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The Passenger

     It was a drizzly Thursday night in town, and my second or third month driving for the app. 

 Back then, I would always put in my longest shift on a Thursday, because every Uber driver in Edinburgh was out on a Friday and I needed to build some credit before I could hope to compete. The pickings were slimmer on Thursdays, of course, but there were always a few oddballs – hardcore party-goers and so on – if you knew where to find them.

 My customers that particular evening had mostly been students: they were young, loud people with young, loud haircuts, half-drunk and soggy from their lack of umbrellas and common sense. The takings were respectable, but I’d spent the last couple of hours ferrying them up and down the high street, and the car had begun to smell vaguely of wet clothes. So, when the notification came through for a pickup in Murrayfield, I found myself looking forward to the change of scene. I dropped off my last slouching passenger, sprayed a can of something lavender-scented over the back seat and drove off into the darkness.

 The rain had picked up by the time I reached Riversdale Crescent, lashing down in vicious, murky sheets. I glanced across the dashboard to double check the pickup location, a small cul-de-sac off to my right, and hoped there was a shed or something where the poor sod could take shelter. It was not a night for standing about.

 Eventually, after a few minutes, I spotted a figure by the side of the road. He was small, and wearing dark clothes, and positioned in the shadow of a street corner so perfectly that I almost definitely wouldn’t have seen him, had he not signalled to me that he was there – with a quiet, surreptitious outstretching of a single, black-robed arm. He slipped out into the street, jacket collar pulled high over his face.

 Standing on the pavement next to him, I saw, as I drew closer, was a most magnificent suitcase.

 I agree, it sounds an odd thing to describe as magnificent, but if a suitcase ever deserved the word, then it was the one I saw that night. It was perhaps three feet tall, and two across, and every inch of it was covered in a lustrous chocolate leather. Winding black straps bound the surface tightly, studded with golden buckles like medals on the chest of a war hero. Immediately I was instilled with a sense of intense curiosity; surely, I thought, these must be great treasures indeed, to merit such a grand container. But what could be so valuable to this small man, who hid so sleekly in the shadows? I pulled up gradually by the streetlight, savouring this rare moment of mystery.

 I should admit here that I have always had a sixth sense for drama. Ever since I was a child, I have been able to identify those slight changes in atmosphere, the ones that most people miss or misinterpret. They come to me as little trembles in the hairs of my forearms. Now, before you roll your eyes, I am not an untrustworthy person. I derive no pleasure from sharing the secrets of others. What I do enjoy, on occasion, is the thrill of knowing I could – the delicious shiver, the silky slip between viewer and partaker, audience and stage. This mystery, this intrigue, is, in no small part, the reason why I decided to drive people for a living. And this man, standing on the street corner with his turned-up collar and his glorious suitcase, was exuding it from every inch of his body.

 I sidled up to the curb until I drew level with him and rolled down the window. A subtle touch is needed with these sorts of people – friendly enough to let them know you’re open to conversation, but relaxed enough that they know they can confide in you. There’s a bit of an art to it, if I do say so myself.

 Assessing the situation, I decided a neutral approach was best, at least until I could see what I was working with.

 “Alright?” I leaned out of the window and spoke over the rain. A curt nod from the hooded face.

“Do you want a hand with your…” But he was already dragging it into the car.

 I smiled quietly to myself as he followed the suitcase in and shut the passenger door. Oh, this was going to be a challenge, I thought. But I’d get the story out of him in the end. “So, sir, where are you headed this fine evening?” The man finished adjusting his seatbelt, and pulled down the rain-spattered hood. Discreetly, I adjusted the rear-view mirror so I could get a good look while his head was still down.

“Um. Just the… airport would be great. Thank you.”

 He spoke with a very mild accent, definitely British but beyond that, unplaceable. There was a hesitant quality to both him and his speech, accentuated perhaps by the receding wisps of brown-grey hair drooped over his head. I wondered if he was a government official of some sort.

“Of course,” I nodded back.

 A mournful wind picked up as we pulled out from the cul-de-sac and began heading west towards the bypass. The man sat unassumingly in the back, the suitcase propped up carefully on the adjacent seat; every now and then he would put out a hand to steady it for an upcoming turn.

 My forearms prickled.

 I spent the first part of the journey observing my passenger through the rear-view mirror. Despite the initial cloak-and-dagger appearance, he was seeming tamer by the minute: he stared out the window absentmindedly, picking at the cuticles of his left hand with his right. I almost could have dismissed him as a dreamer.

 My instincts, however, were too well-practised to ignore. So, after what I considered to be the correct amount of time, I began the search, extending the first shy tendrils of conversation in that neutral-friendly tone I had honed so well over the years. “So, off anywhere nice?” I asked over my shoulder, eyes still focussed squarely on the road.

 “Mm.” Came the reply. “Oh, sorry, yes. Well, it’s a sort of work trip, I suppose, really…” There was a silence as I waited for him to continue. Then, in a tone that suggested this explained everything, he said: “I’m in consultancy.”

 There was a longer silence, during which we were delayed at a set of temporary traffic lights on Corstorphine road. The red glow crept into the back seat and illuminated the man’s vaguely relieved expression.

