Hytcher Hard-boiled Crime Short Fiction By Scott Von Doviak

Hytcher: Must-Read Hard-boiled Short Fiction By Scott Von Doviak

Scott Von Doviak, author of Hytcher, published his debut novel Charlesgate Confidential in 2018 (Hard Case Crime). It was named one of the top ten crime novels of the year by the Wall Street Journal.

Von Doviak is also the author of three books on film and pop culture, including Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema. His short stories have appeared in Mystery Weekly and Shotgun Honey. He lives in Austin, Texas.

*****

“You’ve heard of Lyft and Uber, right?” said Heller’s parole officer.

“Like taxis, I guess? But instead of calling them, you press a button on your smart phone?” Heller had spent the past twelve years in the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, where he had very little use for ride-hailing apps.

“Close enough. Hytcher is like Lyft and Uber, but only available here in Travis County for now. With your criminal record, you might have a hard time getting work with Lyft and Uber. But I have an arrangement with Hytcher. I recommend nonviolent offenders, and I’m thinking of recommending you.”

“Am I a nonviolent offender?” Heller had been convicted of attempted murder. When he found out his best friend Wallace had been sleeping with his wife Becky, Heller had disabled the airbag on the passenger side of his F-150.

He’d then taken Wallace on a ride out to the Hill Country, where he’d slammed into a tree at 70 mph. Heller’s airbag had deployed right on schedule. Wallace had gone through the windshield and ended up breaking almost every bone in his body. Wallace survived, but Heller still didn’t think the incident served as a great calling card for a chauffeuring gig.

“That’s up to me,” said Officer Gentry. “I’m your whole background check. See, you can make a hell of a lot more money driving for Hytcher than those other companies. So if I get you the job, I’m like your agent. And your agent gets twenty percent.”

“I thought an agent got ten percent.”

“You want to make it twenty-five?”

“…you can make a hell of a lot more money driving for Hytcher than those other companies. So if I get you the job, I’m like your agent. And your agent gets twenty percent.”

“No, sir. I’m still trying to understand what I’ve done to qualify for this wonderful opportunity.”

“I’ve done my research, and I think you’re a reliable man. What you did to get sent up Huntsville, that don’t concern me much. You were just taking care of your business. Hell, in your position, I might have done the same. Now, I assume you don’t have a smart phone.”

“I do not.”

Gentry reached into a drawer and set a new iPhone, still in the case, on his desk. “Well, now you do. You’ll have to pay me back for it, of course. That’ll be fifty bucks a week until you’re done.”

“How do I know when I’m done?”

“I’ll be sure to let you know. Now, your parole can go easy, or it can get real short. I could have you in here pissing in a cup every day, or I could arrange for someone to do the pissing for you. You want a nice, smooth re-entry into polite society, my advice is you take this opportunity I’m offering you, and you run with it.”

“Just one problem. I don’t have a vehicle.”

“I’m so glad you mentioned that.”

*****

Red light, green light.

Heller on the move again. Auditorium Shores to downtown. Dirty Sixth to the east side. Hotel Vegas to the Continental Club. Back and forth across the South Congress bridge. East to west via Cesar Chavez or Riverside. The grid kept rolling on the iPhone mounted on the dash of the 2015 Chevy Malibu. It was no longer possible to get lost in the city he barely recognized when he got out of prison.

The Malibu was a loaner courtesy of Officer Gentry. Of course, it wasn’t a free loaner, just another hundred bucks a week Heller had to kick back to his parole officer. Still, he was now up and running with Hytcher, ferrying the good people of Austin to and fro. That wasn’t how he made the big bucks, though.

“You just want to take little old ladies to church, that’s one thing,” said Xander, his Hytcher contact, when they met in the dark of the Deep Eddy Cabaret. “But that ain’t why Gentry sent you to me.”

“He didn’t really explain why.”

“Sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” Xander laughed. “Well, sex and drugs anyway. No money in rock and roll in this town anymore. Live Music Capital of My Ass.”

“So my options are what—pimp or drug dealer?”

“That’s the wrong way to look at it. Now, you could choose to drive a young lady around town while she makes her house calls. You’d wait in the car unless needed, which would be a rare occasion. But we have a system. Young lady runs into trouble, you’re on call as muscle. You get the signal from us, you might have to bust some heads. But you’ll never have to collect money. That’s all done in-app.”

“And the drugs?”

“Same kind of deal. We’ve got an app for that. Coke, Molly, Oxy. We fit your Malibu with a little secret compartment. Your pharmacy for the night. But you never personally hand anyone the drugs. And no money changes hands. It’s all bitcoins or some shit.”

“So what, it’s not technically dealing?”

“Well, I’m no lawyer, man. And I ain’t saying there’s no risk involved. But if you want to make some large stacks, you gotta be willing to take a chance.”

