“Hal, there’s a customer wants to see you in the front office.”
I looked up from the engine well of the Firebird where I had been watching one of my two high-school interns install the intake hose on the new radiator.
Dutch, the owner of Dutch’s Antique Auto, had crossed the yard from the front office. He was a few years older than me, black and fit in a clean white tee-shirt, sharply-creased khakis, spotless loafers and a curl of frat-boy hair falling across his forehead. He kept his hands in his pockets, safe from dirt and grime.
I turned back to the two girls. “Time’s up. Finish what you’re doing and clean up.”
I picked up my cane from where it rested against the side of the car and fell in beside him.
“One of the cars you did last week,” he said. “The tune-up on the sixty-three Volvo.”
I frowned. “There’s a problem with it?”
Dutch shrugged. “Not that she said. She just wanted to talk to you and said I couldn’t help her.”
I remembered the Volvo, Olga, and her owner Mrs. Parker. I didn’t see how I could have made a mistake with a simple oil change and checkup. I had changed the timing belt and some hoses, cleaned the plugs, general TLC for the most part. I might have missed something, but I couldn’t think what.
Mrs. Parker waited in the lobby, a woman of energetic seventy with weather-worn cheeks, wearing a beige, shin-length skirt and buttoned blouse. She beamed at the sight of me. “Henry Crompton, I thought that was you. We were all so relieved when your mother said you were home from the hospital.”
Her dog, a German shepherd roughly the size of a steer, grinned at me with his tongue draped out one side of his mouth.
Dutch raised his neatly-groomed eyebrows and retreated to his office.
On entering the lobby, I’d instinctively cocked my head to conceal the scars that disfigured the right side of my face. I forced myself to face her squarely. “Call me Hal, Mrs. Parker,” I said, “Is something wrong with Olga?” I held my deformed right hand across the countertop for Baron, the dog, to coat with foamy saliva.
“Well no, not wrong,” she said. “I wouldn’t say wrong, but I would like to know what you did.”
“It’s all on the work order. I can get you another copy.” I turned to look for the three-ring binder that contained carbons of all the work orders we completed.
“No, I don’t mean that.” She dismissed the notion of a work order with a wave of one work-gnarled hand. “Anyone can do that sort of thing. I want to know what you did.”
I shook my head. “I don’t follow, Mrs. Parker.”
She leaned over the countertop and glanced from side to side for eavesdroppers. “You know.” She winked.
I shook my head again, completely bewildered.
She straightened. “Well, ever since you did her checkup, Olga…well, she arrives everywhere five minutes before we leave.”
“Before we leave. I leave the house at three-fifteen and arrive at the supermarket at three-ten. I’ve timed it.” She held up the thumb-sized watch she wore on a chain around her neck. “Five minutes. Every time.” She grinned at her little pun.
Behind me, something tittered from the back of a shelf displaying models of vintage cars. Always teatime, never tea, Hal darling.
Mrs. Parker couldn’t see or hear Little Samoth, my unwanted demon familiar. I said, “You mean you’re actually turning up earlier than when you left?” A year ago, I would have dismissed the claim as nonsense, but lately, I’d seen stranger things than time-traveling cars.
“That’s what I said. Are you sure you don’t know how you did it?”
Apart from replacing the timing belt, I couldn’t begin to imagine.
Little Samoth shrieked with laughter from under the counter near my feet.
I tried to think of the correct response for the circumstances. Please accept my condolences? Get well soon?
Mrs. Parker shrugged. “Well if you don’t know, I suppose I’ll just take my little time machine home. You’ll do all Olga’s work from now on, won’t you?”
“If that’s what you want, Mrs. Parker.”
She plucked her purse from the countertop. “I wouldn’t have anyone else touch her. Baron, come. Love to your mother, Hal.”
Woman and dog exited the lobby. Mrs. Parker circled the front of the car, patted Olga affectionately on the nose, and held the door for Baron to squeeze in the back. Then she got behind the wheel, presumably to arrive home five minutes ago.
I stood for a good two minutes blinking at the open parking space at the curb.
