The Comet

The young guy driving my taxi was friendly, which was a bit surprising. I was in shadow, but that didn’t seem to bother him. He turned around in the seat and gave me a big grin. He was a skinny guy with olive skin and black hair, and his smile seemed genuine. His soul hadn’t yet been beaten down yet, it seemed.

“Hey, where can I take you?” he asked.

Fatih Özbayram, Trainee Driver (F1)

The nameplate gave me no indication of how to pronounce his name, so I didn’t even try.

“Uh, two stops. First a hardware store. Something decent sized.”

“You got it, Chief,” he said, and pressed the button to start the meter.

For the first five minutes I was watching behind us, making sure that no one was following. If they were, I didn’t see them. The traffic was pretty light by San Tadeo standards, so I was pretty sure I would have seen anyone following. Magnus was filling my life with paranoia, and I hated it.

Fatih had noticed me looking out his rear window, and piped up. “Don’t worry, Chief. No one’s following us.”

“Great, thanks. Sorry, how do you say your name?”

“Fatih,” he said, and made it sound a bit like farty.

“Thanks, Fatih,” I said, and he grinned at me in the rearview.

“Close, Chief! We’ll be at Wren’s in five minutes. You’re going to want me to wait?”

“Yeah, please.”

“No problem, Chief.”

Right on schedule we pulled into the parking lot of a big box store I’d never heard of. Wren’s Home Renovation. The lot wasn’t very full at this time on a Wednesday morning, so Fatih grabbed a spot right near the entrance.

“I’ll just wait right here, Chief. Take your time,” Fatih said.

I handed him a fifty dollar bill and stepped out of the car.

Other than the brands all being weird, there was nothing unexpected in Wren’s. I found the power tools section and a cordless drill easily enough. I hoped I wouldn’t need anything too crazy, because I didn’t want to carry a heavy one around. Cordless tools always came with some charge in the included battery, so I hoped it would be enough to drill an ignition.

I added a pack of drill bits for metal and a short, flathead screwdriver to the cart. Work gloves and a baseball cap with the Wren’s logo on it were next.

It took a bit of looking to find the last item—an automatic center punch. After my crash course with Hondo I’d remembered a video I’d watched where people used this little screwdriver-sized thing to quickly punch through car windows and I was eager to give it a shot. The one I bought was textured brass with a sharp, spring-loaded steel point on the end. It was just the right size to fit in my palm. Using the center punch seemed more elegant—and was certainly a lot smaller—than a hammer.

Once I had everything I went to the front, paid and bought one of Wren’s reusable cloth bags. I’d need something to carry this small collection of tools around in, and my backpack was still with Manny.

Outside the store I unwrapped everything, tossing the plastic and cardboard into the large trash can. The tools went into the cloth bag. I gave the trigger of the drill a pull, pleased to see that it seemed to have a decent amount of juice. Fatih watched through the open window of the taxi parked thirty feet away, a bemused expression on his face.

I walked over and got back into the taxi.

“Where to, Chief?”

That was a good question. What I wanted was a big parking lot or a structure full of cars. It was early in the morning, so I wasn’t quite sure where that would be. Another requirement was that there weren’t a ton of people moving around. I didn’t need someone to see me stealing my first car.

“The airport. It’s around there somewhere. I don’t know the exact address, but we can find it.”

“Right-o, the airport.”

I began to appreciate Fatih more and more as we drove in complete silence. He didn’t try to make awkward small talk or play terrible music. He just drove. We’d just exited the 105 West when he spoke again.

“We’re getting close, Chief. What are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it.”

“I parked my car in long term parking and need to pick it up,” I said.

“Great. Do you remember the name of the place?” Fatih asked.

“Uh, no. Sorry.”

“No problem, Chief. I know where a bunch of those long term places are. We’ll drive around until you see it.”

I resolved to tip the man. We drove down Century boulevard toward the airport. He pointed out a few lots as we drove, but they were all either totally exposed to passing traffic or too small. He turned off onto a side road.

“Some more up here, Chief.”

It was only another block when I saw what I wanted. A long, five story parking structure. It was “MollyPark Airport Parking.”

“That’s the one, Fatih,” I said.

He pulled over in front and stopped the meter. I winced when I saw it was $90, but it didn’t surprise me. I needed a car.

“Here you go, Chief. Take my card, and call me if you need a ride sometime.”

He handed me a glossy, color card with his name and number on it, and the logo of his taxi company. I pocketed it and handed him another $50 bill.

“Thanks, Fatih,” I said, opening my door to climb out. It was time to find my new car.

“Oh, one thing, Chief. The cameras on the fourth and fifth floors are just for show. They don’t work any more. Look for the red lights.”

I blinked, looking back at him. He just smiled at me, his expression unchanged. I peeled another $20 off my roll and handed it over.

“Thanks. Have a good one, Fatih.”

“You too, Chief. Good luck!”

With that, he drove off and left me standing there. I pulled on my Wren’s cap. I wasn’t sure what the cops would do with video of me stealing a car, but with the sunglasses and a cap I’d reduce their shots of my face.

