by Robert Walton
Shank's chop-shop was quiet as a tomb at midnight and twice as dark. I looked down the alley. Stray light from a Figueroa streetlight bounced off puddles of December rain. I looked up the alley. Murky clouds, slightly luminous from headlights on the freeway, squatted over unlit, anonymous buildings. I stepped up to the door and hit the buzzer three times, twice and once.
The door opened a crack. I knew that a 15,000-pound test cable still secured it. I said, "It's me, Scooter. I got to see Shank."
Carlos, Shank's security man, said, "Who's that behind you?"
"My girl, Jennifer."
I knew he was checking the remote cameras to see if I'd invited the cops to come, too.
No cops. Carlos opened the door.
We went in. The shop was mostly dark. It smelled of spilled gas and old oil. Work lights stuck up beneath a car on a lift provided the only illumination. They cast long, irregular shadows that merged with midnight in the shop's corners.
I called, "Hey, Shank?"
Shank, a thin black man, stepped from beneath the shadow of a raised car. The other two men continued working. Shank rubbed his hands on a scrap of rag and smiled.
He said, "What's up?'
"I need your help, man. I need a car right now."
Shank's smile disappeared like a lizard diving under a rock.
Shank took my arm and led me aside. "You gotta leave."
"I'm running Santas, man. Got two dozen. Get half their take when they come off the street. You'd be amazed at what they pick up. Keeps me flush 'til February." He paused. "What do you think I'm busy with, shithead?"
I swallowed, "Ain't we friends, Shank?"
He looked at me and his eyes were rock steady. "We're associates, man. I have business associates. I don't have any friends."
"Come on, it's Christmas. You gotta help me."
He smiled again, thinly, "I am helping you."
I snorted. "You're helping me?"
He nodded. "Your lady's fine?"
"Are you alive?"
"Then I've been helping you for almost five minutes now. In two minutes, I'm gonna quit and you'll both be dead." He patted my arm. "Go."
"Hey, I'm in some trouble. My ride's hot. At least give me a number."
He cocked his head. "A number?'
I nodded. "Somebody else to call."
He thought for a moment and then said, "213 385 5446, got it?"
He turned and walked away from me. As he neared the raised car, he looked back over his shoulder. "Merry Christmas."
I nodded. I hurried back to Jennifer, took her hand and led her out into the rain-spattered darkness.
She dropped my hand. "What was that all about?"
I shook my head. "Nothing. Nothing. He ain't gonna help us."
She looked away. "Great!"
"He did give me a number."
"Yeah. Somebody else to call. Let's get back to the car and do it.
We walked out to Figueroa and turned right. Our car, a red '95 Pontiac Firebird/TransAm, was parked well back from the nearest streetlight and seemed to have attracted no official attention. I checked the street in both directions as we walked up to it. I unlocked it and we got in.
Jennifer said, "What now, genius?"
"We call this number and get another car."
She turned in the faux-leather seat and glared at me. "I'm giving you fair warning. No more stick-ups!"
"We needed money."
She looked out the front windshield. "Boosting 7/ll's for a living is not my idea of a future."
I nodded. "Mine either. This was a one-time deal."
She continued, "Then you jack this piece of shit."
"We'll be rid of it in an hour." I dialed the number and got an answer. I said, "Got a car for you. Where? Be there in fifteen." I fired up the Firebird.
I rang the bell three times, two times and once. The door opened. A short, stout man looked out at us. He had a big smile on his face. He asked, "Shank a friend of yours?"
"An associate," I answered.
The man's smile got bigger. "Even better. I'm Mel. Come on in."
We entered a well-lit warehouse. It was spotlessly clean and empty, except for between forty and fifty vehicles. The vehicles ranged from an upper end Lexus to a battered Ford truck. I spotted a Lamborghini and a street-modified Honda. A big, yellow Hummer rested at the end of a row. Altogether, the vehicles represented a cross-section of driving California.
Jennifer, not a car fan, looked bored already. She turned to Mel. "Is there a restroom in here?"
