By Garon Whited
I don’t know how many times I’ve stopped to help a stranded motorist. When you spend as much time on the road as I do, galloping hell for leather in something that doesn’t even have hooves, trying to catch and bite the horizon, you pass a lot of people with car problems. I can’t even remember them all. Maybe Bronze does.
There was one time when we burned right past a car on the side of the road. It was sleeting like an ice age falling on us—not that this bothered Bronze in the slightest—and dark as the inside of a cat. Phoebe, though, by the other car’s cabin light, saw there was a little kid in the back seat. Bronze started braking to turn around even before I told her to. I got the other car out of the soft shoulder simply by getting behind it and lifting.
It was night. I can do that. Getting me out of the knee-deep dirt wasn’t much more difficult. Bronze and I got the car working again—perhaps a bit better than it was before—and we sent them on their way with a caution about the weather and an urban legend to spread around.
There was another time when we passed a broken guardrail alongside the pacific coast highway. Down below, a car had tumbled and come to rest just a bit above the high-water mark. Bronze waited while I climbed down to investigate. Nobody survived, but only because removing the survivor from the car was more a case of removing the car from him. He died painlessly, though. That much I can manage.
One that really sticks in my memory, though, was the incident with Ms. Maple.
Bronze was driving because that was really the point. I sometimes like to go for a drive, sure, but Bronze loves to drive—or, rather, run—so I ride steering while she turns the wheels. I’m only along for appearances. She’s the one doing two hundred miles an hour down a public highway. I’m a passenger.
Try explaining that to the cops, though.
“Honest, officer! It’s the car!”
“Yeah, right, buddy. License and registration so I can burn them, please.”
Not that we ever have that problem. She turns off the headlights, shifts everything into an ultra-black, matte-finish mode, and absorbs radar. Something thunders by in the night, wakes up the sleeping trooper, and is gone. If it’s a technological timeline, his radar gun says there’s nothing there. Faced with this, most of the time they go back to sleep. The ones who don’t, they wind up feeling kind of silly chasing nothing at all down the highway.
On rare occasions, someone will radio ahead about a blacked-out car. This can get interesting, but Bronze cheats. Her tires won’t blow out on a spike strip, she makes turns like a tetherball, and her exhaust pipes double as flamethrowers. Sometimes as invisible flamethrowers.
Never tailgate. She hates it.
This particular night, we were doing the moonlight zoom in her current favorite suit. I’m not much of a car person, but she is. The suit started life as a 1955 Alfa Romeo, the Berlina Aerodinamica Tecnica. This amused me enormously as it was more commonly referred to as the “BAT-9.” We called it the BAT-9-mobile.
I can be such a child. Then again, maybe it’s a good thing I’m easily amused. Imagine what would happen if I was bored all the time and looking for something with which to amuse myself.
It started life as a 90-horsepower, 125-mph sportscar. Bronze got hold of it and whatever horsepower the engine used to have, it was now one elemental horse power.
By the time she was happy with it, the car was almost entirely different. She kept the shape—she liked the way it looked—but everything inside the paintwork had something done to it. The tires, the suspension, the shocks, the springs, the steering, the transmission, the chassis, and every single thing about the engine.
A turbocharged six-liter W-12 overhead cam engine is impressive, I guess. It’s a mechanical description, telling you what the hardware is. I’m more interested in how much power it puts out. Bronze is clever about such things. One of the turbochargers is huge, but it takes a while before it gets going. The other turbocharger is tiny—but it cuts in almost instantly.
No, I’ll tell you something even better. Here’s how clever she is. The whole point of a turbocharger is to push more air into the engine so you can blow up more fuel, right? Okay. Take one of those little electric tire-pumps. They don’t move a lot of air, but if you have it constantly filling a compressed air tank, you can store a lot of air. Now, while we’re waiting for the turbochargers to sort themselves out, the gas bottle feeds compressed air into the system. Turbo lag? Nope. Just wave goodbye.
Technically, she doesn’t need the engine. She can operate a car like a golem body. But it’s more fun to make it roar.
How much torque does she generate? I don’t know. I’ve never got her onto a dynamometer. On the other hand, I’ve watched her blast fire out the exhausts and leave two burning lines of asphalt behind her. I’ve also watched a lot of continent leap behind us in a very short amount of time.
