Quest For Wheels

We followed Flattop and Hondo into the large garage, the smells of gasoline, oil and paint filling the space, along with the burnt smell of ground metal.

When my eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, I could see the inside was large. The back of the shop was filled with machining tools. In front were three cars. One was the car you’d always see undercover cops driving, complete with a push bar on the front and mismatched blue and grey body panels. The second was under a tarp, and the third was up on a hydraulic lift. The car on the lift was missing every single body panel and all four wheels, a mere skeleton of a car.

“Wow, this is a full-on auto shop,” I said.

“Hell yeah. When my dad was still here, we did a lot of custom work. Now it’s mostly chop jobs. I just don’t have the same skills as my dad,” Hondo said, a note of sadness in his voice.

“What happened to your dad?” Manny asked.

Flattop answered for him. “He’s in prison. Hondo and me are all that’s left of the Lyle Street Soldados. The rest are in prison or dead.”

It was a good reminder. Despite how carefree my life here in the last few days had seemed, the cops were still present. If you weren’t careful, even with the protection of the shadows, they would get you.

“Really? It’s just you and Hondo now?” I asked.

“Yeah. We’re just barely hanging onto this last bit of turf. Anyway, that’s our problem not yours,” Flattop said.

“What’s that up on the lift?” I asked.

“That’s a Camry,” Hondo supplied. “They’re pretty much cash on wheels.”

“What do you mean?” Manny asked.

“You ever seen one of those shows about traditional hunters, like the native Americans back in the day?” Flattop asked.

“Ah shit, not this again,” Hondo said.

“Hear me out,” Flattop said, getting into it. “We’re just like those cats. I go out into the wilds, hunting. I find myself a juicy Camry and bring it back to our cave here. Hondo here turns it into parts. Just like those guys, we use every part of the kill. Nothing goes to waste. We even siphon off the gas and burn it in the Javelin.”

“Such a stupid metaphor,” Hondo complained.

“It is not. Totally apt metaphor. Anyway, back to the cars. We can’t sell you the Camry, because Hondo’s already halfway done butchering it for our little tribe here. That leaves the Crown Vic and-” Flattop said, but Hondo cut him off.

“Just the Crown Vic. You know the other one’s not for sale.”

“Right, not for sale,” Flattop said, not missing a beat. “You can see the Crown Vic there. It’s a good car if a bit ugly. They’re fast, they have enormous trunks, and they’re really reliable.”

I didn’t know what they meant about the Crown Vic, but it became clear when I IDed what I thought of as the cop car parked nearby.

1996 Ford Crown Victoria Mixed blue and grey NONE

“What’s the car under the tarp?” Manny asked.

“That’s not for sale, that’s a project,” Hondo said.

“Man, you can’t hang onto that thing forever,” Flattop protested.

“Not forever. She’s not even finished.”

“You know that beast has been finished for months now. You just don’t want to let go. Sell it or drive it, one or the other. It doesn’t do anybody any good sitting in this garage.”

Hondo grumbled. “Whatever.”

“Can I see it?” Manny asked.

Hondo looked at Manny with suspicion. “I told you, it’s not for sale.”

“Yeah, Bro. I know. Still, I’d love to check it out. If it’s anything like that beast out front it’s got to be cool.”

Hondo seemed mollified and nodded. He walked over to the car and carefully removed the tarp, revealing it foot by foot. Shining, cherry red curves were slowly revealed. The hood seemed like it was ten feet long. The car crouched low to the ground, smooth and aerodynamic. It was a convertible, with the top up and the windows closed. It was gorgeous, a sports car from an era when I’d been just a kid. Once the tarp was clear I identified it.

1994 Jaguar XJS Red NONE

Hondo was talking. “This started as a bog standard 1994 XJS, but my dad planned to use this as his daily driver. We got rid of the British powertrain and replaced it with the drive train from a vette. We pretty much replaced all the wiring as well—it was flaky as shit in these cars.”

“I don’t know what that means, but sounds sweet, Bro.”

Hondo smiled. “Yeah, she’s a sweet ride.”

“And if Hondo gets his way, no one will ever drive her,” Flattop added.

Hondo didn’t bother to reply, just sneering at Flattop a bit.

“Why’s that? A car like this, you should be driving it, Bro.”