Heller didn’t see as he had much choice, so he picked drugs. Before long he was spending up to sixteen hours a day behind the wheel. During daylight hours he was a regular Hytcher driver, taking businessmen from the airport to the convention center and tourists from the Omni out to the Salt Lick. By night he was a rolling pharmaceutical dispensary, getting Austin high one passenger at a time. He had little understanding of the software involved, but the system of checks and balances made sense to him.

The codes were delivered to Xander’s client base via Snapchat. They expired after one hour and were good for one use only. Heller received the orders on a per-passenger basis. Before picking up each fare, he’d count the order out from a bin under the false bottom of his glove compartment, seal the drugs in a mini-ziplock bag, and place the bag under the complimentary water bottle in the passenger door pocket.

The client took the bottle and the drugs upon reaching their destination. Plausible deniability. With so many people in and out of his car every night, how could Heller be expected to know if someone left their drugs behind? And since all Hytcher drivers were independent contractors using their personal vehicles, and since Hytcher itself was owned by a shell corporation in the Cayman Islands, there was nothing to tie Heller to the company’s criminal overlords if he ever got caught.

Every Friday at his regular parole office appointment, Heller settled up with Gentry, which left him just about enough money to live on until the following Friday. It was not a good situation, although there were perks Gentry didn’t necessarily know about. Some of his passengers left him tips in the form of pills or powder, a much-needed bump to help him through the long nights.

He figured it was only a matter of time before he picked up someone he knew from the old days, and it happened just after two a.m. on a Saturday, about six weeks into the gig.

“Heller? That you? Shit, when did you get out?”

Heller checked the rear-view. His passenger shot double-barreled finger guns. “Couple months ago. How you doing, Mickey?”

“Same old same old. Drunk on Sixth Street like I’m still a frat boy. Least I’m smart enough not to drive home anymore. I leave that to you. You were stone-cold sober when you smashed into that tree, right?”

“Heard from Wallace lately?”

“Yeah, he’s walking and talking, which he wasn’t for a while. You know Becky married him?”

“Yeah, I heard that.”

“She divorced him, too. Your ex is single again.”

Heller checked the GPS. He was still six minutes from Mickey’s destination. “Good for her. She deserves better. Than both of us.”

“I don’t know as I agree with that. If it were me, I would have taken her for a ride in my truck instead of Wallace.”

“You still playing?” said Heller, desperate to change the subject.

“Yeah, I’m actually putting a new band together now. What about you? Keep up with the guitar in stir?”

“Not much. I’d say my rock ‘n roll days are behind me.”

“Yeah. Sometimes I feel like you could say the same about this town. I bet you barely recognized it when you got out.”

Heller took the Oltorf exit off 35. “You got that right. I hear ‘keep Austin weird,’ but all I see are condos and Starbucks. What’s so weird about that?”

“Well, listen, you feel like dusting off the ol’ Gibson, give me a jingle. Maybe you can come down and jam with us in the garage. It’s right up here off Burton Drive.”

Heller dropped him off and said he’d be in touch, but that was a lie. He didn’t even have Mickey’s phone number. He wondered how long it would be before Wallace got word that he was out.

*****

The next day he tried to call Becky, but the number was disconnected. It came as no surprise. The only number he had for her was the landline they used to share when they were married. He’d heard that most people didn’t even bother with landlines anymore. He had no idea how to get her cell number. Did they still publish the phone book?

He was high when he showed up for his next probationary appointment, and Gentry took notice. He tacked on another fifty dollars a week as a fine. “Clean piss doesn’t grow on trees, you know,” he said.

“Isn’t yours clean? You should drink more water. You could do it all yourself.”

“Don’t get smart with me, Heller. I collect the real deal from you and you’re back on the line in Huntsville before sundown.”

Heller knew it. As long as he was on probation, there was no way out. Gentry pulled the strings and Heller danced as fast as he could. His days and nights bled together. He never slept more than two hours at a time. Red light, green light. He knew which lights were long, which ones he could run, and when to avoid certain parts of town so he didn’t get stuck waiting for a train to pass. He started recognizing faces. He knew their regular orders.

As long as he was on probation, there was no way out.

One night it happened. He felt cold steel against his neck and heard the click of a safety.

“Long time, Heller.”

He checked the mirror. His passenger had a jagged scar running from his forehead to his upper lip, but other than that, he hadn’t changed much. “Wallace. You probably don’t want to pull that trigger while we’re moving.”

“You know how many Hytcher rides I had to take before I finally got you? Maybe a hundred, I dunno. But ever since Mickey told me you were back in town, doing this for a living, I’ve been taking ride after ride. Just waiting for this moment.”

Heller stopped at the light at Barton Springs and South Lamar. Traffic was heavy in every direction. “You could do it right now. But I don’t know how the hell you’ll get away with it.”

“I’m in no hurry. You just take me to the destination I entered on the app.”

