When Michael woke up, his Pontiac was gone. He had made sure to put the keys in his pocket last night before pulling the sleeping bag into the ditch. He checked his pockets. Yes, they still dangled from his Corona bottle opener. As the sun played a cruel joke of blinding him without warming the air, he wondered which way the car went. He couldn't remember how far ahead the next town was, but Custer was fifteen miles behind him. If he started now, he could be there before noon. He doubted the half bottle of tequila would last him past ten. He shook the bottle, surprised at a second glance that only a quarter remained. He sighed, and stumbled over to roll up his sleeping bag. It snagged on a nearby Yucca. The sign for the Custer Savings and Loan rotated, showing 12: 45 on one side and 105 on the other. His tequila had run out half-way to town and a headache had set in, saturating his thoughts like static on a radio.
Michael crossed the road to a Shell station, tossing his sleeping bag in the shadow of the ice machine. Inside, he paused for a moment basking in the air conditioning. Making his way to the back past potato chips, beef jerky, and cans of refried beans, he opened the case and pulled out a twelve-pack of Tecate Especial.
The woman behind the counter had red frizzy bangs, butterfly tattoos running down both arms, and a name tag which read "Honey."
"If I lost a car, Honey, where would I start looking for it?" he said.
Honey pursed over-painted lips as she thought.
"Son, if you're missin' a car, I suspect you should be talking to Sheriff Steakley, not me."
"Let's say I didn't want to talk to the sheriff just yet," Michael said, "How about then?"
He smiled at her like she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and not a clone of every hungry divorcee he'd seen plastered on barstools.
Honey smiled. "Problems with the law, son?"
"Honey, let's just say that lawmen tend to jump to the wrong conclusions about me. I just want to save them and me some time."
"Corncob Peery owns the wrecker. You might want to talk to him before the sheriff."
Michael winked. "Thanks, Honey, I'll do that." He turned as if to leave, then paused.
"How about joining me for a drink later, Honey?"
Honey pursed her lips and gave a short laugh.
"Why, you gonna need a ride?" she said.
He shook his head and headed for the exit. "I might, Honey, I might!"
His head cleared after the first Tecate. The beer turned warm by the fifth can. He found Peery's Auto by the sixth.
A pot-bellied man in grease-stained coveralls, David Bowie T-shirt, and a Kalb Seed hat met him as he poked his head inside the garage. The carcass of a wood-paneled Dodge mini-van sat on a hoist while engine parts littered the floor.
"Help you, sir?" the man said.
"You Corncob Peery?"
"Cornelius," the man said, turning the coverall's edge and tapping the nametag sewn on his chest.
"You tow a '79 Bonneville last night?"
"You with the po-lice?"
Michael cracked open a new Tecate and took a swig.
"No sir, I am most certainly not."
He held up another can in offering. The mechanic looked at the clock and shrugged a "why not." Michael tossed it across the garage.
"Now about the car," Michael said.
Corncob opened the can and cursed as it foamed over. "Well, I did take in an old Pontiac last night for the sheriff," he shook the foam from his hand. "I imagine it's locked up behind the city garage."
"Sheriff say why it needed towing?"
"No, just told me where it was and to go get it."
"You didn't see anyone around when you got out there?"
Corncob took a drink and made a face."Yeesch -- No, no one was in it."
"What about the ditch?"
"I don't get paid to check the ditches."
"What's the impound fee?"
"You'd have to talk to the sheriff on that one."
"Don't suppose there's any way you can help me get it out? I'm a little short on cash right now."
Corncob jerked his head toward the mini-van.
"I got all the trouble I can handle right there."
Michael took another drink and met the mechanic's eyes.
“Cornelius, how would you like to see a magic trick?”
Michael held up his hand, and peered at the mechanic through his ring finger and pinky. Like water from a faucet, the mechanic's memories flowed into Michael's head. He reviewed the memories as easily as watching a familiar movie on fast forward, searching. Then he was brought up short, blinked, and let out a small “Huh.”
“What, is that it?” Cornelius asked.
“You're not happy being a mechanic are you, Cornelius?”
Cornelius gently set down the beer. “That's none of your business, mister.”
“You'd be surprised how many times I hear that.” Michael said. “But the truth is my business, you might say. It's my business to know for certain the sky is blue, taxes are always too high, and you wish you could do something else besides fixing cars for a living.”
