This drawing by Walter Drayton illustrates a short story called "Taxi!" by Don Kelvin, published in Canadian Magazine for June, 1927 (pages 11-13 and 37-41).
The tale of romance and international intrigue is set in Winnipeg (the Casablanca of Western Canada) and opens with taxi driver Tony Dorco waiting for fares outside Union Station. Tony's patience is rewarded when a beautiful young woman and an athletic-looking man emerge from the station and head down the steps toward his cab.
(This reference to nonexistent steps shows that Don Kelvin was not a Winnipegger. Spurious local colour may have been inserted into Canadian Magazine stories at the behest of the editors to help boost readership outside Toronto.)
Unfortunately, Tony is quickly written out of the plot when his taxi collides with a street car. Walter Drayton's gritty sketch depicts the mangled cab with Tony -- or an injured passenger -- being carried from the wreck.
The story meanders on for another eight pages with most of the action, such as it is, taking place in Winnipeg's General Hospital where the amnesiac heroine waits for her comatose leading man to regain consciousness.
For TAXI-L members, however, the story came to an abrupt halt when when author Kelvin callously disposed of his most interesting character. In response to this outrage a few enterprising souls, led by Charles Rathbone of San Franciso, conspired to bring Tony back to life in a series of TAXI-L postings in January, 1997.
Here's the original story opening, followed by the TAXI-L rewrites:
If he had stopped to consider the matter, Tony would have granted that she was beautiful, for she was, bewitchingly beautiful. But he was not paid for observing such things: he noticed only that she seemed a stranger to the city and therefore needed him, Tony, to take her where she wanted to go. So he stepped up to her, tipped his cap, and announced: "Taxi, lady."
The young lady nodded as though he had put it in the form of a question and thanked him. Thereupon Tony led the way to his waiting cab, opened the door and bowed her in. Tony was not usually of elaborate manners, but he could make a display when he thought the occasion warranted it. He turned toward the station entrance, thinking that perhaps the young lady was accompanied and half expecting to see her companion.
If he was looking for one of the male sex he was not disappointed, for through the station entrance came a bronzed, athletic-looking man, club bag in hand, and apparently in a great hurry. He no sooner saw Tony, standing as though waiting for him at the open door of his cab, than he made his way to him. He threw his bag into the cab and with a hurried "One forty Barlow Street," he sprang in after it. Tony had already spent more time than usual in securing his fare so he shut the door quickly and drove away.
He had gone only a few blocks and was approaching the corner of Portage and Main when he became aware that one of his passengers was rapping on the pane of glass separating him from the rear part of the cab. He half turned his head to see what was required of him. At that moment the driver of another automobile, attempting to pass on his right hand, wedged over too close so that the two cars touched. Tony swerved to the left to avoid an accident and by so doing caused a worse one: for a street car, approaching at a fair speed on his left, hit Tony's taxi and threw it over on its side. The automobile whose driver was in such a hurry escaped by a hairsbreadth being struck by the overturning car. It continued on its way, however, and was never identified with the accident. The street car, as is usually the case in such encounters, came through practically unscathed. Tony's car, and it is that one with which we are concerned, was so badly damaged as to be beyond repair. What is more, Tony, when he was taken from the wreck, was found to be dead, while his two passengers were unconscious and appeared to be seriously injured.
Charles Rathbone (San Francisco):
This won't do at all. Let's see if we can't find a better ending for the tale. With all the great stories of adventure in cab driving that we've seen on TAXI-L, surely we can imagine a more satisfying conclusion.
I've re-written that fifth paragraph to give our hero some hope of getting through the night without ending up on a marble slab.
Perhaps another subscriber will try his or her hand at a sixth paragraph?
Coming to a stop at the crossroads, Tony turned full around, slid open the glass partition, and surveyed the scene. "It's nothing, driver... proceed to Barlow Street," said the man, but his narrowed eyes were asking if Tony had seen the gun. The woman seemed frozen, her eyes full of terror. Without a word, and as if he had seen nothing unusual, Tony slid the window almost shut and eased off the clutch.