She’s not a car. She’s an entity. Her favorite suit is a metal horse, but she does like her cars.
So we were belting down the moonlit highway at some ludicrous, near-plaid speed. I liked the way the bitterly-cold wind made a high-pitched keening sound as Bronze shouldered it out of the way. It was a very nice night, mostly clear, with a thin bit of moon in the sky and a line of clouds moving slowly in from the west. It would snow again by morning, but for now the sky was full of hard, bright points of light. It was a great view and I was enjoying it while Bronze enjoyed the highway.
Up ahead, I noticed a car on the shoulder. The hood was up, but nobody was in sight. Under the hood, probably, trying to figure out why it wasn’t running.
Bronze roared past, headlights still off, but carefully using the inside lane. I got a glimpse of a lady leaning over the radiator.
Bronze clicked on the radio. We’re so sorry, uncle Albert/But we haven’t done a bloody thing all day…
“Yes, yes, yes,” I sighed. “Circle back in mortal mode and we’ll help.”
She slowed to something resembling the speed limit, did a bone-jarring swerve through the median, climbed into the opposite lanes, and we went rocketing back the way we came, well past the poor lady. Then, another bone-jarring lane switch, and we were headed her way again with headlights on and no special effects. Bronze even overshot her and backed up, as if we’d only just noticed her on a first approach and hadn’t quite managed to pull over in time.
I rolled down the window and leaned my head out.
“Got a problem, Ma’am?”
“Don’t I just?” she called back. “Do you know anything about cars?”
“A little. One moment.”
I turned us around on the basis that preparing for a jump start would be wise. Her headlights were dim. I parked quite close and got out, leaving our headlights on. Humans appreciate illumination.
“Hi. I’m John. John Kent.” I held out a hand.
“Melody. Melody Maple.” She shook my hand. “You’re freezing!”
“I know. My hands always get cold in no time at all. I usually wear gloves.” I rubbed my hands against the opposite arms and stamped my feet as though I felt the cold. “What’s up with your car? I’m guessing it up and quit on you?”
“Yes. It made a sort of glong noise and started sputtering, then it stopped running.” She stepped back from the grille and buttoned up her coat. “Are you a mechanic?”
“No, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time under the hood. One sec. Let’s make sure your battery is charged. Can’t tell anything if it won’t even try to turn over.”
I opened the hood of Bronze’s car and attached the jumper cables. The jumper cables were orichalcum, so this also allowed Bronze to slide into her car without any pyrotechnics. The headlights and cabin light brightened immediately.
“Can I sit in my car?” she asked. “It’s freezing out here.”
“It’ll get you out of the wind, but there’s no heat,” I pointed out. “The engine isn’t running. Sit in mine.”
“Oh, that’s excellent. Thank you.” She fetched a sizable drawstring bag from her front seat and hurried into my car.
I noticed a minor bit of magic on her bag. This was interesting, but I wasn’t about to mention it. There are any number of minor adepts on any given Earth. Sometimes you come across a lucky coin that really is lucky, or something similar. She might be a practitioner, or she might not even be aware there was anything unusual about the handbag her great-grandmother bought from a gypsy. So I ignored it.
Instead, I regarded her engine. Bronze reported the car was in sorry shape. Piston rings, pushrods, worn gears, gunky valves, dirty filters, and it needed not only an oil change, but more of it. Possibly multiple oil changes, to rinse out the gunk from the system. Someone probably kept adding more oil when it got low, rather than change the oil. And it desperately needed to be flushed. Possibly plunged.
It was going to take a while, even with me helping her with repair spells. I could clean some of the gunk out of it fairly easily, putting off the inevitable maintenance, but getting it into good working order would be a matter of hours.
I got into my car and reported.
“So, it’s dead?” she asked, sadly, fingers knotting and unknotting.
“I wouldn’t say that. It can be fixed. I can fix it here, actually. It’s just going to take a while before it’ll fire up again.”
“My question for you is this. Do you want to wait while I fix it? You can nap in the car, in the warm. Or I can run you into town and you can deal with it in the morning. Which would you rather do?”
