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Edie Higgins drummed her black-polished nails happily as she sat behind the wheel of Barnaby's cab. The midnight rain flowed down the windshield in rivers, her Mickey Mouse watch said I:07 a.m., but JFK airport was still bustling with life. The May air was warm, but not too warm, which was a good thing, because Edie had quickly discovered that the A/C in Barnaby's cab had gone out since the last time she'd driven it. Not that the brakes were in great condition either, but it so happened that Edie had a lead foot, which worked just as well for stopping as speeding up.
Curious, she scanned the soggy travelers that were waiting in the long taxi line. Since she had been a kid, she had always adored the drama of airports. The heart-squeezing hugs of families coming home, the long, wet kisses of reunited lovers and the misty-eyed wave from a forlorn six-year-old who didn't understand why Mom was going away. That was life. The connections people craved. That was what made Edie sigh.
By her own rudimentary calculations, this late on a Thursday should be the piece de resistance: tourist night. A boredom-busting extravaganza during which she could drive dewy-eyed couples to their getaway destinations. Or whisk away families to the overpriced tourist trap that was the Great White Way.
Hey, whatever made them happy. And that was the part she liked most. Watching people as they bubbled with anticipation, their faces glowing from that champagne-like awareness. The knowledge that good things were about to happen.
Now that made her sigh.
She grabbed her phone and checked her voice mail, just in case he had called.
"You have no messages," the voice answered, and Edie stuffed the phone in her bag. No reason to think about missing phone calls, about people who didn't need her, when there were thousands of people desperate to get out of the rain, which was exactly the reason she was here.
Slowly she inched the cab forward. The water-soaked attendant was shoving passengers into yellow cabs like yesterday's garbage. Beneath the flickering security lights, Edie perused the cab line, counting heads to discover her prize. The gnarly attendant, not on board with the whole "customer service" concept, ripped open the back door. Edie shot a look over her shoulder, anticipating what exciting adventure the passenger lottery had shelled out tonight.
Would it be canoodling lovers, or shrieking families? No. Instead, it was Mr. Overly Practical, No-Champagne-for-Me Trench Coat, who clearly wouldn't know adventure unless he looked it up in the dictionary. He wore a dark suit and a striped tie secured in a perfect Windsor knot, which she knew only because her dadthe esteemed Dr. Jordan Higgins, M.D.loved the Windsor knot. It was crisp, professional and reeked of glory.
Just. Like. Dr. Jordan Higgins.
As with so many things that the esteemed Dr. Jordan Higgins loved, Edie despised the Windsor knot.
Not to be overly critical, but okay, she hated the striped ties, too. They were an oxygen-stifling invention, similar to women's hose, meant to entrap humanity in a constricting uniform of sameness. Taking a sneak peek in the rearview mirror, she noted the man's impeccable reflection that defied travel wrinkles or any semblance of life.
Great. She'd given up free drinks with Anita to drive the cab, and yes, Barnaby could always twist her armnot hard because of her must-be-recessive sucker-genebut still.
At least his hair was mussed, she thought as he settled his briefcase neatly next to him on the seat. The rain had darkened his rampant locks black with one woebegone strand hanging damply into his eyes. Impatiently he pushed at it, restoring it to its normal spot.
It was a pity because he was so much more appealing when he was mussed. But hey, not everyone could identify and exploit their intrinsic advantages like Edie could. Not that she would say a word. Trench coats never took criticism well, so she pulled onto the Belt Parkway, aka Pothole Crater of America, and eased into the slow-moving traffic. "Where to, mister?"
"The Belvedere Hotel," he answered, which startled her only because the Belvedere was more than a little naughty, completely not a Windsor knot type placeunless the ties were the kinky silk and satin kind. Edie scrutinized her passenger with new, more appreciative eyes. Kink?
"Just drive," he instructed, his voice crisply impersonal, accustomed to being obeyed. Edie, never a lapdog, tapped her fingers on the wheel.
"Meeting somebody at the hotel?" she asked.
Cooly he met her eyes in the mirror, then glanced at the ID tag on the visor. "You don't look like Barnaby."
"The marvel of medical science. Two years of hormones, a few surgeries and voila, Barbara."
"Not likely," he muttered, choosing to spoil her fun with his nay-saying truth. When she glanced in the mirror again, that lock of hair had stubbornly fallen back into his eyes. Edie smiled. Sometimes there was a God, and sometimes She had a sense of humor.
