A Dark Ride to Hell

charger

She was absolutely beautiful, and the last thing I needed in my life. I first saw her when I stepped out back of the restaurant to grab a quick smoke before my shift started. She was parked across the street, a low-slung vision in black and chrome. She was a 1969 Dodge Charger special edition and she was cherry. I could get ten grand for a car like that; more than half of what I make in a year washing dishes. Boosting that ride would set me and Debbie up, get us and the kid out of her mother’s house. Problem was, I don’t steal cars no more. Three years upstate put an end to that. Little Jillian was a baby when I went in and I just can’t risk goin back. I’d lose them both.

***

“Goddammit Nick! We’re outta glasses and forks again. What the fuck are you doin back here, pullin your dick?”

I took a deep breath of garbage filled steam and shrugged. “Sorry Harry, the machine keeps jammin up, I think the conveyor’s broken again.”

“I don’t pay you to think Nick, I pay you to keep my fucking dishes clean. I got customers who want to eat and no goddamned silverware. Make it happen or your ass is on the street.”

Harry was a real asshole but he was the only guy who’d give me a job when I got out. I really wanted to tell him to shove it, but instead I shoved the plastic rack of drinking glasses into the open mouth of the dish machine. I grabbed a bus tub from the stack and headed out into the dining area to clean the empty tables. It was the same scene every day, a few tourists taking bites of their burgers between glances at landmark pamphlets, and the two or three regulars that came in daily.

I swept the empty plates and coffee mugs into the tub and used a bleach soaked rag to wipe the tables down. I walked past the one regular who held court in the booth nearest the door. I remembered him because he was a short bald man and had a strange habit of arranging his dishes in neat rows, with the fork and knife perfectly lined up next to his napkin which he folded into a precise square. This guy must’ve had some kind of mental problem, because he came in every single day and spent at least an hour at the booth working a crossword puzzle and aligning his utensils.

My shift ended at three, after the lunch rush was over and all the prep dishes from the morning were cleaned. I tossed my filthy apron into the pile and stepped out the back door into the fresh air. My lungs were screaming for a smoke and an escape from the humid hell of the diner’s dish room. As I put on my jacket I saw her again. The black paint and that long, slick chassis drew my attention like a tight ass in a skirt. All I could think of was the adrenaline rush I’d feel when I sparked the wires and fired her up for the first time. The fear of being caught, the smell of the money. It was an addiction.

When I was in my prime I never messed with cars like her. She was too flashy, too unique to turn a quick buck. I always went for the sedans, the Accords and Camrys, something that could be chopped up quick and not turn heads when I drove it down the street. But, there was just something about that car that dug into my mind and wouldn’t let go. I laid awake that night thinking about her, thinking about my buddy Joey who had the connection upstate and could move her quick and clean, thinking about the ten grand and my little family. I didn’t want to go back to prison, but the grind of catching the bus to wash dishes and living in Debbie’s mom’s basement was tearing at me.

I had pretty much decided when I woke up that if she was out there the next day, I was gonna take her. I dug out Joey’s number and called him before my shift started.

“No shit, a 69? It’ll take me a week to find a buyer, but I can definitely turn it around. Damn it’s like old times man. You was always one of my favorites.”

“Well this is a one-time thing Joey. Just this one score, I really need the money.”

“Yeah sure buddy. Whatever you say. Just drop it off at the old garage out by the water treatment plant, you remember the drill?”

“Yeah, I remember. Just have somebody waiting to take me back into town. Hey thanks again Joey and seriously this is the only one.” I hung up the pay phone and pressed my forehead against the cold metal coin slot. I couldn’t believe I was doing this again. I could feel the old me seeping through the cracks of this new life. The life that I had tried to build after prison. I walked around the block to the restaurant and felt my heartbeat quicken when I saw her parked against the curb, crouched like a black tiger waiting to lunge at an unsuspecting meal.

My shift felt like it lasted forever. Harry was on my ass the entire time about the busted garbage compactor and the place was packed. Crossword puzzle man stayed longer than usual and I had to wait until he left to clean the booth. When I finally got out, it was a quarter till four. My heart almost stopped when I walked around the dumpster and she wasn’t there, but the panic faded when I noticed she had been moved down a few spaces. I was pretty sure the owner lived in the two-story walk up across from the restaurant, but I had never seen anybody get in or out of the car. Whoever he was, he kept strange hours.

The real key to stealing a car is speed. It don’t matter if it has a fancy alarm, or even if it’s out in the open. A good car thief can be in and gone in under a minute. I could do it in thirty seconds. I walked up to the car and did a quick scan to see if anybody was looking, when I was satisfied that I had my chance, I pulled the slim Jim from my jacket and slid it between the glass and the chrome on the driver’s door. Within seconds I was in and had the door closed. The car was just as clean and polished on the inside as the exterior. Detailed to perfection. I leaned across the leather seat and worked the wires loose under the steering column. A couple of sparks flew, and that old adrenaline rush came over me. The engine growled to life and I quickly slammed it into gear and took off. I looked at my watch, forty seconds, damn I was out of practice.

***

The next few days felt like a dream. I stuck to my normal routine, work and home, but inside I was a different man. For the first time in forever, I had prospects. Things were looking up. On Friday I stopped by the payphone and rang Joey’s number. I was supposed to check in and find out when I was going to get paid. He didn’t answer, which wasn’t like him, but I blew it off and went on in to work. I figured I’d try him again after my shift. The restaurant was dead, not even Mr. Crossword came in, so Harry let me leave a little early and I went straight to the phone and dialed the number. No answer. I started having this feeling that Joey might be trying to stiff me, so I called Debbie and told her I picked up a half shift and wouldn’t be home for a while. I took the bus across town and walked the remaining three blocks to the old garage.