"What the devil do I have here," he thought. His mind raced. A half-mile ahead was a bakery where there were usually a couple of coppers keeping warm this time of evening. He could try to get their attention, maybe fake a mechanical problem, but what if they were not there? "Not much of a plan," he thought, "but any plan is better than no plan." A light snow had begun to fall, and he switched on the wiper. The man in the back seat was talking now. Tony glanced into the rear-view mirror.
Jim Lewis (San Francisco):
Tony's brow furrowed as he tried to think of a ploy to get the coppers attention without getting anyone shot.
John Tompkins, Jr., Atlantic City:
"It's taken me almost a year," the man was saying. "I was only a day behind you in Istanbul, and in London I missed you by hours. You almost lost me for good in New York with that dirty trick of yours, getting me in trouble with Don Giovanni. But I knew that sooner or later you would come back to Winnipeg. You thought you were home free, Elizabeth, but now you are going to pay! Tell me where you have hidden it!"
"What are you are saying, Lamont!" the woman cried out. "I was running for my life! I looked for you everywhere, but always there was danger! The ring was, I mean... it was a gift, I swear it was a gift from the Don! He has everything, Lamont, everything, and I am just a poor frightened girl, so tired of running." She was weeping now and pleading with the man. "You've got to believe me, darling, I would never betray you or my Queen!"
"Liar!" the man roared, "Traitor!" Tony stared into the mirror and saw him raise his hand and strike her across the face. This was too much for Tony and he slammed on the brake. The man fell forward. In an instant the woman had produced a dagger from nowhere and plunged it into Lamont's back. "Take that, my fine Colonel!"
He fell writhing to the floor. Tony had turned and was staring at the spectacle, thunderstruck. "My God, what..." he started, but his heart froze as the woman named Elizabeth picked up the dying man's gun. The tearful, pleading eyes had turned to steel. She pointed the revolver at Tony.
"That cheap shield of yours won't stop a bullet," she said, "so don't try anything funny. Take me to the soldiers' cemetery on the edge of town."
His heart in his throat, Tony started the cab rolling again.
"Cemetery," he thought. "A dead man in the back seat, a gun aimed at my head, and I'm going to the cemetery in the middle of the night? Like hell!"
A grim determination came over him as he worked through the gears. Twenty, thirty, forty miles an hour as the thunder of the big Chalmers roared from the four-inch exhausts. Out of the corner of his eye he saw two startled policemen leaping from their chairs as the cab flew past the bakery, a cloud of swirling snow in its wake.
"What are you doing? Stop it immediately or I'll shoot!"
Norman Beattie (Winnipeg):
No, no Charles -- you've leaped a couple of pages ahead. Here's what happened first....
The thought of the beat cops who regularly stopped to warm themselves at the bakery further up Main Street gave him some slight comfort, even though he couldn't be sure they would be there when he arrived. But suddenly it dawned on him -- the turnoff for Barlow Street was the next left turn after Portage Avenue! He'd have to turn off Main Street long before he got to the bakery!
Tony's grip tightened on the wheel and he felt the sweat beginning to soak his shirt and celluloid collar, despite the fact that his open driver's seat was exposed to the sub-zero elements. He fought the urge to slam on the brakes and bring the six-cylinder Chalmers screeching to a halt. He mustn't do anything to alert the gunman, or cause him to squeeze the trigger in panic. He had to play for time!
Tony was driving by instinct now as his mind raced to discover a way of rescuing the lovely hostage. He cursed under his breath as a Packard squeezed in too close on the right, forcing him onto the streetcar tracks and into the path of a southbound trolley. He braked just enough to let the Packard by, then cut to the right as the motorman's red face flashed past him on the left, mouthing obscenities. He must have executed this manoeuvre smoothly enough, despite having to lurch in and out of the ice ruts that marked the traffic lanes on Main Street, for there was no audible response from the back seat. No shouts, no screams -- and no shots. Tony let out a long sigh of relief.
Neither he nor the young lady was out of the woods yet, however. Once past Portage Avenue, they would have to turn left toward Barlow Street, and if Tony were going to effect a rescue, he would have to do something before then. On the darkened residential street he and his beautiful passenger would be at the mercy of the gunman. He needed to do something while they were still on a lighted and busy thoroughfare. He also needed more time, but he didn't dare slow down for fear the gunman would begin to suspect something.