"Barnaby's my ex," she admitted.
"Your ex lets you drive his cab? That has to be illegal."
Edie shrugged. To her the law was another constricting set of mandates, much like the Windsor knot. "His Uncle Marty is some hoo-haw at the taxi and limousine commission. I don't think they're actually relatedit's an implied relationship, informal and forged through extensive bribes. Barnaby gets away with more than most."
"What's your real job?"
"Real job?" Edie scoffed. "What is that, exactly? Some greed-inspired drudgery that people consider socially acceptable. Eight hours of vomitus detail, mind-eroding minutia and arguments over possibly purloined office supplies. No thank you. However, in the interest of full disclosure and because I don't want to get Uncle Marty in trouble, I don't drive the cab very often. Mainly when Barnaby sets up a date with Sasha, which usually falls on Thursdays when he's supposed to have classnot that he'll be at school, because he dropped out last semester."
"Why all the secrecy?" he asked, and immediately Edie knew that he had never had an overbearing, interfering family. Not that she had one, either. But she'd always longed for onesomething big with lots of loud brothers and sisters, like the ones on sitcoms.
As she cruised through the toll booths, she decided to let him in on the ins and outs of the American Family Dynamic. "They keep the relationship in the closet because Barnaby's family doesn't approve. She's from Oklahoma, and his parents are really uptight about the whole situation because they have this weird anti-Oklahoma thing, so sometimes he calls me up, and I drive the cab. Usually on a Thursday, which I like because it's a good night for a people person like myself."
With a sharp veer to the left, she shot in front of a cabbie who hadn't learned the ropes, and then swore as the traffic ground to a full stop. Tonight the Belt was packed with cars, red brake lights glowing eerily through the rain. Somewhere up ahead, there was the unfulfilled promise of road construction.
Given the pouring rain, it followed that there would be no crews on the job. Which left only the department of transportation-mandated lane closures. There was a screwy logic to New York, you just had to embrace it. Mr. Trench Coat wasn't the embraceable type.
Seeing an opening two lanes over, she sped up before slamming on the brakes, and then tried not to smile when Mr. Trench Coat hit his head.
Edie believed there was a certain responsibility in playing the part of a New York cabbie. There were expected rude behaviors and bad-driving norms. Frankly, it was all fictionwell, not allbut Edie chose to give people their money's worth.
"You don't care that your ex is seeing someone new?" he asked, completely calm.
"We didn't click," she explained as she creatively maneuvered the traffic, but not once did he blink, swear or wipe sweat from his brow. Damn it.
After jamming down on the horn at one excruciatingly slow Jersey driver, she grinned and then cursed the entire garden state to various transportation woes including rate hikes, speeding ticket quotas and exploding water mains, with liquid glowing green.
A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed that her passenger was ignoring her driving, which disappointed her and made her wonder if she was losing her touch. Nothing that couldn't be fixed.
"I tried to make it work," Edie continued, dodging to hit every road crater that she could. "The sex was pretty good, but Barnaby never knew what to talk about, no imagination. Not a romantic bone in hisfrankly, a little on the skinny-sidebody. I have to tell ya, it got boring fast. Never a good sign in a relationship. Besides, a woman can tell. Within five minutes I know if a guy is the one."
"Five minutes? That long?" She heard the disbelief in his voice, but she had been confronted by doubters before, and Edie loved to argue. There were universal truths in the world, especially when it came to romance, and the more men that were educated in said truths, the better for womenkind everywhere.
"Oh, sure, pretend you don't do the same thing. Science has proven that people know pretty much instantly. I prefer not to waste my time. Life's too short to ignore what's in front of your nose. Or what's not." Much of what she said was complete nonsense, but the last part was true.
"And what are these signs that a person is supposed to be looking for to recognize the one?"
He was mocking her, making fun of what he thought was foolish, silly and possibly naive. She hated that her shoulders immediately tensed, but she had been branded the fool beforeby people whose opinion matteredand it didn't bother her. Much.
"You can think whatever you want, but as for me, I'm looking for lightning. Thunder. AC/DC playing in my head. The world has to tilt and shiftand I have to forget how to breathe."
"That's not love, that's stress cardiomyopathy."
She knew that man-tone, that Sahara-dry voice, dismissing anything that couldn't be proven through the scientific method. As if love could be proven or disproven. It simply was. "Wiseass, aren't you?"
