As you might expect from good old New England rain, it was coming down in sheets so heavy that driving became a bigger pain in the ass than normal. Jason was pretty sure the weather was bad enough that it made sense for him to drive that bit more slowly for safety, so he did. There was something about really bad weather that made normally sane people drive like absolute lunatics, and tonight was going to be one of those nights. Bad weather and a full moon always equals a dangerous night to be driving, in his experience.
There was that, plus the fact that whoever the guy in the back was, he obviously wasn't feeling too hot. There was a wheezing noise escaping from his mouth, which made him sound just a little bit hollow and not a whole lot healthy. It was like something had eaten most of his insides, and the rest was just held together by hot air and hope.
"How long will it take us to get to the clinic?" Mr. Fedora asked.
"We're looking at about 60 minutes in this rain, buddy. The traffic couldn't be moving more slowly if it tried, plus Brinkley is clear across town out near Woodlawn Cemetery. It’s going to take time for us to get there," Jason replied. This was pretty typical "weather" talk with a passenger, so nothing new or exciting there. The old guy was probably just trying to fill the silence with something, rather than just sit there mute.
The words "Tempus fugit" came floating from the back seat of the car. Not yelled. Not spoken. Almost whispered.
"What's that you said, buddy?" Jason asked as he glanced into the rearview mirror.
The fedora tilted backward and a gaunt face, fringed by a tidy white goatee, looked up at him. Jason felt his heart go ice cold as Mr. Fedora repeated, "Tempus Fugit, driver. It means 'time flies'. It's Latin, but then again, who speaks Latin these days, eh?"
Staring back at the face in the mirror, Jason mentally decided that Mr. Fedora probably didn't cut it with this guy as nicknames go. Mr. Nightmare seemed a whole lot closer to home. He might have thought this guy looked sick before, but being able to see him a bit more clearly, he was damned well sure of it.
"Well, I suppose they say time flies when you're having fun, don’t they? By the way, you can stop calling me driver - the name's Jason."
Getting on a first name basis with a passenger was always a good way to earn an extra few bucks from them. It also stopped crazy people from getting extra crazy with him. He believed in talking them down before they ever reached their ledge. It was just easier that way.
"Very good, Jason. My name's William, or Bill, if you like. I suppose time does fly, doesn't it?"
Jason looked back in the rearview mirror, did his best to fake a friendly smile, and drove forward through a small gap in the traffic. As much as he wanted the fare, something inside him was saying he also wanted this guy out of his car as soon as he could. It might have been his imagination but the air in the cab felt a little bit colder since Mr. William No-second-name got into it.
Some people never have to tell you about their past, because you can feel it walk right into the room with them. Mr. William here was definitely one of those kinds of people.
They'd traveled another mile or so down the road when the silence was broken again. Mr. Fedora suddenly decided he wanted a conversation it seemed.
"Jason, do you believe in God?"
A single drop of sweat ran down along Jason's neck and onto his spine. It was that annoying trickle of sweat that runs the entire length of your spine until it reaches your butt cheeks and then just sits there going cold. The temperature inside the taxi might have seemed cool earlier on, but that question coming from the human skeleton in the back seat made the inside of the cab turn positively fucking polar.
There were a couple of things Jason hated. The first was someone knocking on the bathroom door the split second after he'd sat on the throne in the hope of taking care of "business" without being interrupted. The second was people who shook your hand as if it were made of a mixture of AIDS and dynamite, and the third was some kind of Jesus freak sitting in the back of his cab wanting to convert him back to the light side of the Force, or whatever. This had already been a weird week and Jason was set on preventing any further weirdness from meandering into his life if that was at all possible.
Besides, he had his own beliefs on what made the Universe tick and why, but it's not something he spoke about very much with anyone, especially not random strangers. Those thoughts were for the quiet hours during the night when his mind refused to let him sleep. The nights where you quietly solve the problems of the world, then wake up having forgotten all the clever solutions you came up with.
"Ummm, I'm not sure what you mean, William...wasn't it?"
"Yes. William, or just Bill. Whatever way you like it. It was a simple question though - do you believe in God?"
Jason did his best to smother the sigh stuck in his chest, and calmly replied to the shadows, "Yes, basically, I do. But that doesn't include the idea of some guy sitting on a cloud, deciding who's good or bad. Or who lives and dies. Why do you ask?"
The old man's head seemed to nod slightly in agreement with Jason, or maybe just to acknowledge that he'd heard his answer.
"Do you think we have to pay for our 'sins', if that's what you want to call them, when we shake off this mortal coil, Jason? Or does it make any difference in the end what you believe in?" the old man asked.
Jason took a few seconds to mull this over in his head, very aware that the wrong answer could send his getting-creepier-every-second passenger in the back over the edge of a very tall emotional cliff. Religious zealots tended to be like that, unpredictable. Actually, anyone who was too zealous about anything at all was unpredictable. But that's short-sighted people for you, eh?
"I think the Universe balances the books, buddy. Or that's how I look at it. Ying and yang. Positive and negative. It's all about finding balance. In the end, the Universe has to balance its books to keep things going, or otherwise the system breaks down." That sounded neutral enough not to annoy anyone. It was also what Jason believed, so he didn't have to think about it too much before answering. He knew it wouldn’t sound fake to anyone listening to him.
The next sound coming from the back of the cab was the thing Jason had least expected to hear - laughter. Not just a chuckle but a deep, rumbling belly laugh. Mr. Fedora was cracking up back there, and Jason found himself smiling the way you do when you walk into a room where other people are already laughing and you start chuckling, too, but have no idea why. But that hollow wheeze was still there, hissing through the laughter every so often, and that was creepy enough to wipe the smile off Jason's face almost instantly.
"Oh, Jason, you're an honest man, and that's the most honest answer anyone has given me to that question, I think. Most people will do their best to sound pious and righteous to impress their audience. They want to give an answer that will please whoever is listening. I do believe you're right, however, and that the Universe does always balance the books. For good or bad. In fact, it's settling my account as we speak."
Jason glanced back into his rearview mirror again and saw a face that looked more human this time. Less like a ghoul. More like a body that was having the life slowly sucked out of it, and was near its last gasp. It's human nature to feel at least some sense of pity in these situations, which is exactly what Jason felt right now, plus just a touch of guilt. He'd been so busy judging this guy, he'd never given himself even a handful of seconds to get to know him a little better.