Behind me, Dutch said, “Well?” I turned around and found him in the door of his office with his thumbs hooked in his pockets and one eyebrow arched.
The mechanics, Finny and Stick, crowded into the lobby through the back entrance. “What was it this time?” Stick asked Dutch.
Dutch just shrugged and looked at me.
Jasmine and Amber, the high-school interns, had come in behind the mechanics. “What was what this time?” Jasmine asked the room in general.
I looked from face to expectant face. “She called it her little time machine.”
Finny whooped and raised his hand to Stick for a high-five. “I get the pot,” he shouted.
“What pot?” I frowned at Dutch for an explanation, but he just raised one shoulder.
Finny was dancing in place. “I called it. Time travel. You said flying car, but I said, ‘Nah, it’ll be time travel.’”
Jasmine jammed her fists on her hips and pursed her lips. “What are you talking about?”
I raised my voice. “Somebody tell me what’s going on.”
Stick had an oddly high, thin voice for a man six foot six and three-hundred fifty pounds with a biker beard pouring down his chest. “We’ve been getting phone calls all week. Remember that teenage kid who bought himself a junker and his dad said he had to pay all the gas himself?”
I remembered the freckled and pimpled sixteen year old who might have a chance at stepping up the social ladder if he just had some wheels under him. He’d looked at Jasmine like Romeo looked at Juliet, and she’d had eyes only for the car, a seventies station-wagon the kid had bought for five-hundred dollars—the price being so stiff only because it actually ran.
Stick said, “Yeah, well, he drove it two weeks and brought it in a few days ago because he thought the gas gauge was broken. I gave it a look, and the tank was topped-up full. That old clunker should have drunk gasoline like an elephant, but the kid said he’d never put a drop in it since the first time he filled it up.”
I waited for Stick to explain the joke.
Jasmine said, “Cool.”
Finny said, “Oh man, plus the doctor who said he never hit a red light on the way to the ER, but he made up for it when he drove to the marina to take out his boat.”
Dutch leaned his shoulder against the frame of his office door and crossed his ankles. “The city planner who busted up his Jag three times this year driving too drunk to see straight. Now the Jag won’t start when he’s been drinking. Any other time, but not when he’s sauced.”
“He was not a happy man,” Stick said. “He said he’d never bring the car back here.”
Dutch grunted. “I’d have kicked him to the curb years ago, but it wouldn’t have been fair to the car.”
“That is so totally cool,” Jasmine said. “When you do mine, can you make it fly?”
Shy, blond Amber said, “What about making it so you never get lost?”
Jasmine tossed her head like a movie star. “That’s what cell phones are for. I’ll decide what I want it to do when I get it.”
I scowled at Dutch. “Nobody thought they should mention any of this to me?” I had worked on more cars than the ones they had listed. There was no way to tell how many people were driving around in time bombs. Time. I shuddered. Where was Mrs. Parker going to wind up if Olga took a wrong turn through time?
Finny said, “If we’d said anything, it might have jinxed the bet.”
“You know, the one about what you’d do next. Stick said flying car.”
Stick interrupted. “Yeah, well, I wasn’t really taking it seriously.”
Finny ignored him. “I said time-machine like Doc Brown in those movies, and Dutch said being invisible to radar.”
Dutch looked sheepish. “I wasn’t taking it seriously, either.”
Finny jabbed an index finger at him and waggled it around. “Your loss. I was serious, and I got the pot.”
Jasmine pouted. “How come we didn’t get to bet? I’d have said...” She squinted at the ceiling, thinking.
“There’s a pot?” I asked.
“We put in twenty each.” Finny did a hip-wagging dance. “And I am forty dollars richer, thanks to you, Doc. That’s your name now, dude. You’re Doc Brown.”
I decided it was marginally better than Phantom Swordsman, which had been hung on me after I was caught on video fighting off a swarm of tentacled leviathans with the blade of my sword-cane.
Dutch pulled a roll of bills out of his pocket, peeled off three and handed them to Finny. “Are you going to finish the Pontiac before five?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Finny waved the bills in the air and hip-wagged out the back door, dancing to an inner beat.
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