The place was dark and quiet when I walked up, which was odd cause Joey always had at least two mechanics chopping down cars at any given time. The side door was unlocked so I let myself in. One of the garage bays was empty and the other had a late-model BMW up on blocks. There was no sign of the Charger. I walked over to the little office that Joey kept in the back, it wasn’t much bigger than a closet with just enough room to hold a desk and a grease smeared computer. I opened the door and was hit in the face with the hot, metallic stench of blood. I screamed when I saw what was left of Joey, slumped over in the corner. The skin on his face had been peeled off and his lips were missing. His bulging eyes stared toward the door like he wanted to get up and run. I backed up and nearly fell over a small tool box behind me. I stifled my gag reflex, grabbed an oily rag from the floor and wiped the doorknob down. I didn’t want to leave any prints. I noticed a small piece of paper, soaked in blood on Joey’s desk. It was the number to the payphone by the diner.

A cold fear washed over me, and I couldn’t bear to be in the garage any longer. I ran out the back door and screamed again when I saw the two mechanics hanging from an engine hoist, their throats were cut and blood dripped from their boots, pooling on the ground below. I jumped the small fence that ringed the parts yard and ran all the way back to the bus stop.

***

“What’s wrong with you Nick, you’re so jumpy?” Debbie said over the plate of microwave lasagna.

“Nothing baby, work has been stressful. Harry’s been on my ass more than usual that’s all. Why don’t we take a few days and go visit your aunt in Atlantic City? Jilly Bean would love to see the boardwalk right?”

Debbie dropped her fork on the plate. “Nick, what’s going on? You don’t ever talk about going anywhere unless there’s some trouble. You promised me you’d stay straight.”

“It’s nothing like that baby. Things have just been so hard lately. Living here with your mom and all. I figure a change of scenery would do us some good.”

“We’re lucky she took us in Nick. Where else were we gonna go huh? Besides we don’t have the money to go to Atlantic City. You barely make enough to cover the bills. Stop that crazy talk, you’re worrying me.”

After Debbie and Jillian were asleep I got up and quietly pulled the refrigerator out from the wall and grabbed the 9mm I had taped to the back. It was a violation of my parole to have a gun, but I never left myself without protection. I tucked the pistol into my pants and stepped outside the basement apartment for a smoke. Somewhere out there, the Charger’s owner was looking for me. I didn’t know what Joey told him, but I imagined he talked plenty under the edge of that knife. Joey didn’t know where I lived, or worked, all he knew was the number I called from.

***

My heart nearly beat out of my chest as I walked to the diner the next day. From the moment I stepped off the bus, and walked the block to the restaurant’s side door, I felt like there were crosshairs trained on me in the distance. The skin on the back of my neck prickled. I rang the bell on the back door and waited for Harry to let me in. After a minute I pushed it again, sometimes Harry was up front and didn’t hear the buzzer. Finally the deadbolt clicked and I pulled the door open. Harry had a bag of onions in one hand and a large knife in the other.

“Get the fuck in here Nick, we got a call this morning from the bank across the street, they want ten box lunches. I’m up to my elbows in Caesar salads right now.”

I grabbed a fresh apron from the folded stack and started the process of firing up the dish machine. Soon I was in the groove and had almost forgotten about the events of the night before. After the morning routine of cleaning the prep utensils, I grabbed the bus tub and headed out front. The place was hopping, and only one table was empty, the one next to crossword puzzle man. I sat my tub town on the chair and began to remove the plates. The bald man looked up from his perfectly arranged table and spoke.

“Hey kid, I’m stuck on this one clue, maybe you can help me. What’s an eight letter word for a car thief’s destination? Oh wait a minute I got it. Chopshop.”

I froze in place, my pulse throbbing in my skull. I looked up at the small bald man, his cold stare cutting right through me. He flipped through to the back of his puzzle book and pulled out a Polaroid picture. He put it on the table so I could see it. It was a snapshot of Debbie and Jillian, taken that morning on their way to school.

The bald man sipped his coffee and smiled. “It rips a man’s heart out to lose his prize possession don’t you agree?”

I stood perfectly still, staring at the picture. I could hear Harry’s voice in the background yelling at me to get moving, but it was distant and foggy. I thought about the pistol I had in my jacket, but that was in the back room and there was no time to grab it. Finally I spoke.

“What do I need to do to keep them safe?

The bald man replaced his coffee mug and carefully adjusted the handle so it pointed squarely to the right. He closed his crossword book and stuffed it in his jacket pocket.

“You take a ride with me and I promise they’ll be just fine. Meet me out back in five minutes. And kid, leave the pistol here.”

I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I took the bus tub to the back and ignored Harry as he screamed at me for slacking off. I took off my apron and hung it from the peg on the dish machine.

“Sorry Harry, but I quit.”

“What? You sorry sack of shit, you gonna leave me hangin right in the middle of your shift? I knew you was trouble. Fucking ex-cons.”

I opened the backdoor and walked out onto the little concrete pad that held the dumpster. I lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. The sun was out and there was a light breeze carrying the aroma of last night’s trash. I walked around the corner and saw her sitting there. A black shadow accented in chrome. She was idling and I could feel the rumble in my guts. As I crossed the street, I could see the bald man behind the wheel. I pulled the handle on the passenger door and got in. As we pulled out, I couldn’t help but think that she was still the most beautiful car I had ever seen.

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