I am participating in the “Story a Day in May” challenge (see http://StoryADay.org for more details). The goal is to write a complete story each day. The following is the first day’s results: unedited, unreworked, and… unfinished.
I have a very good idea where this story is going, but it’s obviously a much longer piece than I intended to write. But, the important thing is that I wrote it all in one sitting, and I successfully completed the first day of the challenge.
See you tomorrow for Day 2!
“Hey, wait—my luggage!” Trenton shouted at the taxi as it began to move off. Walking close to the bumper as it inched away from the curb, Trenton pounded the trunk loudly with his fist. The driver did not turn his head or stop the cab. Ignoring the slow-moving downtown traffic, Trenton darted behind the taxi to the driver’s side, waving his arms in grand arcs in an attempt to catch the cabbie’s attention.
Trenton’s arm-waving grew more frantic as he realized the cab was not going to stop. He began to jog behind it as it eased into the line of rush-hour cars, waving, banging on the trunk, and repeating to himself, 3817, 3817, 3817—the number on the taxi. He ignored the hollering from other drivers as they approached the intersection, hoping the light would turn red before the cab could pull through.
Suddenly the cab jerked to the right and accelerated into the intersection and down the smaller side street. The squeal of tires on the pavement sickened Trenton as he watched the most important software he had ever worked on—and the million-dollar job it represented—rip away down the street.
* * *
Forty-five minutes earlier, Trenton had been standing outside O’Hare’s Terminal 2 watching other passengers make their way to and from a steady stream of busses, vans, and taxicabs. He frowned as a woman struggled to force her suitcase into the back seat of a cab—her single carry-on-sized case was smaller than his, and he had a larger suitcase and a side bag he’d have to stuff in as well. Taking a deep breath, he headed across a lane of arriving taxis to the line waiting to depart for downtown Chicago. The driver of the white car at the front of the line saw Trenton coming, visually counted his bags, and grinned. He popped the trunk open from inside, then jumped out of the car to help.
Trenton’s father had warned him about city taxis, with a disjointed combination of acute racism and unbiased paranoia. “Remember,” he said with conviction, “their only goal is to rip you off. You tell them exactly the route to take. They’ll babble something not-quite-English and pretend not to understand you. That’s so they can take the long way—and charge you more. But you just be loud, and firm, and make sure they know you won’t take any crap. Oh, and especially: don’t let the ragheads handle your luggage. That’s just another trick to get more money, ’cause they’ll charge you for the luggage and expect a tip for doing it. Just keep your bags with you in the cab and don’t let anyone touch them.”
He was caught quite off guard, then, when the brown-skinned turbanless driver flashed a disarming smile and said, in a very native Chicago accent, “Hey, trust me, it’ll be way more comfy ta t’row all dose in da back.” Trenton hesitated, and the man laughed. “Don’ worry: no extra charge fer da begss.” The driver, still grinning, quickly reached for the large suitcase and the carry-on, and before Trenton could protest, set them gently into the open trunk. He pointed at the last bag, a messenger-style satchel with its strap draped over Trenton’s shoulder, and swept his finger through the air toward the back of the cab. “Giddit in dere, okay?” Instead, Trenton clutched the strap tightly with both hands and thought of the thin notebook computer inside. “You’re a reggala riot, y’know dat?” the cabbie chuckled. “Safest place in da cab. Youc’n ride by dere too, if y’wanna!”
The man’s friendliness seemed so genuine that Trenton reluctantly lifted the strap over his head and walked toward the taxi. He didn’t give the bag to the cabbie, but walked over to the car and placed it carefully next to the larger suitcase. When he was he was satisfied it wouldn’t get jostled too much, he stood back to find the driver holding the front passenger door of the cab open for him. Trenton glanced nervously at the back seat, confused.
“Itchyer furst time in Chicago, yeah?” the man asked. Trenton nodded. “And yer goin’ downtown, yeah?” Trenton nodded again. “Den come sit up by here, so’s you can see da city. It’ll take just about turty minutes ta get dere, and ya might as well enjoy da view.” He smiled expectantly and waited for Trenton to climb in, then closed the door behind him, walked to the trunk and shut it, and slid into the driver’s seat.
