BLACK TRACE - Chapter 3

June 24, 2020

 

Third chapter for your perusal. One more after this I think. Maybe a chunk of the fifth.

 

Final cover, too. Finally got a text treatment that I like and works, this after my daughter looked at the old one and said "BLACK MIRROR, dad." And I smacked myself on the forehead because she was absolutely right (and it's not a show I watch, either.)

 

--

 

CHAPTER 3

 

 

Six months later.

 

Joshua Tree languished in the sun, everything baked to an even shade of desert nowhere. It lay in the flat between uneven and carelessly heaped low mountain peaks. The whole place felt like a drunken afterthought, where a mighty hand laid the ground low and then was struck with a sudden sense of something missing. Anything there had blown or rolled in from somewhere else, finally losing momentum or a wheel or running out of gas right here. 

 

 

So the town became a place for people to give civilization another shot. It attracted westies because it was the first spot after Federal lands where people only wanted to sell them something at two hundred percent markup and not borrow a lung for the black market or take a shine to that ride they came in on. It persisted out of stubborn refusal to quit, dust-caked and always dry. As much as it was the desert frontier, it was the first line of the chain of cities that led out to the great and shining Pacific. Franchises and combines made their stakes here, trying out new markets, seeing if there was enough capital to be squeezed out of the residents to make the establishment costs worthwhile.

 

 

The scattering of fuel stops with repurposed logos and signage testified that the desert would not be converted to a marketplace so easily. Joshua Tree would only accept these corporate settlers on its own terms, where the signature red of Dakakari Motors faded to the carmine of Satori Optical Electronics in mere months. The inability to maintain a uniform identity had shaken the faith of more than one commercial settlement team, abandoning the works to locals who then rechristened the shops into something with more local flavor. 

 

--

 

Mullins scratched at the curly white hairs on his chin and burped, making a face at the taste. The coffee was all gone and he’d been reduced to drinking the stash of green tea that Kelly had left. The dry air wouldn’t let things age out here. But it hadn’t made the tea any more palatable.

 

Sunlight poured into the glass room and he ate it up. It was already just hot, not the killing glare that would be hammering down from the sky later today. That was July in the desert. You worked on its terms, not your own.

 

Fingers of dust snaked through the metalscape of his scrapyard. It was a place for broken things, things that hadn’t been or couldn’t be repaired. Everything in it was jury-rigged, held together with solder and epoxy. All the windows were cracked, pieces of glass held in place with long strips of duct tape. The cars in the parking lots all rode low on wasted shocks, bent and slumped like fly-bait racehorses. Paint cracked and faded under the sunlight and wind. There was nothing new there, only old and wracked.

 

The scrapyard sprawled outside town like a garden gone amok. Whatever people drove into town and died on the way in ended up here. The rusting hulk of a Greyhound bus squatted in the shadow of a scrapped aircraft carrier conning tower, its paint stripped to raw metal. Oil and coolant and grease from ten thousand wrecks had gushed out onto the sand lot, turning it a viscous green-black in patches. The crane’s steel claw towered over junkers and heaps of battered chassis like talons. 

 

Cars weren’t the only dead things carelessly discarded there. Entire generations of technology had been heaped in the yard. Antique radios with transistors spilling out of their shattered casings were buried alongside tiny televisions that could fit in a man’s palm. Vinyl platters with a thousand pop names were mixed in with the works of Beethoven and Mozart, Partch and the Mechanist school. Spools of loose tape like Mylar cobwebs hung from piles of rubbish. Reels of celluloid and video tapes flailed in the wind, any information formerly contained on them now scattered into noise. Yellowed pages were scattered, a cut-up that only a the insane could have pulled meaning out of. There were newspapers and magazines, vast seas of bleached paper and forgotten stories.

 

The yard was no-time and all past. All of last year’s models for the previous century had accumulated there. It was the final home for anything that wasn’t cutting-edge, for all the outmoded fashions, for all images and icons that had been exhausted. 

 

Best of all, you could get all that stuff cheap, Mullins thought as he sipped the tea and waited for Jake to show up. On the far side of crazy, that one. Nice enough so long as you didn’t push him or ask him what he was doing six months ago, before he blew into town in a Federal States cruiser with four-fifty under the hood and twenty millimeters of pain up top. Said it was for sale, cheap to the right buyer. Mullins always had an eye for a deal and knew when not to ask about the origins of the piece. If Jake Culver had taken out a couple flags to get the thing for trade, well then maybe he’d done the world a favor. The reloads alone were worth more than Mullins took in a month of scavengers paying admission, good enough to let Jake pull whatever he wanted for life.