Luckily, as he approached Portage Avenue, the white-gloved traffic policeman, hardly distinguishable from a bear in his shaggy buffalo overcoat, signalled the Main Street traffic to a stop and waved the Portage Avenue traffic into the intersection.
Tony breathed a prayer of thanks for this brief respite, and then nearly shouted with joy when he saw no less than three horse-drawn dump wagons plod into the intersection, making a slow left turn onto Main Street. They were hauling loads of rubble from an excavation somewhere, with the presumable object of filling a hole somewhere else. What they were doing here, at this hour, was beyond Tony's comprehension. He hoped that someone up there was looking out for him, though experience had generally taught him otherwise.
Tony tensely eyed the traffic cop and wondered if he should switch off his engine and run over to him, yelling for help. No; there was no telling what sort of disaster that might set off. Tony, the young woman and the policeman might all be dead in the street before anyone knew what had happened. Even if there were no gunplay, it would take several minutes to explain the situation, by which time the man and his prisoner could be long gone. The man might even brazen it out and turn the tables on Tony. If past experience meant anything, he'd have a hard time convincing a cop to believe a taxi driver over a handsome, well-dressed member of the upper crust.
There were exceptions, of course. Young Gordie Barton, for example; he was one of the policemen whose night beat took in the skid-row portion of Main Street and the bakery that held out Tony's one faint hope of safety. Gordie was just a rookie cop, but he had the instincts and savvy of a twenty-year veteran. Since Tony was a night driver, their paths had crossed several times over the last few months. They occasionally met for a midnight coffee break at one of the less seedy Main Street cafes, comparing notes on what is was like to be a cabbie or a cop.
Gordie had a bent for things electrical and mechanical, and was always willing to talk about new developments in these fields. Lately he had got a bee in his bonnet about a system of wireless telegraphy which he said could link police cars or taxis to a central dispatcher. Tony had smiled at his friend's vivid imagination, but now, with a gunman and a hostage in the cab behind him, he wished he had Gordie's futuristic wireless system ready to hand.
Tony shook himself out of this daydream. Time was running out with every tick of the meter. He had to think of something, and think of it fast. The couple had come in by the Montreal train, and the woman didn't seem to know her way around. Was the man new to Winnipeg as well? If so, maybe Tony could risk missing the turnoff and drive up further up Main Street to Gordie's beat. Maybe his half-formed plan of stalling the car outside the bakery would work after all. Maybe....
The cars around him surged forward as the traffic policeman waved the Main Street traffic through. Damn! Tony had half-hoped, half-prayed that the overworked teams pulling the three dump wagons would all collapse at once in the middle of the intersection and give him more time to think; but no, they had successfully negotiated their left turn and were plodding in a leisurely file up the curb lane of Main Street.
GA-OOO-GA! An impatient klaxon sounded behind him. Tony made his decision. He let out the clutch and the Chalmers sprang forward, quickly catching up with the cars that had momentarily left him behind. The big cab passed through the intersection of Portage Avenue and bore down relentlessly on the turn for Barlow Street.
Tony felt like a breathless spectator, watching himself from a distance, wondering if he would have the courage to miss the turn, wondering if the gunman would realize what was happening. Closer and closer they came to the moment of truth....
Now go back and read Charle's last posting!
I like the way this story is developing much, much better than the original. I can't wait to see what happens next.
Yes! Beats the heck out of "slumped over the wheel." And now that Gord is in the picture, who knows what will happen? Who's next?
(I sure hope somebody else jumps in here, because I'm about out of ideas!)
There was silence from behind. He thought, "Good grief, she's crazy and now I've played my last card." His life began to unfold before his eyes.
Then she was leaning through the opened window, no gun in her hand. The tears were in her eyes again. "Oh please, you've got to help me! I'm sorry for what I did, I know it was wrong, but I'm so frightened. You're strong and brave, I just know you will help me!"
In the rear view mirror Tony saw the police car's red lamp come on far behind. The hair was standing up on the back of his neck.
"The gun, lady! Where's the gun?"
