomach then? He fretted as he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. There was something unsettling about the whole setup. Michaels had said he didn’t believe in chance. And how did he know so much about taxicab finances and Raj’s own personal drama? What about the bizarre story about the Boss? What “businessman” shares that story—on his way to a mark, no doubt!
“Pull it together, Raj!” he scolded himself over the rain’s incessant downpour. There was only one thing to do.
Before he could change his mind, Raj flung open the door and ran toward the building entrance, hunched over as the rain beat upon his back without mercy.
The building’s glass double doors, held together with duct tape and plywood, flew open as Raj toppled in. A dank lobby, leaking at the seams from the rain and lit by a single hanging light bulb, greeted him. The yellow tape barring entry to the elevators directed Raj elsewhere. He entered the stairwell, pitch black but for the fire escape, glow tape at the base of each step. Realizing he’d left his phone in the taxicab, he marched up, stair by stair, feeling the wall for support. No going back now.
“Where are you going, Raj?” he asked himself, expecting some rational answer back. “Just keep climbing stairs. Maybe you’ll stumble into a lair of gangsters with their unhinged boss and a talkative hitman. Then you’ll just saunter in and ask about your cab fare. They’ll be very reasonable, no doubt.”
He reached the second floor and opened the exit door for a peek. More darkness. He continued to climb.
“Oh, hey, Raj! Good to see you!” That’s what Michaels would say when he opened the door, Raj imagined. “Yeah, sorry, I got a bit delayed with all this business, but I’m so glad you came up. Please, come in! Sorry about all the bodies on the floor. And try to step over the blood if you can. It’s really hard to get off leather soles.” Raj pictured disfigured corpses marinating in pools of body fluid, while Michaels, bellowing in laughter, wiped his gun clean with a terry cloth.
Raj shook his head and jarred himself to reality. “Can’t turn back now, Raj ol’ boy. Guess this is how to go, right? Not so terrifying, is it? Thoop! from the silencer to the forehead and it’s all over. No more worrying. No more stress. And no more bitterness! It’ll all be over soon. One less angry taxi driver!”
He couldn’t help but chuckle at his own mental melodrama. He’d now lost track of what floor he was on. Third? Fourth? He stopped to breathe at the landing to the exit door. Might as well get out there.
Panting, he entered the hallway and walked down its dark corridor, guided by his hands, until he heard muffled noises behind one door. He paused, considering whether to knock or just give up on the entire insane endeavor. “Now or never,” he whispered and raised his hand fist closed.
The door opened before he knocked. “What took you so long?” a figure greeted him, bathed in light. Raj instinctively covered his eyes from the blinding light flooding the doorway.
“Come in, sit down. I’ve been waiting for you,” the figure said, and receded into the light, leaving Raj and his seared retinas teetering in the doorway.
Blinking and rubbing his eyes, Raj took a few steps in. Clarity settled in and he saw the figure as a tall, handsome man dressed in a white suit glowing in its own radiance. Horrific brown scars on his hands and neck stood out in grotesque contrast to his glowing visage and dapper suit.
He sat down in a white leather chair, legs crossed and fingers steepled. Smiling, he waved at the chair across from his own.
Raj sat down, confused. “Where’s Michaels?”
So it was a fictitious name, Raj thought. “The one I brought here. Trench coat, scarred face.” He grimaced at his choice of words.
The man in white chuckled. “Ah, yes. Dramatic. He’s done his job. It’s just us now.”
Raj pursed his lips. “My fare?”
“I’ll take care of it, of course.”
“Okay, well, I really should go now.”
“You haven’t heard my side.”
“Why I paid everyone the same amount.” He leaned in and whispered, “I think the exact word you used was sadistic, right?”
Raj looked at his feet and squirmed.
“I could be a fair man, Raj. But most people don’t want fairness when it comes down to it. Sure, everyone wants to be treated the same, get their due and all that. It all sounds nice when it works to their advantage. Then judgment day comes, and everyone hides their failures, their shortcomings, the corners they cut. What happens to fairness, then? Yeah, that goes out the door.”