Mel nodded. "Go through that door just past the Hummer. Go down the hall and it's to your left."
"Thanks." Jennifer headed for the head.
I turned to Mel. "Just what is your business, Mel?"
Mel looked at his collection and simpered a bit, "You're Scooter, right?"
"Well, Scooter, that question leads us to the big enchilada."
Mel paused for effect. "I'm an alien."
Mel spread his hands for emphasis. "I mean a real alien. You know, Mars, Wookie, Independence Day, Jack Nicholson, Men in Black."
I thought about that.
Mel asked, "You want proof?"
I looked at him and shook my head. "No. If you say so, I'll believe you."
Mel looked irritated. "It's not that bad, sort of like what Schwarzenegger looks like now only green."
"Yeah, green, with tentacles."
I needed to change the subject. "You still haven't told me what the angle is."
Mel looked proudly at his vehicles. "The angle is tourism."
He nodded vigorously. "Tourism. You've got a hot little world here and I don't just mean global warming. It's wide open. Civilized beings from all over the galaxy come here to let their hair, or whatever, down. It's like Thailand, only better."
I looked at him again. "You know, Mel, you look a lot like Mel Brooks."
He smiled. "Supposed to. Nothing makes customers more comfortable than Mel Brooks."
I asked, "So what do you provide your customers?"
He rubbed his hands together. "You've got to keep this business simple. We've got four basic tours: low-rider, redneck, Hollywood and La Jolla. We give the customer a suitably equipped vehicle of his, her, or its choice. We provide a holographic disguise and turn the customer loose on L.A. L.A. does the rest. Of course, we follow along to provide back-up and assistance."
"Well," he shrugged, "we do special trips, too, but they cost a bundle."
"What's a special trip?"
"Ah, we can add the gang-banger option to the lowrider tour. It comes with a drive-by." He looked at me and raised a cautionary finger, "but a police chase is extra, a lot extra."
I shrugged. "What else?"
"We can add cross-burning and shotguns to the redneck tour."
Mel grinned, "Yeah, it's pretty open-ended. The customers just cruise until they find a black, a Mexican, a queer or an Asian and then," he pointed his right index finger at me, "KA-POW."
I looked at him again. "Is this for real? You've got lots of paying customers?"
He nodded. "Booked solid through 2011. I've been thinking about adding another tour, though, just to stay out of a rut."
"Yeah, I call it 'Jihadi', but I haven't figured out all of the details. It could fit in nicely with the whole terrorist thing, but it might get out of hand."
I smiled. "You wouldn't want that."
"Hey, L.A. is a special environment. It needs nurturing. We gotta maintain a car-friendly L.A., a big-car L.A with just enough chaos to make our tours interesting. We had to get into politics to make sure environmentalists didn't mess up our business."
"Yeah it took us thirty of your years to build the business and get our investment back. It's all gravy now. And we intend to get a boatload of gravy for as long as it lasts."
I said nothing.
Mel leaned over and winked at me. "Want to know a secret?"
"Cheney died a long time ago. We've had a ringer in for him for more than five years. We didn't change much. Besides, he'd have helped us out with the oil companies anyway."
"What about Bush? Why don't you replace him?"
"He's useful the way he is.
I shook my head. "Is this thing legit?"
Mel laughed, "Absolutely not. We've got a galactic confederation something like the U.N. You know, rules, rights and all that other bullshit. They're under-funded and understaffed, though. Their monitors don't get out here very often. The last time was about sixty years ago. They had some problem, too."
"That was about the time of the Roswell sightings."
Mel shrugged. "Whatever. Your world is what they call geographically inconvenienced, stuck way out here on a galactic arm. The monitors won't be back for another forty or fifty years. By that time, global warming will really have kicked in and you people will be toast."
I snickered. "Won't that hurt your business?'
"Hey, nothing lasts forever. We'll have made our money by then."
I looked at him. "Don't you feel even a little bit bad about making money by trashing a whole world?"
Mel snorted. "Bullshit. I'm just taking advantage of an existing situation. You people are hopeless anyway. This place is doomed whether I make money or not."