He held up his beer half in salute, taking another look at Cornelius between his fingers. “Your father died when you were seventeen and you quit school to take over this garage, even though you didn't know squat about repairing cars.”
Corncob didn't say anything, but glared at Michael. His jaw worked from side to side.
“You fix cars by looking at the Chilton manuals. You have a library in the basement here, from 1975 up to last year, though the gaps between model years grow because this place loses money. That's why this Caravan is still in pieces. They changed something after your manual was published, but you can't figure out what.”
“You got some nerve, mister.” Cornelius said, “You just get the hell out of here, before I call the sheriff and tell him you're here looking to steal the car I towed last night.”
Michael nodded, and fished inside his jacket for a cigarette. He tapped one out and put it between his lips.
“You can do that,” he said, and began patting his chest and hips. “When the sheriff comes, I'll mention that it's funny how a kid who never took a shop class in his life can always figure out what's wrong with a car, but can never figure out how to fix it. Can never tell what's wrong with the vehicle when someone describes the problem. Has to see it himself, he says to them, even for the easy stuff. But as soon as he touches the car, he can tell exactly what the problem is."
Cornelius' beer can made a sharp crack, denting where his fingers had dug in. The mechanic set it to the side.
"That's the secret, isn't it, Corncob? You got to touch the cars. It's something you could always do.” He stopped patting at his pockets. “Got a light?”
Cornelius stood up. “Nobody'd believe a word you said. I've been fixing cars for twenty years, and that's a fact. I may not be the best at it, but I ain't no slouch.”
“But you can do it with any machine, not just cars. Toasters, televisions, computers, it doesn't matter.”
Corncob's eyes narrowed. “What makes you say that?”
“Because you're a telemechanic.”
“You ever hear about a telepath, someone that reads minds?”
“Well, you're a telemechanic, one that can read machines.” Michael held out his cigarette. “How about that light?”
“I don't believe in that ESP shit. Not unicorns, aliens, or magic either.”
Michael shrugged, and put the cigarette in his mouth. “Well hell, if you're going to be like that,” He cupped a hand just under his chin, and a six-inch yellow flame appeared. He lit the cigarette, and shook the hand as if extinguishing a match.
Cornelius hung his head.
“You aren't surprised, are you, Cornelius?”
Cornelius shook his head. Michael took the last swig from his beer, and opened another.
“You got a gift, one you're trying to make a living from, but it ain't working out,” Michael said.
“Business is slow. The economy's gotta pick up soon.”
“The economy is gonna pass you by unless you get some training.”
Cornelius looked up.
“What, you gonna train me, is that it?”
Michael shook his head.
“I don't know crap about telemechanics, but I know where you can find someone who'll apprentice you.”
“But you need to help me get my car back.”
Cornelius looked at Michael, taking in his torn clothes, his bedroll, then he looked across the garage floor with its scattered engine parts.
“All right.” Cornelius said.
“Good. Let's go, Corncob.”
Michael sat in an avocado green chair. It pressed too hard between his shoulder blades, and not at all in his lower back. The bottom came too low to the ground, and he had to choose between sitting with his knees at his shoulders or with legs splayed out into the aisle. Hard plastic arm rests, cracked and yellowed at the outside edges, had worn smooth and blue-white where his hands rested. Between his legs, someone had etched the name "Mindy" into the vinyl cushion with blue ink. Whether that was a former occupant's name or a girlfriend, Michael couldn't tell.
His headache had started almost immediately; Corncob had made him leave the beer outside the station. Michael hadn't been able to convince the other man to just let him in the impound lot either. He told Corncob that meeting with the sheriff would be a bad idea. Whenever he got within ten feet of a cop, things ended badly for him. But Corncob had insisted doing things his way, and pulled Michael by the arm into the station.
Michael figured the sun must have melted away Sheriff Steakley's flesh and bleached the man's hair and moustache white in the process. The law boss sat behind a desk, shifting his attention from Corncob to Michael while the mechanic pleaded his case.
"No, Corncob, I don't see how it is," Sheriff Steakley said.
"But the car wasn't abandoned, Mister Jones here was just sleeping outside it." Cornelius shifted from foot to foot.
"Car empty with no one in sight is the very definition of abandoned," Sheriff Steakley said. "I'm sure you feel sorry for your new friend here, but he's going to have to pay the fee to get it out." He looked around Cornelius at Michael.