She threw the revolver onto the seat beside him. "There! Now you know that I could never hurt you. I'm at your mercy! You've got to believe me, there is no one else I can turn to. Oh please, don't be cruel! I had to kill him, he is an evil, evil man and an enemy of the Crown. You've got to help me! If I fail, there will be war again!"
Tony was gradually easing off the accelerator, hoping the police would soon catch up, but his mind was starting to spin. War? A chill came over him as his mind went back ten years to a night he had hoped to never remember again: the moon shining luridly over a snowy battlefield on the Balkan Front, the air thick with the smell of fear, the cold steel of a gun in his hand.
Tony picked up the pistol from the seat and put it into the pocket of his long overcoat. He looked at Elizabeth, her face lit garishly as the moon appeared for an instant through the scudding clouds.
"I know you will never believe me, but you've got to listen! I've been sent by the Admiralty to do dreadfully important work. You are the only one who can help me! You must take me to the cemetery and help me find the key to... to something that has been stolen and that must be found at all costs! Oh please, you've got to help me!"
They were near the outskirts of town. Three deer were making their way across a lawn. Not far ahead was the gate to the deserted cemetery. If what she was saying was true... but how could he know?
In the rearview he saw the police car swerve to avoid the deer entering the roadway. It slid on the icy surface and slammed into a tree. Tony's eyes were riveted on the mirror, watching the image of the police car growing smaller as the cab moved on. Elizabeth sobbed gently. He caught a whiff of something warm and floral, a scent she was wearing. The swishing of the wiper seemed louder. The deep throb of the engine merged with the pounding in his chest, and for a moment he heard the sound of feet marching in unison. His fingers tightened on the steering wheel.
Tony looked away from the mirror and drove on.
At the gate of the cemetery, he switched off the headlamps and turned into the narrow drive. He stopped the cab, got out and opened the rear door. In an instant she was in his arms. "I knew I could count on you! I swear you will never regret it." The tears were still streaming from her lovely, earnest face. "But quick, you must follow me, there is so little time! And then we must go to Dauphin."
"Dauphin?" he exclaimed. "A hundred and eighty miles over a gravel road on a night like this? You must be mad!"
"We must! We can be there before dawn. I promise I will explain everything! Come! Do you have a tire iron?"
Tony pulled the heavy tire iron from under his seat and began to follow where she was running into the darkness, her small feet leaving prints in the new-fallen snow.
Officer Barton climbed from the police cruiser with a mild oath on his lips. There was little damage, but it would be a lot of trouble getting the car back onto the road. What the devil had got into that Tony Dorco? Driving his cab like a race car and then not stopping when his partner had turned on the red lamp... he must be mad!
He turned to Jim Lewis, his partner. Jim looked more angry than shaken. "Listen, Jim, you get this thing back on the road and then catch up with me. I'll run up ahead to see what's going on. Dorco can't be too far because the road ends in just a mile, by the old cemetery."
Though Jim thought it better to stay with the car, he said, "OK, Gordie, but watch yourself. There's something fishy going on here. I'll bet there's somebody else in that cab."
"Keep an eye up ahead! I'll keep my torch handy and flash you in Morse if I have to." Gordon set off at a trot, the snow crunching under his boots.
"I'd better go take a look right away," he thought. He threw on his overcoat, put up the "Closed" sign and headed out into the snow.
He heard a sound ahead, and before he could slip into a shadow, Elizabeth appeared, a look of starkest terror on her face. She rushed to him. In a hoarse and tremulous whisper she said, "Oh, there is danger here, too!"
Tony grabbed her by the arms. "What the devil is going on here? You're coming with me, and we're getting out of here now!" He pulled her as he began to turn back toward the cab, and as he did so, a shot rang out from very near. The bullet that ripped through his left arm had been intended for Elizabeth. He fell to the ground in shock, pulling the woman with him. In an instant her hand was struggling at the pocket of his overcoat. He pushed her away and pulled out the murdered Lamont's pistol. Elizabeth screamed as Tony raised the gun and fired once at the silouette of a man rushing onto them. He heard the man gasp and fall. Tony was faint with the searing pain of the gunshot wound to his arm.