I agreed, but I was starting to get a sense of what the deal was with this car and didn’t speak up.

“Nah, I don’t drive. Besides, this is my dad’s ride. If anyone is going to drive it, it should be him.”

“Hondo, you know your dad’s never getting out.”

“Fuck you, man. His lawyer told me that his next appeal has some promise.”

“That lawyer is a piece of shit that just wants to get as much of your money as he possibly can. You know that, cuz. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.”

As much as this argument felt like one that they’d had quite a few times, I still felt awkward witnessing it.

“Whatever. You don’t know shit, man.”

With that, Hondo stomped off to the rear of the shop, lowering his goggles back over his eyes. Soon a flurry of sparks went up from the grinder he was using, and the garage was filled with the deafening noise.

Flattop waved us back out of the space, wincing. He closed the door behind us, cutting off some of the racket.

“Sorry about that, his dad’s in for 25 to life. I was hoping maybe to convince him to let go of that car. It looks like that’s not going to happen this time.”

“No worries man, we don’t need anything fancy,” I said.

Manny nodded, but slowly. “It is a beautiful car.”

“Yeah, it is. Totally wasted sitting in our garage. A giant chunk of cash we’ll never see. Anyway, that’s my problem, not yours. The Camry is a collection of parts. I didn’t expect he’d have done that already, so it’s out. All we’ve got left is the Crown Vic. You interested? $2500 and it’s yours.”

I winced. I was fairly sure that even between us we didn’t have that much.

I saw Manny’s face the same realization.

“We don’t have it,” I said. “Not unless we can get a big chunk of cash for the Regal.”

“Sorry, it’s not worth much. A couple hundred bucks for scrap and that’s it. Like I said, it’s only good in the shadows right now, and no banger wants to drive something that old and clapped out.”

Manny looked pained but didn’t say anything.

“Shit. I’m sorry we wasted your time, Flattop. Any ideas where we can go to get something we can afford?” I asked.

“Hold on, I’ve got another idea. You guys are strapped, right? Word on the street is you put one of Magnus’s boys in the hospital.”

I nodded. “Yeah, we are strapped. I’ve heard that rumor too, about Zeke.”

Flattop smiled slyly. “Smart. Anyway, if you two can handle yourself than maybe we can work together. I’ve got a job that needs a couple more guys, and those Sunshrouds you’ve got are perfect.”

I was a bit alarmed by that. He hadn’t been there when Manny had blabbed about the sunglasses, so how did he know?

“My sunglasses? What about them?” I asked, playing dumb.

Flattop just ignored that. “They’re pricey, but it makes sense with the Hip’s bounty on you. Anyway, like I said those are perfect for what we need to do. If you two can handle yourselves we’re golden.”

“What do you mean handle ourselves, Bro? I’m not looking to shoot anybody,” Manny protested.

Flattop shook his head. “Me neither. You’d be helping us steal a car, a real valuable one. It might be guarded, but if it is it’ll just be one or two guys. I don’t want to shoot anybody either, that’s how Gato went to prison.”

“Gato? Who’s that?”

“Hondo’s dad. He was a real hard ass. He’d never back down, for nobody. He got into it with some people, killed them, and left some witnesses. Two of our guys there with him went down as accessories. That left just Hondo and me.”

Manny gave me a look, and it was like I was reading his mind. I frowned back at him. That wasn’t me.

“What are you proposing?” I asked.

“Hold on, before we go any further, I’ve got to bring Hondo back in on this conversation. Stay here a bit, would you?”

I nodded, and Flattop returned to the garage.

When Flattop was out of earshot, Manny turned to me. “What the hell, Bro? We’re going to start stealing cars now?”

“What’s our option? We keep driving in the Regal until the Hip catch up with us? We can’t do that, man. This is perfect. They need our help—we need their car. Let’s listen to what they have to say. If it’s not too crazy and the payoff is good, we should do it.”

The noise the noise of the grinder inside the garage stopped.

“I don’t know, Bro. It seems like every time I follow your lead I get deeper in.”

I was a little angry when he said that, and I spoke without thinking.

“Screw that, man. I wasn’t the one that took us to the Fatally Hip’s turf to sell, that was you. No, I was the one that saved your ass from what would have been at best a severe fucking beating. For all you know, those fuckers would’ve left you dead in the street.”