"Besides, he don't look like he's in any condition to drive it off anyway. Are you son?"
Michael shielded his eyes against the overhead fluorescents.
"Just a migraine. It'll pass."
"Uh-huh," the sheriff said. "Look, Corncob, bottom line is that he has to pay to get his car out. If he's not here to do that, take him somewhere else. I have work to do."
"What if..." Cornelius said.
"What if what?"
Cornelius took off his hat and twisted the brim. "What if I paid it?"
Sheriff Steakley shrugged. "If you want. It's nine fifty."
"Hundred? I only got one-fifty for towing it."
"It is what it is, Corncob. The State of Nevada puts a premium on its valuable impound acreage."
The sheriff leaned forward.
"Look, Corncob, you've got more sense than this. I don't know what this guy is to you, but he ain't going to pay you back. If you're lucky, he won't rob your shop before blowing out of town. Your heart is bigger than your sense."
Cornelius looked over his shoulder at Michael and frowned.
Michael raised his hand against the light and peered at the sheriff between his fingers. He pushed through the static in his head and the glaring lights as best as he could, capturing fragments of the sheriff's memories.
"And what does the state allow for towing an abandoned car, sheriff?" Michael said.
The sheriff blinked. "It varies. Around here it's one hundred and fifty dollars."
"Sure it's not three hundred?"
"So if we looked at that expense report you're filling out right now, we wouldn't see you charging the state three hundred?"
"That true, sheriff?" Cornelius said.
The sheriff smiled. He turned his computer screen around and pointed.
"What's that line say, Corncob?"
"And how much is that next to it?"
"A hundred and fifty dollars." Cornelius' face flushed.
No, Michael thought, that couldn't be right. In the sheriff's mind, he knew he was getting three hundred back from the state. There was something else missing -- if only he could focus! But static in his head made that impossible. God, he needed a beer so he could think straight. Hell, he needed one to just stand up.
"You sure you know this guy, Corncob?" the sheriff said.
"Well, he just kinda came up to the shop today. No, not really."
"He staying with you?"
"Well how about you go on back home, and let Mister Jones here take care of his own business."
Cornelius looked back and forth between the sheriff and Michael.
"He knows things, sheriff. Things I don't know how, but he does. Crazy things. He said he'd --"
Sheriff Steakley stood and put a hand on Cornelius' shoulder.
"Don't worry about it, Corncob, you can't bullshit an old bullshitter like me. Go on home now."
Cornelius nodded. He swiveled the sheriff's computer screen around, pausing with his hands around the monitor.
"Corncob?" the sheriff said.
Cornelius put a hand to the small of his back and straightened.
"Sorry, sheriff. My back twinged there for a second." He smiled. "It's getting that you have be a contortionist to work on engines anymore."
The sheriff smiled back. "Ain't that the truth. You take her easy, all right?"
When Cornelius had left, the sheriff hauled Michael to his feet.
"You want me to tell you what I'm going to hold you on?"
Michael shook his head. "No, boss, I figure it starts with loitering, vagrancy, and moves on from there."
"Good, I'm glad we understand each other."
Michael hadn't been in the jail cell long when Sheriff Steakley came back to open it.
"Where are we going, boss?" Michael said.
"I'm going to give you a ride out of town."
"Mind if I have a beer on the way?"
Most of the squad cars Michael had been in featured back seats made to be comfortable with arms handcuffed from behind. With arms free and sipping the last Tecate, the seat jabbed between his shoulder blades. Still, as cop rides went, this wasn't so bad.
His headache faded as the beer went down, tamping down the static so he could hear his own thoughts again. What had gone wrong at the station? He sneaked another peek at the sheriff between his fingers. The sheriff's memories filled Michael's mind.
Of course. Sheriff Steakley backed out the numbers as Corncob entered the station, just in case. Sheriff Steakley considered himself always prepared. In fact, their destination had been prepared years ago.
Michael cursed to himself and glanced around, hoping that perhaps the wire mesh between himself and the sheriff was loose somewhere, or that some flaw in the back seat would give him a way to escape. He had read the man wrong. It wasn't just small-time grifting from the state; Steakley had kickbacks coming in from all over. Michael saw bank accounts and quiet laundering schemes across the country. Trucks filled with human cargo. Payoffs from men in black SUVs. And in the desert, an old silver mine with an air shaft just wide enough to swallow a body.