Elizabeth turned back to him, her face close to his. She was peering into his eyes. She looked to his coat and saw that the wound was to his arm. "The pain must be awful, but you're not going to die. You have to get up now!" Tony's mind was reeling. She slapped him across the face with a force that shook him from head to foot.
"Get hold of yourself!" She was shouting into his face. She grabbed him by the lapels of his coat and in a single powerful move dragged all 180 pounds of him to his feet. Tony staggered in the snow but held his balance. The icy air brought him to his senses.
He stared at Elizabeth. He could not square her fragile frame with the strength she had used to pull him to his feet. The teary-eyed damsel, the steely-eyed killer, the woman the shot had been intended for.
"Who in the world are you?"
She turned from anxious peering into the darkness and confronted him. "Well, why don't I just pour us a cup of tea? We can sit here on a grave while I tell you the story of my life!"
Elizabeth grabbed him by the lapel. "Listen, you! I know you never bargained for any of this, but it's too late now. You just shot a man and if he isn't dead already, I will make sure that he is! You're coming with me to finish what we've started. There just isn't time now!" Fear was coming back into her voice. She glanced at the dark shape lying motionless in the snow and turned back to Tony. "There may be another like him nearby. I cannot tell you the danger we are in! In a few minutes we'll be back in your taxi and away from this awful place. I swear I will tell you everything. But if you won't trust me now, we may both die here as we stand!"
She bent to pick up the heavy tire iron that Tony had dropped. Turning in the direction that she had gone before, she looked back at Tony and spoke to him in the tone of one accoustomed to command. "Keep that gun at the level and be ready to use it. Let's go."
Tony was past thinking. The pain of the gunshot wound exploded anew with every movement and breath. Pain and fear and turmoil swirled, and out of it came a kind of crystal clarity, the awful here-and-nowness that men know in moments of great crisis and danger. Elizabeth was looking at him, waiting for him. She was the very embodiment of all that is a challenge. And yet, beneath her bravado, Tony could sense something else. He knew that Elizabeth was frozen with a sudden, hopeless terror, a deathly fear that he might not follow her.
"This had better be good," he said.
He ran after her, and directly they were at the brass gate of an ornate mausoleum with the name Bernhardt inscribed on its stone scrollwork. She attacked the lock with the tire iron and made short work of it. The gate groaned as Tony used his good arm to pull it ajar. A patch of moonlight lit the marble floor of the crypt. In the eerie darkness he saw that Elizabeth was prying open the lid of a huge stone sarcophagous. She hammered at the latch of the coffin within and in seconds he heard the creaking of its hinges. He gasped to see her reach inside. She laughed and said, "Oh, he's not going to hurt us. He is quite dead." She yanked at something and pulled a large coin-like object from within the coffin. "Yes, I assure you, he's quite, quite dead," as she slammed the coffin shut. An awful smell filled the crypt.
They stepped outside into the falling snow. Elizabeth turned to him. "And now away! We must get away as fast as we can!" She turned to go, but Tony siezed her hand and snatched the coin-like object away from her. He could feel from its weight that it must be solid gold. He placed it into his pocket. He ignored the pain of his injured arm as he grabbed her by the wrist.
"Away from this place is right. We're getting out of here now and then you're going to do some explaining." They ran back to the taxi, she being led by him. He pushed her into the front seat and slammed the door. He climbed back into the driver's seat, started the engine and bounced the Chalmers back down the narrow lane.
As he turned it around and headed back toward the Portage road, he became aware of the putrid smell that clung to his clothes from the crypt. He dug into the pocket of his shirt and pulled out a package of cigarettes. His arm was killing him.
Elizabeth reached over from the seat next to him and said, "Give it to me." She shook out a cigarette, lit it with a wooden match that she produced from somewhere, and inhaled deeply. She placed it between Tony's lips. The pungent smell of tobacco filled the taxicab, masking even the smell of death.
"I feel like I've known you all my life," she said. "But I don't even know your name."
At this point the thread petered out (temporarily, one hopes). But the big Chalmers is still idling, ready for any volunteer authors to take over the wheel....
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Revised February 13, 1998