“You say you can fix it here?”
“Sure. I admit it’s not going to be a perfect job, but it should run well enough to get to a professional shop for better repairs, no problem. Save you the trouble of getting a tow truck out here.”
“I hate to put you out.”
“I’d hate to leave you on the side of the road,” I replied. “Do I fix it? Or do I give you a lift and you come back for it?”
“You’re sure you can get it going?”
“Do you need me to hand you tools or anything?”
“Nope. The big cruiser you’ve got has plenty of room for getting under it and reaching into it. I’ll be fine. You have a nap. This will take a while.”
I climbed out, shut the door, and disconnected the jumper cables. I’d want to connect them again, later, so Bronze could slide back into her car. Meanwhile, I’d have Bronze’s car shine lights on the work so it looked as though I was really doing something mechanical.
As I lay under the big car—a maroon Buick Roadmaster—I focused mainly on handling the removal of gunk from the fluids and the associated filters. This involved removing them, but I don’t need a wrench. Some mechanic might wonder about the fingerprints dented in the housing of the oil filter, but that was hardly my problem.
I heard a hood go down. Bronze informed me the lady had put the hood down on the BAT-9-mobile. My first thought was this was a good thing. With less ventilation, the heater would work better, especially in cold weather.
Then the sound of tires, spurned gravel, and the shrieking noise of a J-turn indicated to me the efficiency and effectiveness of the heater were not foremost in Ms. Maple’s mind.
I slid out from under the Buick and watched the taillights dwindling in the distance.
Behind me, the battered, ancient engine belched black, oily smoke and flames jetted from every joint.
“Now, now. It’s not like she’s going to get away.”
Bronze was of a slightly different opinion, still watching the receding taillights. Her thought added “with this” to the original idea.
“I can find her. More importantly, I can find the car. We’ll get it back. Stop damaging this one. We need to put it back together before we go chasing after her. Unless you want me to try shifting us somewhere in front of her? Or would you rather chase her down?”
The flames and smoke subsided into a smell. Metal pinged as it snapped into the correct shape. Valves, knocking erratically, smoothed out to a regular rhythm.
“I thought so.” I went back to doing my bit for automotive health. The engine continued to tick over, however, and belts occasionally squealed.
“Oh, quit whining.”
Bronze thought Ms. Maple needed to be taught a lesson. We stopped to help—went out of our way to help—and she stole our car!
“I agree. I’ll be interested in asking her why. If she was in such dire need of wheels, she could have asked.”
Bronze maintained she wouldn’t have given away the BAT-9-mobile.
“You weren’t upset at the time. We might have been persuaded. It depends on why she wanted it. We would at least have given her a ride.”
She reluctantly agreed, but was still pretty pissed.
Bronze really stepped up the repair process. I did my repair spells for smaller components. I hauled the spare tire—flat—out of the trunk and sliced it up for her, laying strips on the mounted tires. We wouldn’t need the spare. Technically, we didn’t actually need tires, but Bronze likes good footing even when she isn’t grabbing the ground.
I also found a gas can in the trunk—empty, of course. This gave me somewhere to drain most of the oil, clean it, and even shove a cleaning spell up through the entire lubrication system. We were very low on oil after that, but at least it was clean. I also did a lot for the general rust and corrosion in the body and chassis.
Bronze focused on the engine and drivetrain. We were going to go places. Window cranks? Optional. Windshield wipers? Optional. Headlights? Optional. Back seats? Optional. Doors? Optional. Brakes? Optional. Horn? Maybe, but only as a courtesy to anything that could get out of the way given a few seconds’ warning.
Yeah, she was upset. I can’t say I blame her. I wasn’t pleased about having a car stolen, but Bronze took it personally. I may have found it, but the car was hers.
We got the rust-bucket running—sort of—in twenty minutes. Bronze was satisfied enough to start rolling, but had to wait for me to put the oil back in. The rest of the repairs would happen on the move.
With this in mind, I did a quick check for gas stations. Yes, we would make the next one before we ran out, provided Bronze was willing to moderate her fuel consumption.
Seventy-six miles an hour was moderate, she informed me, but slowed to seventy-five. I didn’t argue.