The squad car turned off the highway onto a dirt road and Michael's beer sloshed as they slowed over the road's cattle guards. The sheriff looked back at him through the rearview mirror.
"How'd you know about the expense report?"
"You can just let me off here, boss," Michael said. "I'll walk to the next town. Catch a bus to LA, maybe."
"You in the towing business or something? One of those god damned lobbyists in the legislature? Or do you just spend too much time on the internet? That three hundred for a towing allowance just went through this month, used to be two-fifty."
"Hey boss, you don't have to worry about me. Man's gotta make a living, you know?"
Michael ran through the Sheriff's memories, looking for some hook, a beloved family member to disappoint, a sympathetic childhood memory, or some sense a loyalty to call on. There were none, or maybe they were buried too deep. He found memories of faceless dead bodies in the back of squad cars easily enough.
"Damnest thing I've ever seen," Sheriff Steakley said, "and that is a fact."
"We're going to the mine, aren't we?" Michael said. "You're going to dump me into an air shaft."
"Haven't decided yet."
"You've never changed your mind before."
Steakley stopped the car. He turned to Michael with his pistol in hand. The barrel poked its way through the wire mesh between them.
"I'd like a nice quiet ride from here on out, son. If I were you, I'd spend the next few minutes enjoying my piss-water beer. Otherwise, we can just end your trip now."
They drove for a half hour, over fist-sized rocks and dry river beds. Michael thought about using his other magic trick to light the seat on fire, but the sheriff was probably just as likely to leave him trapped in the back as the car went up in flames. His beer buzz faded and the static crept back into his head. When they finally stopped, it felt like his brain was caught in a blender, a slurry of his own thoughts mixed in with phantom memories of strangers read over the years. He couldn't get his eyes to focus.
"You look like hell," Sheriff Steakley said. "You gonna make it out on your own?"
The sheriff had turned into a khaki mass with a brownish blob where the face should be. A smaller, darker blob came up with the tiny click of a safety being thumbed off.
"I can get out," Michael said.
"I sure do appreciate that. It's hard to make things painless in cramped quarters like this."
The door opened, and Michael crawled out. The desert air dried the sweat on his brow and went to work baking his skin. He brought himself to his knees, and stared at the orange blob of the sun already touching the horizon. Sheriff Steakley's shadow fell on him.
"Say, what kind of story did you threaten Corncob with anyway?" Sheriff Steakley said.
"Shoddy repairs, missed tax payments, child porn, that kind of thing."
"Just kidding about the porn," Michael said, though he knew Corncob did worry about his repairs and messing up the tax forms.
"Yeah, Corncob ain't always the sharpest tool in the box."
"You know, sheriff, I don't care how deep that mine shaft is, some day you're going to get caught."
"Maybe you're right. Now close your eyes."
"I'll keep them open."
The sheriff's shadow shifted oddly, and grew. It blotted out the sun. Then there was a heavy crunch, and the sheriff fell.
"I don't need to be the sharpest tool when I've got a wrench," Corncob said. "You okay, Mike?"
"It's 'Michael,' and yeah, I'm fine. Though I could use a drink."
Corncob kicked the gun away and knelt over the body. Michael heard the familiar sound of handcuffs ratcheting shut.
"Come on," Corncob said, "Your car's just a little ways from here."
Michael's hand automatically went to his pocket. He pulled out the keys.
"Do you need these?" he said.
Corncob smiled, a white gleam in a blob of pink.
"I may not be the greatest mechanic, but I do know how to hotwire a car."
"But how'd you know where to find me?" Michael asked. He took a step and stumbled. Corncob put himself under Michael's arm and steadied him as they walked away.
"When I touched the sheriff's computer, it was like I could see inside it. The expense report had been changed from three hundred to one-fifty. So when I left, I went to the impound lot and used my key to get your car out. Then I saw the sheriff put you in the squad car, so I thought I'd follow."
"I'm glad you did," Michael said, "Thanks."
"We need to get moving," Corncob said, "I left a tip with the FBI along with the Sheriff's passwords. I want to be long gone before they show up and ask me how I knew about all this. That offer still good?"
"The apprenticeship? Sure."
"Would I have to fix cars for the rest of my life?"
"I doubt it."
"Good, I just need to get a few things from home first."
"You got anything to drink at home?"
"Some Wild Turkey left over from New Year's."
"Good, then we won't have to stop by the liquor store on our way out of town."