Obviously accustomed to the insult, he chose to ignore it. "How often have you experienced these symptoms?"
"You're setting yourself up for failure," he pronounced, a blow to Hallmark, romance and the entire speed-dating industry.
"Life is full of failures. If you don't fail, you've failed to truly live. I'll take my chances."
It should have made her happy that he didn't argue further, but it didn't. Dr. Jordan Higgins never argued, either. No matter how outrageous, no matter how controversial. Edie cranked up the radio, but the volume wasn't working, and it wasn't loud enough to drown out the silence, so Edie switched it off.
Eventually, she broke down and turned to classic dinner-party conversation. "You're Cancer, aren't you?" she asked.
"Not the last time I checked."
"Your sign. Cancer. Reticent, inflexible, deep thinker."
Dazzling wit? Impulsive? "No way."
"Yes way," he insisted.
Unable to reconcile this astrological anomaly, she abandoned personal conversation until they hit the BQE. As they zoomed along, she pointed out the various tourist sites flying by, but her "Welcome to New York" spiel was interrupted by a beep.
Mr. Trench Coat had a text message.
She stopped talking, easily imagining the words on his phone. For his sake, she hoped it was something sexy, possibly visual, suggestive, earthy, but not tacky. Subtle went a long way in seduction. Edie considered herself something of an expert at the art of love.
After a second he swore, euphemistically alluding to the carnal arts, but not in a sexy way. He sounded pissed.
When she checked his expression, she noticed the way the brows furrowed into the broad forehead. The hair was still in his eyes.
The dude was screwed.
"Something wrong?" she asked, trying to sound innocent rather than nosy. "Nothing."
Ha. If that was nothing, then she was a rocket scientist. Not that she couldn't be if she wanted. Edie had aced two courses in astrophysics at NYU, but had changed majors after a heated discussion with the prof on the viability of red giants, white dwarfs and the antifeminist fairy-tale ideology that perpetuates the idea that one woman should be subjected to the sexual demands of seven professionally challenged men with severe Napoleon complexes.
There were some who thought it was a giant leap of logic to go from stars to anti-feminist literary tropes, including her professor, whom she affectionately called Professor Moriarity. He was not amused, much like her silent passenger, who was staring blindly out the window. She felt a quiver of sympathy, which caused her to frown, because Windsor knots and trench coats did not deserve sympathy. Of course, they usually didn't swear, either.
"Something's interrupted your plans?" she asked.
"The only plan I have is to sleep."
Edie laughed, and then exited toward the Whitestone Bridge. "At the Belvedere? Not that your accommodations are any of my business, but I'm dying to know, so if you want to volunteer the details, I'm a very captive audience."
He looked away from the window, and met her eyes in the mirror. Perfectly arched brows furrowed with momentary alarm. About time. "What's with the Belvedere? Is there a problem?"
"You've never stayed there?"
"No. My brother is going to stay there next month, so I though I would try it."
Edie snickered under her breath. "Damn it."
Poor guy, losing it left and right. Edie didn't want to be nice. First of all, because it would ruin the whole snarling cabbie mystique, but also because trench-coat arrogance was not what she considered a positive trait. And so, yes, for the second time that night, the sucker-gene kicked in. Carefully she picked her words, doing her best not to scare him. "It's not too bad. Different than your typical accommodations. Kind of a couples thing. I knew you didn't look the type, but you know, still waters run deep. And I've been wrong before. Once."
He snickered. She heard it, which made her feel better because laughter, even the scoffing kind, counted for something.
"It doesn't matter. I'm beat. Give me a shot of scotch, clean sheets, a decent surface and I'm out anyway." He ended up with a careless shrug, this from a man who didn't do careless at all.
Edie squinted through the windshield, the rain pelting down, the wipers squeaking. "What are you here for? Business? Pleasure?" she asked, merging to the right to escape the upcoming traffic.
"I was meeting someone." When he answered, his voice was flat, missing both thunder and lightning. In fact, Edie would bet copious amounts of cash that he didn't even know who AC/DC was.
"And thus the Belvedere," she surmised. A romantic getaway for the romantically challenged. "You should thank your brother for the hotel suggestion when you get back home."
"After I kill him."
This time, she heard the dip in his voice, the Southern drawl so disdained by every self-respecting New Yawker. "Where's home?"
"Don't be. It's a good city."
"It's not New York," she corrected.