“So, buddy, my name’s Danny,” the driver introduced himself, pointing to his ID on the dashboard under the cab’s meter. Trenton thought the driver—Danny—would start the meter before pulling out, but he did not. Even as they circled out of the airport and onto Kennedy Expressway, the meter stayed off. Trenton wasn’t sure what to make of this: was it one of the tricks his father had warned him against?
“I’m Trenton, and I have an address,” Trenton said firmly, and pulled a folded square of paper from his pocket. “I, um, have directions, too—on the back.”
Danny took the paper from Trenton and read the address. “Oh, yeah, da Matheson Building. No problem.” He flipped the paper over. “Okay, uh, Trenton, yer da boss and all, but I can tell ya dat we really don’ wanna take Ohio Street dis time-a day. You sure dat’s whatcha wanna do?”
“Yes,” Trenton replied, unconvinced. “Yes, it’s the cheaper route.”
“Okay, like I said, yer da boss, so I don’ wanna argue, but it costs da same either way—except it’s gonna take twenny minutes longer if we go Ohio.” Danny gestured toward the fare schedule in front of the passenger seat, which said in bold letters: ORD TO DOWNTOWN $45. “I won’t charge ya any differnt, but I gotta respectfully say, yer wastin’ yer time if ya follow dese directions,” Danny added as he waved the little paper.
Trenton sat pensively. He had mentally prepared himself for a very different situation, and adjusting to this new scenario was taking time to process. Finally, he relaxed—quite visibly—and said, “You know what, Danny? If you recognize the address, let’s go your way.”
“Yer still da boss,” Danny chuckled, “But I gotta say, you made a good choice!”
Now that Trenton was not feeling so nervous, he began to look around at the landscape. The terrain was much flatter than back home in Bellwood—or even than State College up the highway where the valley spread out a bit—but that made it so there wasn’t really much to look at on this drive. In only a few minutes, multi-story buildings appeared on either side of the expressway, and he wondered if they were in the city already. After nearly fifteen miles of continuous urban development, Trenton asked just how big Downtown Chicago was.
“Where exactly are you from, Trenton?”
Danny shook his head and smiled. “We’re not even in downtown yet. Just comin’ up on it in a minute. See? Dat’s Downtown Chicago.” He nodded toward the left, where Trenton could see the top of the city’s skyline.
“Wow,” said Trenton, then confessed, “I’ve never even been to Philadelphia. This is the biggest city I’ve ever been to.”
“You come here work for Blackrock-Marston?”
Trenton tensed. He knew he wasn’t supposed to tell anyone that he would be presenting his work to the largest defense contractor in the Midwest; that was part of the agreement. How had Danny guessed so easily?
“Why do you think that?” he asked carefully.
“Easy,” Danny explained, “young kid—yer what, in yer twennies?—out of town, going to the Matheson Building. You look smart, ya got too much luggage, and ya carry a computer in a messenger bag. Blackrock-Marston: Q.E.D.” He seemed particularly pleased with himself, stabbing the air with a finger as he said each final letter.
“Hmm,” was Trenton’s only response—he was trying not to actually blurt out, “Wow, you’re right!” but he was suddenly impressed—it wasn’t a guess at all. The taxi driver had figured him out.
Danny changed the subject as they exited the freeway. “Coming up right here, dis used-ta be da best part of driving into downtown. Da whole place smelled like chocolate.”
“Yep. Chocolate. Dat dere is da Blommer Chocolate Factory,” he pointed as they passed. “Tree years ago, EPA came in and shut ’em down. Told ’em dey couldn’t open up until it stopped smellin’ like chocolate. Said it was a air quality concern. My only concern is dat now it don’ smell like chocolate!”
Trenton smiled. He liked this cabbie.
From there, it was a few short blocks to the end of the drive, but it took another ten minutes in rush-hour traffic. “That’s the building, right over by dere,” Danny finally said, pulling to the curb. “Now, listen, you wanna get somewhere else in Chicago”—he pulled out a business card and held it toward Trenton—“you just give me a call. I can getcha anywhere: faster, cheaper. Maybe you need a ride to your hotel after your presentation; you call me.”