"Couldn't you help out? Give money to Gore, or something?"
Mel rolled his eyes. "Al Gore, that zombie! He won't get the polar bears an extra five minutes with his shtick. You people are going down. And you know what?"
I played ball. "What?'
"After you're all dead, it won't take 5,000 years before this place is pristine again. Something smarter will get a chance. Without the oil, of course."
I nodded. "Of course." I decided to steer the conversation back to my own needs. "Say, Mel, I need a car. Mine's hot. You might be able to use it, though. It's a '95 Trans Am."
"No problem." He thought for a moment and then looked at me. "Let's take a ride while I get you set up." He pulled out an I-phone and spoke into it for a couple of moments.
I didn't want to go for a ride with this dude, but what could I say. Beggars can't be choosers.
Mel turned back to me. "Got you a car. You'll be all set when we get back. Let's take care of some customers. They've been staying at the Hyatt over by the airport, a real campout for them, too. They want the lowrider with gang-banger enhancements. We'll follow as the support car. Should be fun."
They're getting suited up in their holo-suits now. Won't be a minute. I'll check on them and be right back."
Jennifer came out of the door at the far end of the warehouse and walked toward me. She passed Mel near a black BMW. When she got close enough, she whispered, "What's up?"
"He's going to give us a car, but we have to hang out with him for awhile. Just play along."
Jennifer pouted. "Hang out? Here? Great. Can I smoke?"
Mel came out of the door at the end of the warehouse. Three young, giggling chicanas followed him. All wore short skirts and colorful tops. They stopped by a slick looking Honda. Mel motioned for us to join him. We walked over. The young women ignored us and chattered among themselves as they inspected the Honda.
Mel said, "Hey, Jennifer, you mind riding with them? They're new to L.A. and don't know their way around."
Jennifer shrugged. "Sure."
Mel grinned. "Well, let's go."
The young woman in the maroon satin top, slender and ravishingly beautiful, smiled and got in behind the wheel. Jennifer took the front seat next to her. The other two women opened the Honda's back doors. The one closest to us, lime green top, bent to maneuver her tight skirt and not insignificant bottom into the car. Mel winked at me and touched the screen of his I-phone.
An undeniable tentacle, green and covered with suckers, protruded from below the hem of the woman's black skirt. I swallowed hard.
Mel pulled me unresisting to a yellow mustang. He said, "This is the chase car. I like something not too obvious."
I said nothing. Mel touched his I-phone again. The warehouse door opened. The girls pulled out ahead of us. We followed. They turned south on Figueroa. Mel tucked us in a few cars behind them.
I asked, "What if you lose them?"
"Can't. Got a GPS locating system."
The Honda turned onto a Santa Monica Freeway onramp. It accelerated to about 50 mph., reached the freeway and immediately cut to the fast lane. A black SUV braked and swerved across two lanes to avoid a collision.
"Jesus Christ!" I gripped the dashboard hard. "She drives worse than my ninety-eight year old Aunt. Don't you give the customers any driving instruction?"
"Nah. It would spoil the fun. They've got safety pods, kind of like airbags, but a whole lot better."
"What about everybody else?"
"Hey, the highway's a craps game."
I pondered that and then asked, "What if the cops stop them?"
Mel grinned and winked at me. "That's part of the fun. They've got the best fake licenses money can by. Did I mention that all full galactic citizens have nano-translation devices implanted at birth? Our customers can deal with the cops, but it is exciting for them."
We cruised down 10 until we hit Santa Monica. We exited onto PCH and drove north. The Honda lurched and veered occasionally, but made no further life-threatening maneuvers.
I asked, "Where are they going?"
Mel waved an expansive left hand. "Anywhere they want. But I did suggest that they have a look at the lights and the ocean. Then they can take Sunset for awhile."
So I shut up. Two hundred yards ahead of us, the Honda turned across the double yellow line and pulled into a deserted beach parking lot. As no traffic was within a half mile of us, nobody was inconvenienced. Mel pulled into the empty lot of a strip mall.
