Mackler sat in his cab on a side street just down the road from the Broken Spoke. Just a breather, he thought. A little breather, then I'll be all right.
He knew better. He'd been in the Spoke since ten, throwing down Tecates with the lemon and salt, a couple shots to wash it down. He was tight. Too tight to be driving, but he'd done this before. He could handle it. He drove two hundred miles a day in the cab, he could drive with his eyes closed and do better than half the fools out on the Austin streets.
He got the engine running, listened to it, planned out his route. Down Lamar, then across town to the interstate, north then east on 290. He could do that.
It was a risk. The cops were tough on drunk drivers now. It wasn't like thirty, forty years ago when every young buck in a pickup had a six-pack in a cooler on the seat beside him and nobody cared. Hell, he'd learned to drive, fourteen years old, sipping on warm beer in his daddy's old Econoline. Times had changed. Cops now, they pulled you over, made you take the breathalyzer, they couldn't wait to see the reading.
If you blew anything over a point zero zero driving a cab you'd never drive a cab again. And there weren't a lot of other jobs for a sixty-eight year old man.
When Mackler got out on the road he started to feel better. There were a few cars out and he blended with them, matching speed, staying in his lane. Piece of cake. When he reached the downtown area he turned onto Cesar Chavez Boulevard, heading east. He wanted to avoid the drunk drivers up around Sixth Street. The downtown cops would be working in force up around the bars. They'd be breaking up fights, writing up fender benders, watching the parking lots empty out and picking out the worst of the drunk drivers to pull over. Mackler didn't plan to be one of them.
The only traffic on Cesar Chavez at this hour was where it crossed Congress Avenue downtown. Mackler waited at the red light there, then drove carefully through the intersection, ignoring a couple on the corner outside the Radisson trying to flag him down. It was always hard to pass up a fare, but he kept going. He sped up once he got past Congress, then caught a red light at Trinity and stopped, looking out at the night, listening to its sounds. There were car alarms, horns, people yelling. No gunfire. Not on a Tuesday. Not downtown.
It was hard to drive through downtown without trolling for fares. Twenty-four years in a cab, off and on, Mackler had a feel for it. Even driving his pickup he'd find himself watching the sidewalks, checking the hotel cabstands as he passed, even detouring through the Capitol grounds, just to see what was out there. As he sat at the light, he felt something pulling him to the left, up to Sixth Street, just to take a quick look around. But he knew better.
As the light changed, the passenger side doors opened and two black kids got in fast, one in front, one in back. Mackler stared at them a second, not reacting, vaguely wondering why he'd left the doors unlocked. He figured the kids were about sixteen, wearing baggy team jackets and sweat pants, no gang colors that he could see. The one in back had a gimme cap worn sideways. He didn't like their looks, but that was nothing new. He didn't like the looks of half the cabdrivers in town, and they most of them were all right once you got to know them. "I'm not working," he told them. "I'm on my way home. You'll have to catch the next one."
"The next one? There ain't no other cabs around. You see any other cabs? You're it."
"There's plenty of cabs. Just walk up toward Sixth Street, you'll be fine."
The one in the front was doing the talking. He put on a big smile, acting real friendly, but Mackler didn't buy it. "Look, we're only going up here a little past the highway, a couple blocks, and they got this downtown curfew, so we can't be standing around down here outside the Four Seasons. Couple guys like us, underage and all, that wouldn't be too cool." The curfew was to keep teenagers out of downtown while the drunks were out, and these kids were about five hours late getting home. "We got money," the kid added and waved a thick roll of bills at him, then put it back inside his jacket.
On another night Mackler would have headed up toward Sixth Street to find a cop, or gone up Red River toward the police station to see how far they'd go before they figured out what was going on and jumped out. He was tempted, since the kids would probably jump out before they got anywhere near the police station. But tonight he was more worried about winding up in the drunk tank and losing his driver's license than he was about getting robbed, so he punched the meter and started up. Besides, he’d left all his money at the Spoke, piled on the bar next to a bowl of peanuts., so he knew he wouldn't get robbed.
"Damn, what you been drinking, old man? I can smell it all over you."
"It's not me. I had a guy earlier, spilled a fifth all over the seat. It happens."
"Well I hope so. Drinking and driving, that's a crime. They showed us a film at school about that. Showed these wrecked cars, had all this blood all over the place. People all mangled up. It was cool, man. One time it was worth going to school."
"Well, like I said, it was this guy spilled the fifth on the seat. That's what you're smelling."
"Hey, don't worry. We ain't gonna turn you in. I like you, old man. You're all right. This you, here?" The kid was looking at his hack license, posted on the dash.
"Yeah, that's me."
"Wendell Joseph Mackler. What kind of cracker name is that? Sounds like you're from one of these little redneck towns, places all smell like cowshit." He laughed, and there were a few grunts from the back seat.
They passed the interstate, the division between downtown and the East Side. Now they were in a neighborhood of older wood frame houses, small businesses and convenience stores that closed at midnight. It was a lot darker here, no traffic at all, not many streetlights.
"Tell me, old man, how long you been driving a cab?" The one in front was doing the talking. The other one was sort of folded up in the back, like he was sulking. He kept mumbling, making grunting noises, like he was following way behind the conversation, having to figure it out at his own speed. Mackler stole a couple glances at him in the rear-view mirror, keeping track of him.
"Twenty-four years, off and on. I was in the service before that. Army. Fought in Vietnam, was stationed in Germany, some other places, made master sergeant. I started driving after I got out. I've done other things, but I kept coming back to cab driving."
"And you like doing it? Driving around all day?"
"Yeah, I do. Beats sittin' behind a desk." Mackler didn't mention that he owned a dozen cabs, had them leased out to other drivers. He knew better than to sound like a man with money in his pockets. Not that he was making much off the cabs, but owning twelve of them might sound pretty good to a teenager. Talking about himself, watching the blocks pass, Mackler started to relax, telling himself the kids would be gone soon. Besides, they probably weren't so bad.