The exit lane of the parking structure was a manned booth. One of those long, boxy beige cameras covered it. People would pull up and pay, and only then would the boom gate rise up and the spikes retract into the pavement. In hindsight, I probably should have stolen a car parked on the street.

I entered through the pedestrian entrance, stopping in front of a large sign. It was the rules of the structure, but what really struck me as important were these two lines:

“Do not leave your ticket in the vehicle!”


“For your protection, exiting the structure without your ticket is not possible!”

That would limit my options.

The first thing I did was confirm Fatih’s info. I made sure not to look into any of the cameras, but every one I looked at had a red light. Somewhere in this structure or nearby, a guard was watching an array of television screens. If they saw me breaking into a car, they’d be on me.

I went up and up until I hit the fourth floor and checked the first camera just outside the stairwell. No red light. Thank you, Fatih.

The fourth floor wasn’t full, but there was a wide selection. I wasn’t trying to be picky. I’d take whatever I could get, but I needed to keep the rules in mind. Not too loved, not too unloved. Plus, I had to find one where the owner had ignored the sign and left his ticket in the car.

I looked into every car on the fourth floor. Some had promising piles of paper on the dash or seats, but they were all busts.

The fifth floor was the roof. I knew from reading the sign that parking on the roof was the cheapest. It showed—the cars up here were a lot dustier. The bright side was that the top level was almost full. People love a bargain.

I walked along one row and then the next. No tickets. I was getting worried. Was there some way to get out without a ticket, despite what the sign said? If it was like other parking places, I’d have to pay the maximum amount. But maybe that wasn’t how it worked here? Maybe because of guys like me, they just straight up wouldn’t let me out?

On the third row, I struck gold. Sort of. Whatever it was, it was ancient. A boat of car that in the 70s was probably considered a compact car. It had a long hood, two doors and an aggressive stance. The white paint was flaking, and through the smeared driver’s side window I could see a scrap of paper right in the center of the bright red vinyl of the bucket seat. Just barely visible was the logo of MollyPark.

I still had no idea what the car I was looking at was, so I focused on it and the system told me.

1977 Mercury Comet White 6ZUE739

Damn, that was old. I hoped it would start. There was no one on the top deck at the moment, so there was no time to waste. I pulled a glove onto my right hand and fished in my pocket for the center punch. The doors on the car were incredibly long, and the glass would make a hell of a mess. I’d sweep it out of the car before I left, and pretend I had my window rolled down.

I’d pressed the center punch to the glass and was about to push on it when I noticed the rear windows. They were these strange, small triangles. Instead of rolling down, they hinged open a small amount. There was a catch to keep them closed, but it turned out they really sucked.

With a bit of force I popped the triangular window open. After that it was easy to reach through and pull the lock up. If I’d been a muscular guy I wouldn’t have been able to do that, so… yay for me?

Carefully stowing the ticket in my pocket, I sat in the driver’s seat and set my bag down beside me. The inside of the Comet smelled musty and stale. I used the crank on the door beside me to roll down the driver’s side window. The interior was spectacularly red, the seats, the dash, the steering wheel and even the rug various shades of red. You’ve got to love the seventies.

The ignition was where you’d expect, but scratched and loose. I didn’t have time to experiment—I did exactly what Hondo explained to me. Eyeballing the slot size, I fit the bit that looked big enough and drilled into the lock. The metal parted easily and I heard mechanical bits crunch as I drilled the length of a key. Pulling out to let the tumblers settle, I did it again. There was less noise this time.

Now, the moment of truth. I pulled the screwdriver out of the bag and inserted it into the key slot. I’d picked the right size, thankfully. I turned the screwdriver to the right one click, and the dash lights came on.


Nervous, I turned the key the final notch and held it. The starter cranked, a wheezy sound, but nothing happened. I let go, and then tried again. Same result.

“Fuck, I should have stolen a newer car,” I muttered.

I had a faint recollection that older cars didn’t have the same systems as newer cars – fuel ignition, that sort of thing. They were more temperamental. You had things like choke, and having to prime the carburetors. All that gear head stuff I had no idea about. Time to experiment.

I pumped the gas pedal—just once. I had a vision of that motion pushing gasoline somewhere it needed to be. Was this one of those unloved cars that Hondo had warned me about? Did it even have enough gas to start?

I turned the screwdriver again. This time the sound was different. A chugging, grumbling sound. The car shook as it struggled against itself. The sound got faster and the engine reluctantly sputtered to life. It sounded like it was about to die again, and rather than let it I pressed down on the gas pedal. It coughed and then roared to full life under the long, white hood.

Out of an excess of caution I kept the pedal slightly depressed, revving it higher than it needed for thirty seconds before I released it. It fell back into an agreeable, loping idle.

After I got my heart rate back under control, I looked around to see the top deck still deserted. I put the Comet in reverse and backed out of the space it was in. Down the ramps I went to the gate, joining a line of three other cars waiting to leave.

I kept my hat low to cover my face, but the guy manning the booth didn’t even look at me. He took the ticket from my hand, and then the amount I owed appeared on the display in front of me. $194.35. Ouch. Why was stealing a car so expensive?

He took my $200 and quickly made exact change. The bar in front of me went up, and I drove out onto the street in my first car.