Fresh Meat: The Last Taxi Ride by A.X. Ahmad

The Last Taxi Ride by A.X. Ahmad is the second mystery featuring part-time taxi driver and part-time security guard Ranjit Singh, who this time finds himself as a lead suspect in a Bollywood starlet's murder (available June 24, 2014).

As a child, Shabana Shah loved nothing more than movies. She often got in trouble for being at the theatre rather than at home. Now, as an adult, she is the new Bollywood sensation. In spite of a couple recent box office flops, she is still easily recognized by taxi driver and part-time security guard Ranjit Singh when she climbs into his cab. Struck as he is by his native country’s star, Ranjit doesn’t notice she’s left an expensive dress in the backseat until he’s off shift.

Always the good guy, Ranjit heads back to her building, the Dakota, to return her dress. Instead of Shah, however, he runs into an old army buddy, Mohan, a security guard for the Dakota. Mohan informs Ranjit that Shah has left for the Hamptons – but would Ranjit like to see Shabana Shah’s apartment anyway? Normally, Ranjit would never consider this an option…but Shabana Shah was lovely in person. Together Ranjit and Mohan explore Shah’s apartment. Mohan says he may even spend the night.  This is too much for Ranjit, who leaves Mohan to his own devices.

He doesn’t expect to hear anything else.

Then Shabana Shah is discovered murdered. In her apartment, not the Hamptons. Mohan is nowhere to be found. And Ranjit’s fingerprints are all over her apartment.

The Last Taxi Ride is the second in the Ranjit Singh series by A.X. Ahmad, but that should stop anyone from picking it up. Ahmad has a talent for backstory, interweaving Singh’s previous adventures with current circumstances. At no point does the reader wonder who Singh is or what he’s capable of – the only questions are: Whodunit? And why?

(You can also read Don Hajji Mustafa in it's entirety, an Criminal Element exclusive short story from A.X. Ahmad!)

Ahmad’s skill at introducing characters and their backstories isn’t limited to his main character. While we do find out about Singh’s history with U.S. senators (and their wives), his military background, and the broken relationship he has with his family, we also get to know the victim, Shabana Shah intimately. The portrait Ahmad paints of her early life in India with her domineering mother and beautiful sister makes the reader care for her more than the normal murder-mystery victim. Reading of her struggles makes you wish she somehow makes it through all the way to the end of the story – even though you know she hasn’t.

The scene deepened – raindrops shone like jewels in Shabana’s eyelashes as she walked though the rain with the young man – and S.K. could hear the audience holding its breath. After the man escorted her home, Shabana broke into a heartbroken song, lamenting that she would probably never see him again.

A few people clapped when the scene ended and it set a pattern: every time Asha appeared there were jeers and whistles, but Shabana’s appearance led to pin-drop silence, followed by applause.

Singh is not immune to the magical effect Shah has on her audience and that’s what lands him in a heap o’ trouble.

But it’s not the first time he’s landed in an awkward or dangerous situation, and it probably won’t be the last. Both of his jobs lend themselves to potentially risky moments. As a Sikh taxi driver, he faces strangers who view him as a terrorist at worst, or a job-stealing foreigner at best. As a security guard, the shipment drop-offs he supervises are both obscure, interesting, and worth millions. Take human hair, for example:

Used in extensions and weaves in salons, human hair has become a multimillion-dollar business, almost as valuable as gold, and attracts the same kind of predators. At first the thieves broke into hair salons, leaving behind cash and taking only premium-quality hair; now they have begun to burgle the wholesalers, deactivating alarms and cutting through security doors. It is only a matter of time before they try to hijack a delivery, and that is where Ranjit comes in. Twice a week he stands guard as a van arrives from the airport loaded with cartons of hair. All he has is his intimidating uniform and polycarbonate nightstick, and if the thieves have guns, there isn’t much he will be able to do. Still, the job pays a lot more than driving a cab, and Ranjit is hoping that Jay Patel, the owner of Nataraj Imports, will soon hire him full time.

The Last Taxi Ride is an international ride of intrigue, murder, and struggle. Ahmad’s characters (it’s a pretty large cast of people surrounding Singh) all behave in a nuanced, human fashion. The author weaves in Singh and Shah’s individual struggles beautifully, and then ties all of those issues into the larger narrative. And it all plays out on a world stage. Pay attention to characters’ names, occupations, and attitudes – you’ll see them again.

See more coverage of new releases in our Fresh Meat series.

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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.

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