We pulled into the station. I got out and left the engine running. There was no one on duty, though. I picked the lock with a tendril, started the pump, put money on the counter, dumped three quarts of oil into the engine and put four extra cans in the trunk, and checked the fuel gauge. I refilled the portable gas tank. I even left a note on the counter, next to the money, listing what I’d taken. I locked the door again on my way out. Someone would find it in the morning.
Then it was back on the road at eighty-nine miles an hour. She said it was a moderate pace, since she was still working on things. And where was her car, she wanted to know? This highway wasn’t going to be the only possible route for much longer.
I borrowed her central rear-view mirror and put spells on it. After several minutes, we had a good look at the car. It was parked. Ms. Maple was taking advantage of the reclining seats to lean back and grab a nap.
This gave Bronze a direction, though, and we jumped up to ninety-five. I checked to see if my own seat reclined—it didn’t—and contented myself with watching the world go by. It was still a pleasant night out, as far as I was concerned.
Behind us, headlights appeared.
“Are you running blacked out?”
Bronze didn’t bother. Her efforts were devoted to the car’s systems. Besides, this timeline was too early for the police to have radar. It was still something the military used and some of the civilian air traffic. They still used tubes. They didn’t even have transistors.
“Fair enough. I’m surprised to see lights, though.”
Bronze wanted to know if it was the police. I stuck my head out the driver’s-side window and looked back.
“No… no, I don’t think it is. I don’t see any lights on top, just the headlights in front. They don’t seem to be falling behind, though. I don’t recall seeing anyone on the side of the road, either. Could they be gaining on us?”
Bronze grumbled about rusty buckets of bolts and slowed down to regular highway speeds, focusing more of her effort on putting the car in proper shape. Let them go by while we pretended to be nobody special. Later, she could go roaring past them.
It wasn’t long before the mystery car came right up behind us, changed lanes, blitzed on by, and swerved. Bronze braked like she hit a wall and I wondered if my eyes were going to come out. The other car, meanwhile, skidded to a sideways halt in front of us. Three men leaped out and surrounded us.
The one nearest the driver’s-side window pointed a gun at me and shouted for me to turn the car off. The other two also pointed guns.
That’s not terribly polite, I thought, but I asked Bronze to shut down the engine. She complied, but kept working on the car. Some things are best fixed when they aren’t moving, so she wasn’t too upset by the delay.
I rolled down the window.
“Can I help you?”
“Shut up!” I was told. “Where’s the girl?”
I sat silently and looked at him. He waggled the gun suggestively. I pointed to my mouth and made a shutting-up gesture.
“Oh, a wiseass. Out!”
I rolled up the window, climbed out of the car, and shut the door. I raised my hands when prompted.
The other two searched the car. Weirdly, they had a hard time getting in. First, the other doors were locked. When one circled around to open the driver’s door again, it was locked, as well. The keys were hanging in the ignition, so he broke the window. He tried to unlock the door by pulling up on the little locking bolt, but it came away in his hand. Finally, he scraped the barrel of his pistol around the inner frame to clear it of glass and crawled through the window. After a quick search of the front and back seats, he slashed them open. The doors were all stuck shut, so he crawled out through the broken-out window.
“Open the trunk,” ordered the leader. He obviously wasn’t speaking to me, so I watched while his partner stuck himself halfway in to find the trunk latch release. It broke without unlatching the trunk. He then grabbed the key from the ignition, but it stuck. He jerked on it and it snapped, making it useless.
One of them starting trying to force the trunk lid. The car somehow backfired, sending a blast of flame from the exhaust. This set his pants leg on fire and they spent a couple of minutes dealing with it.
After five more minutes, six gunshots, a tire iron, and a hammer, they managed to break the trunk lock sufficiently to force the lid open. Judging from their angry noises, whatever they wanted wasn’t there.
Strangely, Bronze was in a much better mood after all this. I think it appealed to her mischievous spirit. Me, I was at least as amused. I haven’t seen anything that funny since The Three Stooges.
“You! Where’s the girl? And don’t give me any lip,” ordered the leader, waggling the muzzle of his reloaded revolver under my nose, “or I’ll put one in your knee!”