Manny recoiled a bit, seeming surprised. “Bro,” he started.

I felt bad immediately after saying that, despite how true it was. Manny didn’t deserve that.

“I’m sorry, man,” I said. “I’ve had a rough couple of days. I’m trying my best to get us out of this, and this seems like our best shot. We help these guys and they help us. They already tried to warn me at Mesotonic, and I should’ve listened then. Can we at least hear what they have to say?”

Manny deflated a bit. “Yeah, sure. I’m sorry, Bro. You’re right, you did save my ass and I’ve been doing nothing but bitching about it since. My bad. We’re both still alive, there’s a lot to be said for that.”

That felt good, and a second later we hugged it out.

“Thanks, Manny. Hey, they’re coming back.”

We separated and stood like two grown men who hadn’t just been hugging.

Flattop and Hondo emerged, walking across the gravel of the yard. Hondo still looked a little pissed off, but he was there.

“Alright, let me lay it out. Before we talk about specifics, let’s talk in general. We would need you two to drive, using those Sunshrouds. That way, there’ll be no witnesses in the neighborhood that can ID you. If there are any guards, we need you to use those guns and help us subdue them. If we do this right there’ll be no shooting. That’s important to me—I don’t want to go to jail. If this gets violent, we bug out, got it?”

I nodded, carefully studying Manny’s face. “Manny, does that sound good to you?”

“Yeah. I guess I can point the gun at somebody, but I don’t know if I could pull the trigger, even if I had to.”

Flattop looked sympathetic. “I get it. We’re not all killers. In fact, I think most people aren’t. I’m sure not. We just need to look convincing.”

“All right, say we agree. What’s the deal?” I asked.

“You guys join us for this job. We get in and get the car. One of you drives it where it needs to go—which is the port—and then we get a big payday. Not right away, but in about a week. Hondo and I will split that cash with you guys 50-50.”

“That’s great and all, but we need a car.” Manny said.

“Yeah, we’ll owe you about $25k for your half, so Hondo and I are happy to give you the Crown Vic afterward as a small down payment. That cool?” Flattop asked.

The number was astounding. 50% of a stolen car was going to be $25K? I was in the wrong business, it seemed. With that money, we could easily pay off our debt to Brass Lee and have plenty left over. Manny could leave the shadows behind if he wanted and have a nice big nest egg for his college. To be fair though, even that amount wouldn’t be enough with prices in California.

“That’s a lot of money, Bro. What the hell are you guys stealing?”

Flattop didn’t answer. “Are you in? If you’re not, we’re all just wasting our time here.”

I looked at Manny, studying his face. He looked conflicted, but finally he nodded.

“We’re in.”

The four of us went back into the garage to the far corner where a 10′ x 10′ box had been carved out of the space and turned into what could generously be called an office. It had walls, a door, and a window, but no ceiling. On the back wall a corkboard was covered in diagrams and photos. Glossy photos of cars, and a salvage yard much like the one we were standing in. In the center of the board was a thing of beauty. A Mercedes, but not the kind you saw rich douchebags in suits driving. Long, low, and fast with silver-white paint, shining chrome, and big fat tires. It was built for speed.

“This is our target, a 2020 Mercedes AMG GTS. This one has been customized for performance, and I guess it cost the original owner just about $200,000,” Flattop said, pointing to the photo.

“Holy shit,” I said.

“It has changed hands a few times since then. Whoever the original owner was, he doesn’t have it anymore. This garage is used as a holding area for cars that are about to be sold on. We’ve been watching this car for over a week now, and we think that they might move it out tomorrow. Today is our last chance to take it,” Flattop said.

“Why have you left it so long?” I asked.

“We haven’t been able to find anybody to come in on this with us. Nobody wants to chance getting IDed as they leave. We’ve got balaclavas for the job itself, but on the drive across the city we can’t be wearing them, or the cops will pull us over for sure. That’s where you guys come in, with those Sunshrouds. You’ll be driving.”

“Balaclavas? How do Greek pastries help us?” I asked.

Flattop looked at me strangely, as if unsure if I was serious. I let him off the hook.

“A joke. But seriously, how do they help?”

He walked over to the desk in the corner covered with stacks of paper and reached into one of the drawers, pulling out a black ski mask. He came back and handed it to me. It looked like what I thought, your typical ski-mask type thing you’d see bank robbers wear. I identified it.