He turned to me. "Your girl friend's hot and not too curious. We got a job for her riding shotgun with customers."
I looked at him. "What about me?"
He smiled, "You know, Shank is one of my main suppliers. We like to use local talent. Can you guess why he sent you to me?"
I could guess, but I knew I wouldn't like my answer. I said nothing.
Mel continued, "You're something of a liability."
I kept my voice neutral and spoke evenly. "If you off me, how are you going to explain me being gone to Jennifer?"
Mel laughed. "Give me a break! Don't tell me she's never been dumped!" He raised what looked like a chrome plated water pistol with a squiggly antenna on top and pointed it at me.
I asked, "What's that?"
He grinned. "Ain't you ever seen a ray-gun? Adios, sport."
Mel looked down the barrel of his chrome-plated raygun with the squiggly antenna on top. He aimed it at the center of my chest.
In the interest of preserving my life for a few more seconds, I asked, "Is it a disintegrator?"
Mel nodded. "Absolutely. I'm about to turn you into two teaspoons of silver powder. Hold still."
"Ah," I tried to extend the conversation, "won't that mess up the seat?" We sat in a classic yellow Mustang with real leather seats.
"Nope. You're Dust-Devil meat, chump."
Mel licked his lips. I saw his finger tighten on the trigger. This was something I didn't need to see. I closed my eyes. A second went by. Another. At last, I peeked.
Mel still held the raygun centered on my chest, but I could tell he was thinking about something. "You know," he said at last, "I might have something for you to do after all."
I said nothing. I really didn't want to interrupt this particular chain of thought.
Mel continued, "First, though, I've got to make sure that you'll do what you're told."
I kept silent, as I had no helpful suggestions for him in this regard.
He held the raygun steady with one hand and fumbled in his shirt pocket with the other. He produced a plastic pill container and tossed it to me. I let it fall in my lap. He said, "Open it and take one pill."
I figured it was safe to ask, "What are they?"
"Behavior insurance." He grinned. "Just swallow a pill, sap."
I opened the container and shook a pill the size of a baby aspirin out on the palm of my right hand. I looked at him, "Got any water?"
"Swallow it before I change my mind!"
I gulped the pill. Mel lowered his gun. He chuckled, "Well, now you work for me."
I nodded. "Fine. You just had to ask, believe me. What are those pills, anyway?"
I looked at him incredulously. "As in thermo-nuclear bombs."
He nodded. "You got it."
I shook my head. "That's not possible."
Mel took the open container, shook out another pill, rolled down his window and tossed it into the parking lot. He opened his I-phone and touched its surface. A blast of white light strobed through the car followed by a small thunderclap. When I could see again, I looked out the window. A glowing purple mushroom cloud the size of a Chihuahua hovered over a pit the size of a dinner tray.
Mel looked at me. "Zantac won't do you much good if I blow that baby in your guts. You better do what I say, capiche?"
Mel closed the pill container and tucked it into the pocket of his shirt. He stuck the raygun down between the seats. He said, "That might have been a little obvious. Let's move on down the road." He started the Mustang.
As we exited the parking lot, I asked, "Ah, Mel?"
"What about radiation?"
Mel smiled. "Trust me, you got more from your microwave this morning when you warmed up your English muffin."
I decided to change the subject. "So what do you want me to do?"
Mel rubbed his chin with the end of the raygun. "Well, my cousin Bernie is an entertainer for Carnival Cruise Lines."
"What does he do?"
"Your cousin is a lounge singer on a cruise ship?"
"Can you think of a better job for an alien?"
I really couldn't.
Mel continued, "I want you to go down to Florida, take a cruise, talk to Bernie."
"I get seasick."
Mel grinned. "I got a pill for that."
© 2010 Robert Walton
Bio: Robert Walton is a rock climber and mountaineer. His speculative fiction stories about climbing have been published in the Sierra Club's Ascent and several other magazines and journals. A dramatization of one of his stories was broadcast on KUSF on November 22nd, 2006. It was broadcast subsequently on NPR.
E-mail: Robert Walton
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