“You ordered me to shut up,” I reminded him.
“Talk!” He fired a round past my head. I winced and clapped a hand over that ear. My hearing is very sensitive and a muzzle blast is a fantastic way to mistreat my ears. “Tell me where she is!” he shouted.
A number of possible courses of action ran through my head. I decided on a less direct approach.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “She was broken down at the side of the road and I stopped to help. She stole my car and left me with the clunker. I got it running and headed on down the highway, then four lunatics stopped me and three of them started waving guns around. What more do you want from me?”
His response told me a couple of things. First, he believed me instantly. Whoever Ms. Maple was, he had no trouble whatsoever with the idea she would steal the car of a Good Samaritan. Second, his command of profanity was expert. Added to that was his weapon: a Smith and Wesson revolver—a Victory model—typically issued to the Navy. I assumed he was, at some point, a sailor.
“What kind of car? What’s she driving?”
“It’s a very expensive Alfa Romeo coupe, light grey, chrome trim. Looks kind of like a Jaguar or a Porsche with fins and a three-pronged front. Very sporty. Very fast.”
Without another word to me, they piled into their car, a four-door Chevy Bel Air. I liked it. One of them limped, but the burns on his leg weren’t bad enough to require help. The driver, who never moved from his position, spun the wheel, spun the tires, spun the car, and roared off down the road.
I looked at the mess of broken glass, slashed seating, and the torn-up trunk lid.
“You know,” I said, still rubbing my ear, “I’m not sure I’m enjoying this as much as I thought I would.”
Bronze was of the opinion there were people in the world who needed a good thrashing. Not worth it to have me eat them, perhaps, but maybe she could roll over their toes. And continue up the leg. Maybe to the eyebrows.
“I’m starting to wonder.” I gestured at the broken glass on the road, gathering it up in a glittering cloud. It sifted down inside the door. It would re-form into window glass in there and I would wind it up into place again, later. The broken key I pressed together for a moment, turning it back into a whole key, and replaced it in the ignition.
“Are we still chasing the BAT-9-mobile?”
The engine started. The shifter dropped into gear. The trunk lid slammed down and stuck. We lurched into motion.
We stopped for fuel again, this time in Phoenix. They had gas stations open in the too-damn-early morning, so I didn’t have to break in. I poured in more oil while the gas pump made chiming sounds. I did have a bit of worry regarding the lateness of the hour.
Bronze assured me the trunk was light-tight. I trusted her to handle it. Not only would it save us time, I didn’t relish checking in to a motel and trying to light-proof the room in a hurry. I’m sure the gas station attendant wondered why I climbed into the trunk, but Bronze was moving before I had the lid fully down.
The back seat didn’t exactly fold down, but it did lean forward, allowing access from the trunk to the cabin. At least, it did by the time the sunrise ran its course. I don’t think it started that way.
I crawled out through it once the sun was fully up. I left behind a terrible smell, but that would go away in a few minutes.
I settled into the driver’s seat and regarded the central mirror.
The BAT-9-mobile was already moving, this time on a highway. Bronze knew where to go so I didn’t worry too much. She was driving with a bit more caution, now. Daylight driving means those pesky policemen can see what they’re chasing. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t present a problem for the two of us, but she wanted to chase down her car, not get involved in a prolonged sidetrack with the cops.
Never let it be said I won’t go to great lengths to humor her.
On the other hand, the daylight also slowed down our quarry. Ms. Maple didn’t want to get pulled over, either. They might not immediately ask if the car was stolen, but she was in for a bad time if she had to produce documentation.
My concerns were more focused on a trio of hooligans and their getaway driver. I do not like having my eardrums mistreated. It makes it hard to hear the hapless screams of the dying while I’m sticking my fingers in their ears—up to the third knuckle.
Finding them wasn’t the issue. I have a folding makeup thing, a compact. It’s got a mirror in it and the case protects it. Sure, I get weird looks in some cultures, but so what? It works.
Their Chevy was parked next to a phone booth. The guy with the burns was sprawled in the back seat, asleep. Another was in the phone booth. The other two weren’t in sight, but the phone booth was beside the parking lot of a diner.