He waved his palms and continued. “That’s not even the worst part of it. Even when people get their fair shake, the what-about-him bug bites them. It’s no longer about opportunity and reward, it’s about the next guy. And the joke is—” he narrowed his eyes intently at Raj—“it’s a one-way street. Fair if I get more, but not so fair if he gets more. Fair if he suffers, but not so fair if I do. So in my line of business, I avoid fairness at all costs—unless someone really wants it.”
Avoiding the man’s gaze, Raj muttered, “All easy for you to say. Is that why they call you the Boss? You ever drive a cab for eighteen hours straight? Or been spit on because you’re brown by someone born in Louis Vuitton? Do you look at your wife every night pretending everything is fine when you’re only a step away from the pavement? I never got that fair shake you’re talking about, so yeah, fair sounds pretty good to me right now.”
Raj looked up and held the man’s gaze, unashamed of the tear swelling in his eye. The bitterness in his voice screamed more than his words.
The man touched the scar on his neck and kept quiet as Raj wiped his cheek. Reaching into his jacket pocket, the man pulled out a roll of hundreds as he stood up.
“So you want fair,” the man said, and offered him the cash.
Raj blinked as he stared at the wad of money in his palm—probably close to ten thousand dollars. Was this some kind of joke?
“I…I don’t understand.”
“Here’s your fare, plus a little tip for your time. I don’t think you really saw things from my perspective.”
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. My man hired you to hear me out, and you did. I was hoping you’d give up your understanding of fairness. Maybe even come work for me.” He paused and tilted his head in the hope of Raj changing his mind.
Squashed by the silence, he tossed the cash at Raj and walked toward the door. “Fairness it is,” he said and left.
Raj screeched out from the building entrance in his cab, the roll of money bulging in his pocket.
The rain blurred his windshield, even with the wipers swinging without mercy. Still, he floored the gas pedal, rocketing back downtown. Had he caught a break? Finally? It seemed too good to be true, yet he couldn’t shake the chill in his bones. “Fairness it is,” the Boss had said. What could that possibly mean?
If it weren’t so late, he’d call his wife. Or anyone else. He had to make sense of everything, or he’d burst. And he had to figure out what to do with his newfound wealth. For an hour’s worth of work too, no less.
“Raj, looks like fate’s finally smiled at you! Your number came up.” He giggled. “Fairness it is! Yes sir, I’ll take fair. Ten thousand of fair!”
“Yes, let’s do fair,” the shadowy man said in the back of his seat.
Raj recoiled in shock, swerving the car uncontrollably off the deserted street and catapulting into a streetlight. The piercing screech and metallic thud of the crash would have, in other circumstances, gathered a crowd around the gruesome scene. But not tonight. Instead, Raj’s head rested on the malfunctioned airbags and warped steering wheel, bleeding.
He groaned, then forced himself out of the fog. “Michaels? What the—”
“We both know fairness wasn’t your best choice, Raj. Couldn’t you get that from what I told you? After the Boss said his piece, too? I have to say I’m disappointed.”
“What… what are you talking about? How did you get in?”
“I’m talking about getting what you deserve, Raj. Your ‘just desert,’ as they say. Retribution. Isn’t it all part of fairness? Or is it just sob stories about driving a cab all night for trust fund frat boys? No, let’s talk about the five hundred large you owe your bookie or the growing debt to the secret pharmacy in the gas station. Bottom line, Raj, is that you owe a lot more than you’re owed. Payday’s here. Time for an accounting.”
“I… You can’t do this…”
Michaels stepped out of the cab and walked to Raj’s window, the rain exaggerating his menacing figure. He pulled out his gun from his chest holster. “You should’ve chosen fairness. He was willing to overlook your misdeeds. The bookie was his, and owed? He owned the gas station operation. Your debts were actually to him. You see, his fairness was to buy you completely and for all of that. You should’ve taken it, but you wanted your due.”
The window and the thunderstorm muffled Raj’s screams. Michaels lifted the gun and squeezed the trigger.
Raj woke up in a room bathed in light, like the one uptown where he met the man in the white suit, but more luminous and intense. He could barely make out his surroundings, though his eyes didn’t hurt from the light. He wasn’t sure if he was breathing or if his chest was just going through the motions.
The man in the white suit coalesced from the brightness before his face. Was he always there?
“Come work for me,” he said.