 I began to doubt my talents. It was not beyond the realms of my imagination that I had simply misjudged him; particularly then, late at night and in such distracting weather, a lapse would have been more than understandable. He might very well have been just another oddball, albeit one with an expensive suitcase.

 Then again, I wondered, could it be a bluff? The thought jolted me slightly as the traffic lights turned, causing an inelegant acceleration past the cones. I mean, “consultancy”? That almost seemed designed to put inquirers off…

 I realised this was unlikely, even at the time, but there was still a part of me that desperately wanted the truth to be more interesting.

 Just as I was ready to resign myself to another featureless trip, the man’s mobile phone rang.

 Some solace, at least, I thought. Phone calls are always more revealing than you would think, especially to the trained ear. The slight aberrations in tone and structure, the way someone’s voice rises half an octave at the end of a question, even the shape in which they hold their face as they talk, everything is a clue pointing towards the two people talking, and the relationship between them. I pricked up my ears.

 He had installed one of those customised ringtones, a rather soulless rhythmic beep. The man let it ring a few times before answering, mostly while he removed it from an ill-fitting pocket of his coat.

 The beeping stopped, and the person on the other end spoke first, too softly for me to make out the words. It was at least thirty seconds before my passenger even opened his mouth. “Erm, Yes, I’ll… I’ll be back by then.” The man replied. “Yes.” A small chuckle. “Love you too.”

 He hung up, smiling.

 I sighed. Just a partner, evidently. Not a scandalous one, even – there was none of the excitement, the tension. Clearly, my forearms had been mistaken.

 There was still time for a last-ditch effort though, and as we approached the bypass via a series of winding backroads, I prepared myself to squeeze what interest I could from the situation. Nobody is entirely dull. Besides which, I reminded myself, the suitcase had still not been resolved, and no truly boring person has the right to own such a thing. “Consultancy, you say?” I floated the question towards the man, who was now examining his picked-at cuticles with interest. “Any particular field?” He looked up, a bemused expression on his face, as if he’d just remembered I was there.

“Erm…”

 I was pushing harder than usual, out of frustration perhaps, and it was beginning to feel forced. The man shook his head slightly to clear it before he answered. “I… suppose you could say that I work in finance, mostly.”

 “Oh, really? My cousin’s been working towards an accountancy degree. Due to get it in May, fingers crossed…”

 It was a clumsy response, but there was no longer much point in putting my full effort in now. This man was, evidently, a bore of the highest degree.

“Oh?” He replied.

 He turned his gaze back towards the window, clearly indicating the natural end to the conversation.

 The phone rang again (the beeping was beginning to get on my nerves) and he silenced it, letting the repressed tone buzz into the car as we drew closer to the bypass. I drove onwards through the rain-slicked streets, becoming slightly more resentful with every passing second until, at last, the airport’s familiar domes came into sight.

 Thank goodness, I thought. I didn’t have the heart to pursue this dullard for much longer. Suitcase or no suitcase, it was time to accept the defeat and move on.

 As we pulled into the car park, I began scouring the taxi queues for my next passenger. I always did love airports, especially at night – the exhausted faces, the pallid neck cushions that had travelled thousands of miles, the travelled, cultured people who strode amongst the tourists with their headphones around their neck and their incongruous, well-rested look. The stories at the airport, if not brilliant, were always entertaining, and the people who told them even more so. If ever there was a place to find consolation after a dry passenger, this was it.

 By the time I reached the main terminal, I had already spotted two attractive-looking prospects: one, a Scandinavian youth with long hair and a nose covered almost entirely in earrings; and the other, an old couple talking animatedly by a bus stop, dressed in black and passing a small flask back and forth whenever they thought nobody was looking. I was eager for some real excitement, and when we reached the man’s terminal I walked round to the back door to usher him out.

“A pleasure driving you. Safe flight.”

“Mm.”

 I watched as he hauled the beautiful suitcase from the boot, again having insisted on doing it alone – I must have really pissed him off, I thought. Such a shame, to have such a beautiful thing but no story to go with it; it was almost enough for me to regret seeing him walk away down the terminal. Ah well. In the wing mirror I could see the drunk couple waving in my direction, and I went to get back in the car.

 Just then, however, I heard a familiar beeping. It was coming from the open door from which my passenger had left. I rummaged through the shadows under the seat, feeling blindly until my hand brushed against the smooth plastic of a phone case, and pulled it out of the darkness with a few rings left to spare. I looked up at my passenger’s receding figure, then back down at the phone.

The caller ID was hidden.

 Now, I know I should have let it ring out. It was the moral thing to do, and I should have set aside my frustrations with the passenger, remained professional, and returned the phone to him as per the Uber guidelines. But, to my late-night, confused mind, he had been failing to live up to expectations all night. It would have been an injustice to him if I had left thinking he was still a finance consultant. So, according to this warped logic, I answered his phone.

 The voice that answered was deep, European, and very slow and clear. It spoke briefly but compellingly, and with an ever-so-slight lilt, that suggested that something highly regrettable had just occurred.

“Where is the money? Two hours, still no cash. We had a deal.”

 Before I could open my mouth, a harsh bang sounded on their end of the phone, followed by a second, more disturbing noise.

 My eyes widened.

 I looked frantically down the terminal, searching for the man with the suitcase, but he, and the case, had vanished into the night.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Adventure, Contemporary Fiction, Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Personal Narrative

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