Trenton took the card and smiled. “Thanks, Danny, I will.” He climbed out of the car and went toward the back. He waited for Danny to open the trunk, assuming he’d help with the bags as he had at the airport. Instead, the taxi began to pull away from the curb and ease into traffic.
“Hey, wait—my luggage!” Trenton shouted. As the taxi turned down the next street and sped away, he began to panic.
* * *
Just two months prior, Trenton had earned a Ph.D. from the Penn State University College of Information Sciences and Technology. The committee was skeptical when he stood in front of him; he was the youngest candidate to defend a dissertation in front of them, and he looked it. Still, he presented with confidence, and as they moved through the examination from simple to increasingly challenging questions, Trenton consistently had a thoughtful and intelligent reply.
Of course, the three-person committee would have liked to believe that they would pass Trenton and recommend him for the doctorate solely on these merits, but the truth is that they were swayed, at least in part, by his touching story of the motivation for his studies. “Five years ago,” he had started, “my older brother was killed in a high-speed police chase in my hometown of Bellwood, Pennsylvania.” He paused for effect, then added somberly. “But Colton was not the fugitive. He was not one of the police officers. In fact, Colton was not actually involved in the pursuit at all.”
He went on to explain that police had been pursuing the suspect of a violent armed robbery in Altoona. Again he paused, allowing the committee to realize that they already knew the story; it had been all over the news. As the chase had approached Bellwood, the State Police had decided to lay out spike strips to stop the car and keep the suspect from speeding into town. The fugitive vehicle had been traveling so fast that when its tires were punctured, the suspect had tried to turn off the highway onto a side road and instead completely lost control. He flipped past the patrol car that was intended to block the intersection, and head on into an oncoming civilian vehicle—killing both drivers instantly.
“My brother Colton was the other driver,” Trenton said slowly, deliberately, eliciting exactly the involuntary gasp from the committee he had hoped for.
At the time of his death, Colton had been a mechanic. Trenton had wanted to learn everything he could about car engines, and pestered Colton to teach him. “But instead of teaching me to be a mechanic,” Trenton explained to the committee, “my brother told me, ‘You want to learn engines, learn computers.’ We’ve been putting control chips in cars since the late 1970s. Following my brother’s advice, I had just started my second year of classes here at Penn State when the accident happened.” Close enough to home that he wouldn’t be far from his family—but mostly to appease his father, who himself had graduated from the same university—but still somewhere he could learn enough about computers to return to his real interest: engines.
“When Colton died, I almost quit. But then I realized that I could do something better: I could figure out a way to make sure something like this didn’t happen again. I finished my Bachelor’s degree a year later, Master’s two years after that, and two years more brought me in front of you today. All for the purpose of learning how to end high-speed chases in a safer, more intelligent way.
“Any car new enough to stand up to a police cruiser in a chase is guaranteed to have a computer chip controlling engine performance. My postulate today is that since engines are controlled by a computer chip, if we can gain control of that computer, we can safely stop the car by gracefully slowing the turning of the engine. My first example to back up that claim is the OnStar service, which already has the ability to stop a vehicle remotely when that vehicle has OnStar equipment installed.”
“Mister Stevens,” interrupted the committee chairwoman. “How many vehicles have the OnStar equipment?”
Trenton knew where she was trying to lead him, and he was ready with the answer—because really, Trenton was leading the committee. “Well, Doctor Merrill, according to OnStar, there are more than five million active customers worldwide.” He waited just long enough for another person to begin to ask the obvious next question, then interrupted to continue: “In the United States alone, there are more than two hundred fifty million registered passenger vehicles. Just in the United States.”
“Do you propose, young man, to install OnStar in two hundred fifty million passenger vehicles?” Dr. Cavanaugh, one of two Fulbright award winners on the faculty, had been Trenton’s advising professor for the past year, and they had formed a professional friendship. Even though Dr. Cavanaugh now tried to sound stern, Trenton couldn’t help smiling in reply.