The light changed and Heller continued south. “What’s your alibi? Got a good one?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Come on, Wallace. I turn up with a bullet in my brain, the cops are gonna come calling on you. I mean, I’m the one who put you in the hospital for so long. I gave you that big scar on your face. What are you going to tell them?”

“That’s not your problem, is it? I’ll say I was at the 04 Lounge. I’ve got friends there who’ll vouch for me.”

“Yeah. You think that’s gonna hold up? Because it won’t take much digging for the cops to find out you ordered a Hytcher ride, and which driver picked you up, and…hey, once they see how many Hytchers you’ve taken in the last few weeks, that probably counts as premeditation. I mean, I dunno if that will hold up in court, but it’s something to think about. I mean, you did order this ride with your own Hytcher account, right?”

Heller checked the rear-view again. He saw Wallace’s lower lip quavering. He felt the cold metal lift from the back of his neck.

“Just drop me off at the Black Sheep,” said Wallace.

“You sure? I can take you all the way home if you want.”

“Fuck you, Heller. This isn’t over.”

Heller pulled into the loading zone of the Black Sheep Lounge. He turned and made eye contact with Wallace. “You dump Becky or was it the other way around?”

“What do you think?”

“I dunno, man. Maybe we’re both better off without her.”

“Yeah, well, if you’d said that twelve years ago, you could have saved us both a lot of trouble.” Wallace slammed the door behind him and headed into the bar. Heller pulled back into traffic.

*****

“I’m not happy with your numbers lately. I’m gonna have to up my cut to twenty-five percent.”

“I can’t do eighty hours a week anymore. I’m turning into a zombie. The things I have to do to stay awake…it’s getting to be a problem.”

“Well, that sounds like a you problem, not a me problem.” Gentry signed off on Heller’s sheet.

“I can barely make rent as it is. This town—”

“Yeah, I’ve heard all the sob stories. No rent in Huntsville, right? That sound good to you?”

It was then Heller realized this was going to end with him back behind bars one way or another. And if that was the case, he was going to make it count.

He waited in the parking lot until he saw Gentry leaving for the day. When Gentry pulled out of the lot in his Audi A8, Heller followed. It was a lot of car for a parole officer. Didn’t any of his co-workers notice?

Heller stayed two car lengths behind as Gentry got onto Mopac heading north. When the A8 exited at 2222, Heller followed, maintaining his distance. Two traffic lights, then a right turn. Up a hill into the Allandale neighborhood. When Gentry pulled into the winding driveway of a house that should have been even more unaffordable than his car, Heller continued on. He made a loop and came back around to Trailridge Drive, parking when Gentry’s house and vehicle were just barely in sight.

He waited for darkness.

*****

In the morning, Gentry awoke to a raging hangover. His mood didn’t improve when his car failed to start.

“Goddammit,” he said, flipping up the hood. He didn’t know what he was looking for and was in no mood to try fixing it even if he did. He’d get his insurance company to send out a truck, but meanwhile he was going to be late for work. He tapped the thumb icon on his phone and ordered a Hytcher.

It didn’t take long to show up. If Gentry had paid any attention to the make of the car he was getting into, his morning might have gone very differently. Instead he just mumbled “Mornin’” and closed his eyes.

The driver said nothing. After a couple of minutes, Gentry noticed the car was picking up considerable speed. He opened his eyes. “We in a race?”

“You could say that,” said Heller.

“Shit, it’s you,” said Gentry. “What are the odds?”

“Pretty good, seeing as how I was parked less than a block away when your call came in. I knew I’d be the first to respond.”

“A block away? What are you…” Gentry started to put it together.

“That’s right. I’m the one who drained your car battery. I hoped you’d use Hytcher to get to work, and you didn’t disappoint me.”

Gentry looked out the window. They were going nearly 80 mph on Balcones Drive. “Slow down, Heller.”

“No, I don’t believe I will,” said Heller, sailing past a stop sign and narrowly avoiding getting t-boned by a truck in the process.

“Jesus Christ, you’re gonna get us both killed!”

“See that? You guessed it on the first try.”

“Come on, Heller. We can work this out. Let’s keep my cut at twenty percent. And you can knock the car payment down to fifty a week.”

“Too late for any of that.” No sooner had he spoken than flashing blue lights filled the rear-view.

“Thank God,” said Gentry. “Stop the car, Heller. It’s over.”

“Almost,” said Heller, taking a hard right onto Mount Bonnell Drive.

The road twisted upward. Gentry knew where it ended.

“Don’t even think about it, Heller.”

“Once we go off the cliff, you think we’ll make it clear to the lake? Or you figure we’ll just crash into one of those million-dollar mansions down there on the shore?”

Gentry screamed and pushed his door open. Heller heard a sickening crunch, but he didn’t slow down.

The morning view from the top of Mount Bonnell was spectacular. Heller enjoyed it for as long as he could.

*****

If you’ve enjoyed Hytcher, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

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