I slid my viewpoint around a bit, searching the car. I discovered it was a rented car. No idea what that meant, but it was one more thing to know.
I also found something peculiar in the trunk. There was a brass cage, large enough for a full-sized parrot, but with bars thick enough to contain an angry monkey with a crowbar. A few loops of barbed wire circled the cage, but I didn’t think it was structural. The cage door was like a cell door, sliding aside in grooves, and was held shut with a steel padlock on either end. Whatever they planned to put in there, it wasn’t getting out without a hacksaw.
There was no sign of luggage, clothes, or other sundries. Maybe someone had the toiletries kit, using it in the diner’s bathroom. They seemed poorly equipped for a car chase across the country. Maybe they didn’t have a lot of time for planning, just pursuit.
I folded the mirror shut and wondered.
All right, I’ll deal with these guys later. What can Ms. Maple tell me?
I unfolded the mirror again and adjusted the focus. She was making good progress down a highway. I zoomed out, checking for landmarks.
This is not as easy as it sounds. There were no handy labels popping up as I looked around. It was all satellite imagery and I didn’t even have a map. I didn’t even know for sure which way was north until I deliberately rotated my view.
Nevertheless, if you go up far enough, you start to see little clues, like continents. Zooming in again, I narrowed down the location. Then, using the handy map in the glove compartment—
Well, Bronze needed more fuel, anyway. And I could use breakfast.
—using the handy maps obtained from the service station, I could narrow down where she was and which way she was going. I munched my way through the shopping bag of snacks and considered her course. Ms. Maple was southwest of Phoenix, on the far side of Gila Bend, presumably headed for Yuma. I doubted she was headed for Mexico—that is, her destination might be in Mexico, but crossing the border didn’t seem to be her first priority. If she wanted to cross the border, heading south to—let me check another map—a tiny little town called Lukeville was the faster option.
Whoever the guys were, the ones chasing her, they weren’t police. Crossing a border wouldn’t necessarily get them off her back.
Was Yuma her destination? Or was it just a stop along the way? If it was on the way somewhere, what else was along that route? Mexicali, Tijuana, and San Diego were all options. Arguably, the whole West Coast and Baja were also options.
I folded the maps, unfolded them and tried to fold them again, and finally rolled them up like posters.
Fold space? Yes. Fold road maps? No. You’d think, as a chaos-based entity, I could fold a road map, no problem. Turns out they’re much more ornery and uncooperative than most creatures of evil and must be subdued. I can turn them into paper airplanes, origami figures, or kindling, but folding them back into their original little rectangles is an occult mystery I haven’t mastered.
“Bronze? I can shift us to Yuma and get ahead of her, if you like.”
Bronze wasn’t for the idea. The car was now in good working order and getting even better with every passing mile. It was doubtful little miss car thief was putting her foot down in the BAT-9-mobile, not like Bronze would, so catching her was only a matter of waiting until nightfall and making sure to burp only invisible fire out the back.
“Suits me. Remember, though, Velina is waiting.”
I set up a time-ticker in the Stepstation specifically to extend the duration of the weekend, didn’t I?
With that in mind, Bronze was willing to finish the chase. Later, she would supervise things while I took Velina out to someplace nice.
“She never says anything about where she’d like to go,” I protested.
Velina wouldn’t. But I should be a nice Master of House Lucard and order her to have a good time.
Bronze thought so.
“I’ll bear it in mind. But where would Velina like to go? I don’t know what she wants.”
Bronze snorted, a backfire of flames and thunder.
“Yes, I know I’m dense. What am I missing?”
I’d figure it out. Eventually. There are advantages to immortality.
Puzzled, I let the matter drop. Bronze wanted to chase a car thief. Fine by me. I was now more concerned with where Velina might like to go for a night out, or for a weekend, or for a vacation.
Where do you take a professional warrior? An SCA event? A cruise liner? Camping? Surfing? —no surfing. I sink. Sailing, maybe? A luxury dirigible cruise to tour a world? Skydiving? —no, Leisel didn’t seem to enjoy it. An amusement park? A ride in an aerobatics jet? Or just a long walk through time, working through ancient cities from Egypt to Marsville?
I had a lot to think about. I don’t get out much, these days.