“No, I don’t. Although not every car has OnStar, nearly every driver, in the United States as well as in many other countries, has something else: a mobile phone.”
Ray Hoffman, who, though he had no doctorate, had been asked to join the examination as an industry expert, shook his head and sat back in his chair. “I’ve already read your thesis, Trenton,” Ray said. I know where you’re going with this. It’s a wonderful academic theory, it really is. ‘A mobile phone is basically a small computer itself,’ you say in your paper, ‘and it is already designed to respond to remote broadcasts.’ However, the realities involved in sending a command to a specific mobile phone, which would then somehow be able to transmit a signal to the correct car’s PCM—assuming it has one, which your paper does—make the application of your theory not only impractical, but far-fetched fantasy.”
“With all due respect, Mister Hoffman”—Dr. Cavanaugh had warned Trenton to be well-prepared and to retain his composure when Ray Hoffman made his attack—“It is neither far-fetched nor fantasy. Nor is it a theory.” Trenton took a deep breath. “To prove that the process described in my thesis really works, I’ve written the software myself. I would like to provide a demonstration.”
The committee members looked at each other, then at Trenton. “Here, Mister Stevens?” asked Dr. Merrill.
“Outside, actually. In the faculty parking lot. If you’ll permit me, I mean.”
“You have the software with you?”
“Yes,” Trenton nodded, picking up his gray messenger bag and lifting the strap over his shoulder. He patted the bag at his side. “It’s on my computer.”
Dr. Cavanaugh couldn’t help grinning at his friend and protégé. He stood and declared, “I say we go to the parking lot.”
As they made a procession outside, Trenton spoke up. “Now, I have considered both safety and legal issues about how this should work, so I am going to need to make a couple of assumptions for this ‘proof of concept.’ First, I will assume that the police will at least know the make and model of the car they are following, and if they can read a valid license plate number, they’ll be able to get the exact VIN. Second, police should be able to find out the suspect’s mobile phone number and get a warrant to send a transmission to it.”
Trenton stopped in the middle of the parking lot, which had a few cars but was mostly quiet. Trenton sat down on a curb and took a thin computer from his bag. “So, based on those assumptions, I would like to ask you, Mister Hoffman, for your cell phone number and the VIN to your car.”
Ray Hoffman scoffed. Drs. Merrill and Cavanaugh looked at him expectantly. “Fine,” he sneered, and rattled off his phone number. “But I’ll have to go look up the VIN. Not something I memorize.” He went to his late-model SUV—parked a just a few spaces away—peered down through the driver’s-side windshield, and wrote the number on a sticky-note. He returned handed the paper to Trenton.
“Doctor Merrill, I’ll also need your help. I’d like you to drive out onto Burrowes Street in front of Mister Hoffman. Mister Hoffman, you should follow as close behind Doctor Merrill as possible without hitting her. I’m ready when you are.” Trenton opened his computer and began typing while the pair went to their vehicles. Dr. Cavanaugh watched over Trenton’s shoulder as he typed Ray Hoffman’s phone number and VIN. When the two cars turned from the lot onto Burrowes, Hoffman uncomfortably close behind Merrill, Trenton asked, “Ready?”
Dr. Cavanaugh nodded.
Trenton hit a single key, and suddenly dozens of lines of white text scrolled up the black screen of Trenton’s notebook. Through the rolled-down windows of Ray Hoffman’s SUV, Trenton and Dr. Cavanaugh heard a quick series of chimes—Hoffman’s mobile was receiving text messages. Fifteen seconds later, his vehicle stopped dead while Dr. Merrill continued on, unaffected. Dr. Merrill stopped when she realized that the SUV was no longer riding inches from her read bumper.
Trenton and Dr. Cavanaugh walked toward the two cars. Ray Hoffman leapt from the driver’s seat, his demeanor visibly changed. “Trenton, my friend,” he laughed and grinned, “that was amazing. Not only do I think you earned this Ph.D., I want to offer you a job. Right here, right now. I’ll arrange for you to come out to Chicago. I want you to show my business partners what you just showed me.”
Two months later, Trenton found himself outside Terminal 2 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, hesitantly watching a line of taxis waiting to take him downtown.