 

Something rattled in the garage, a wrench hitting the concrete floor and echoing in the bare room. Mullins poked his head in to see Jake crashed out on the cot, one hand draped off the side, fingers just inches away from the wrench that had dropped.

 

Yeah, Mullins had no interest in knowing Jake’s story. Whatever it was, he kept it down tighter than the wrong size bullet jammed into a cartridge. 

 

“You sleepin’ on the job?” he asked before taking another sip.

 

“I’d have to leave the job to not sleep on the job, Mull.”

 

“You’re almost done, ain’t ya? I used to get like that on a car. You can taste how close you are and you don’t want to eat nothing else.” He smacked his belly hard.

 

Jake sat up slowly, hands shining with grease. He was long past the salvage stage, ripping pieces out of wrecks and then putting them back in something new. “What the hell time is it?”

 

“Sun’s up. Does that help?”

 

“It was up when I went to lie down.”

 

“What color you gonna paint it?” Mullins pointed to the ’71 Charger body up on the lift. Right now it was a dusty orange, metal showing in places but no rust. It looked fast even up on the skids, standing still. “Yellow ain’t your color.”

 

“Jesus, Mull, I’ll pick a color when I’m done.”

 

“Oh hell, like you don’t know already. You saw it finished when you put hands on that chassis.”

 

Jake smiled in spite of himself. “Yeah, I did. That’s Blue right there.”

 

“Blue’s a hell of a color to keep clean. Gonna be busting your arms buffing that out.”

“Once I got wheels rolling—”

 

“Oh don’t start that again,” Mullins said, making a face. “I don’t want to hear any talk about you taking off. That’s bullroar.”

 

Jake stood and flexed his fingers, as if still stiff from clutching tools. “You don’t want to have to hire another mechanic is all.”

 

“Goddamn right. You know how tough it is to find someone who isn’t just trying to make enough money to get high and then flake off?”

 

“How do you know that isn’t what I’m doing?” Jake asked with a grin.

 

Mullins made a noise through his teeth and held up a hand. “You ain’t cut out for any place bigger than this, but if you wanna get proved wrong, you go do that. Drive your Blue into the big wet Pacific for all I care.” His hand went up big, grabbing air and then clutching in on itself.

 

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that you were jealous.”

 

Still-black eyebrows went up in disbelief. “Go west? And give up all this? Hell, I got metal they can’t make any more. That’s better ’n gold. Those books? Like diamonds.”

“Diamonds don’t blow away in the breeze.” Jake took a poke at the drive train again, a mix of caution and frustration. “Fucker didn’t fix itself while I was asleep either.”

 

“Can’t trust a machine.” He made to leave, then stopped and squeaked out a spin on his boots. “And speaking of not fixing itself, that red Chiang-Tek ain’t any more mobile than yesterday.”

 

“Don’t worry,” came the soothing reply. “I’ll have it working better than the day it rolled off the line in Shanghai or wherever.”

 

“Those were all made in Arkansas. Still are, I think.”

 

“All the same. I won’t leave you hanging on that.”

 

“Fair enough,” Mullins said a little sadly. In his heart, he wondered if he could find something else that Jake would have to fix before he left. But that would be like putting a wolf in a cage and expecting it to be happy. Joshua Tree didn’t hold onto many who could leave any time they wanted. Jake wasn’t gonna be any exception.

 

“You know where you’re gonna go?”

 

“Not here.”

 

“Well if all you’re going to do is leave something, you ain’t got much of a plan. Gotta be heading at something, you know?” His feet were apart like he was expecting something stronger than words in reply.

 

“One step at a time.” Jake grunted as he refit the u-joint, noting that he was going to have to shave it a little to make it fit right.

 

“So, anyways. You gonna be here until the end of the day, right?” Mullins pulled at the end of his beard, harder than he meant to.

 

“At least until the paint’s dry. Gonna be a week or more if that puts your mind at ease.”

 

“And shit, who the hell will I get to fix Slats’ DeSoto? He doesn’t even trust me with it.”

 

“You might lose a customer, then.” Jake grunted and torqued the nut down, letting off by feel, not even looking at it. “Car like that doesn’t belong out here in the wilderness anyways.”

 

“Don’t tell him that.”

 

“I will if he squawks at me. Besides, he asks too damn many questions.”

 

“He is cop. Cop does that.” Mull said it like it was the first commandment.

 

“He has to learn to hide his shortcomings.” Jake replied. He didn’t give advice much and he didn’t often take it.

 

“Nobody likes to hear that, Jake.”

 

“Well the truth does bite.” 

 

He took a step back and even through the all-night weariness he could see what it was going to look like when he was done. It was all up there, just needed to fit it together. 

 

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