Robber’s Balaclava

When activated hides wearer’s shadow name for one hour before becoming inert.

Value: ???

“Hey, that’s cool,” I said, and passed it back.

“They don’t come cheap, but they’re perfect for something like this. We don’t want any of these guys knowing who we are.”

“Why? Who will we be pissing off?” Manny asked.

“That’s the thing, we don’t know. The garage is run by this Russian guy calls himself Nick the Red. He’s no joke, but he’s not who we have to worry about. We’ll really be stealing from whoever put that car there. Nick might end up paying them some cash, but the gang that put the car in with him eats the real loss.”

“This is beginning to sound like a really bad idea,” Manny said.

“That’s the game,” Hondo said. “No one’s going to hand you $50k. There’s risk involved.”

“Still, it could be anyone. We could be pissing off some real gangsters with this,” Manny said. He looked worried.

“You a chicken shit, Manny?” Hondo said.

“Hondo, stop,” Flattop interceded. “Manny’s right. Let’s be clear about this. If you fuck up and get IDed by the wrong person, you’re probably dead. This is enough money to greenlight all of us. Like Hondo said, there’s risk involved. In this case, there’s a big reward at the end to weigh against it.”

Manny didn’t look convinced.

“You said you need both of us to drive? How does that work?” I asked.

“Simple,” Flattop said. “The four of us will go there in a van, with one of you driving. When we’re close everybody masks up. Then we’ll break-in and neutralize the guard if there is one. Hondo here will handle any immobilizers or tracking devices on the Mercedes, while we provide cover. Then, one of you has to drive the Mercedes to the port while the rest of us follow in the van.”

“Wait, let me get this right,” I said. “You’ve been planning this and waiting for your chance for a week now. Today’s the last day you can possibly do this, and it also happens to be the day that Manny and I come over, having just bought the exact equipment needed to fill the empty spots in your plan. Does that all sound right?”

If I were still back in Los Angeles, I could have convinced myself that this was just one gigantic coincidence. After all, what else could it have been? Here in San Tadeo I just didn’t believe it. This was a quest—clearly the work of a higher power, a Game Master.

Flattop saw it differently. “What can I say, God is great. When you put your faith in Him, He rewards it.”

“Amen,” Hondo supplied.

I wasn’t a Christian, and I didn’t know about Manny, but I thought most Vietnamese were probably Buddhists. Neither of us joined in. I was fairly sure it was a GM, and not God. Maybe here that was the same thing.

“All right, so that’s the skeleton of our plan,” Flattop said. “We’ve got no time to add any more detail as our window is closing fast. That yard is closed on Sundays, which works well for us. Do you have any other questions, are we good?”

“Who’s going to drive the car?” Manny asked.

“That depends,” Hondo said. “She’s a beast and If you’re being followed by someone—some little snitch or a gang enforcer, you’re going to have to drive that car damn fast and ditch it.”

“That’s right. Which one of you is the better driver?” Flattop asked.

I knew the answer to that. Despite my making fun of Manny’s driving, at least he had some experience. I had my driver’s license, but that was about it. I’d had a few practice sessions in the Driver’s Ed car. I’d taken the tests and driven my dad’s car a few times, but that was the sum total of my experience.

Manny looked at me and I could see a hopeful expression on his face, but what he was hoping for I couldn’t tell.

“It’s Manny. I can drive, but I don’t have a lot of practice,” I said.

“You’ll be the driver then, Manny. You’ll drive the Merc,” Flattop said.

Manny looked a little green. “Really? I mean, I can do it, but what do I do if the cops are after me?”

“Just what you were going to do with Precious Peach, man,” I said. “Drive. Lose them and then ditch the car.”

Flattop nodded. “She’s got a ton of horsepower and I bet she’ll handle like a dream. Drive fast and don’t panic. As long as you get under cover before they send a helicopter after you, you’ll be good. You can lose a squad car pretty easy. Just go for underground parking, or a structure. Once you’re in there and they can’t see you, you ditch the car and book it. Seriously though, I hope that doesn’t happen. We need the cash.”

Manny was silent for a moment. This was his chance to back out. His shoulders gradually went back as he straightened up, steel entering his spine.

“Alright, I’ll do it.”