by Dan Swanson
Now that Aleny Huong had ID, including a driver’s license, she could buy a car. But she realized that after she bought a car and then somehow concealed two million dollars inside, she would worry even more than ever about her car and her money being stolen. So she decided to buy a used car. As Zing the Queen of Quick, she did a super-speed tour of the local used car dealers one Sunday, found exactly the car she wanted, made some super-speed preparations, then went back to the dealership as Aleny late Monday afternoon.
The salesman who greeted her hated kids who wasted his time, and he’d developed an effective tool to make sure he didn’t waste time on them.
“You need to show me a valid driver’s license before you can buy a car,” he growled at her. The growl scared some of them away, and he used the age on the license to filter out the others, by blowing off anyone under twenty-one. He might lose some sales that way, but he didn’t end up wasting a lot of time on eighteen-year-old kids with no money looking for kicks driving someone else’s cars. He was really surprised when Aleny’s license revealed her age as twenty-seven; everyone always found it hard to guess her age. And of course the ID was fake, so her true age remained unknown. He was even more stunned as she casually thumbed through several hundred-dollar bills to put the license back in her wallet. His attitude toward her immediately improved, and he gave her his biggest, warmest smile. “I’m Don Harley. Glad to meet you. I hope we can do business.” They shook hands.
“I want a car,” she told him, “but not just any car. I want a fire-engine red 1954 Studebaker Commander.” The Commander was a nice car, but she figured anyone looking to steal a sports car would pick something newer, like a T-bird, Corvette, or a gull-wing Mercedes Benz, and surely would look for one with a nice paint job. So she was compromising. “When I was growing up, my father bought a wrecked ’54 Commander from a junkyard, and we rebuilt it. The previous owner rolled the car, and it caught fire. My dad replaced the interior, and I did all the bodywork. Then we rebuilt the engine together. He’s still got it, but I want one that looks just like it.”
Just the word dad caused Aleny to sadly remember her family, and she realized she didn’t think of them very often any more. Before she’d realized that she had somehow entered a parallel dimension (as she’d seen on the Twilight Limits TV show), she’d spent a lot of time searching for them, and after she realized this wasn’t her world, she’d spent as much more time looking for analogs — with no luck, either here in Chicago or in her family’s ancestral village in China. At least the village was still there. She wished she’d told the salesman some other story, but then realized she could make use of her emotions.
She let her sadness reach her voice. “I’ll pay cash for it if I can drive it home today.” She sighed wistfully. “I’ve been to all the local used car dealers, and I’ve been checking the papers for over a month and haven’t even found something close. And I don’t want to wait any longer. They’ve got a ’54 Commander at Yard Dog Salvage, and if you don’t have what I want, I’m going to buy that one and rebuild it myself.”
“We have several Studebakers on the lot; let me go check with my boss and see if we have one you might like.” Harley walked into the building and checked the lot inventory list, and there was a red ’54 Commander out in back. He started mentally counting his commission.
On his way out he stopped to check in with the boss. “Got a live one here, boss — gonna unload one of those old Studebakers.” He had never before tried selling this particular car, but he’d never let ignorance stand in the way of a sale before, and he wasn’t about to start now.
The boss smiled. “Don, if you can get one of those clunkers off the lot today, I’ll give you a bonus. They’ve been here for months, and nobody’s even looked at them,” he replied.
The salesman walked back to Aleny, a big smile on his face. “I think I have just what you want. Let’s go take a look.” As they walked, he kept talking. “I was just talking to the boss — you’re lucky you showed up today. He’s offering a special deal today through Wednesday. But somebody was in here Friday, looking at the Commander, and he told the boss he’ll be back tomorrow if it’s still here. Good thing you want to buy it today.” He chuckled. “You’re going to love this car,” he predicted.
When they could see the front of the car, parked between a couple of other older Studebakers, Aleny stopped and practically swooned. “Oh! That’s the one! I gotta have it!” she exclaimed breathlessly. “It looks just like the one I worked on. I love that bright fire engine red! Same model — and it looks like new. How much did you say it was?”
It should look new, Harley thought. We pay that dumb teen kid enough to wax and polish them all once a month. Based on her reaction, he chose a ridiculous number. “We were asking a thousand, but with this week’s special deal, I can let you have it for eight hundred.”
“C’mon, buddy, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday, or even last week,” she said scornfully. “That car sold for around fifteen hundred when it was brand new, and that was seven years ago. I’ll give you three hundred cash, max, if I can drive it home today.”
Three c-notes cash was an awfully tempting offer. It saved the hassle of dealing with a check, and there was something really sweet about the fell of a hundred-dollar bill. But the dealership had bought it for one hundred and seventy-five dollars at auction, and his boss would shoot him if he didn’t get at least twice that. And of course there was the size of his commission to consider. He guessed she had at another two hundred dollars or more in her wallet, at least, and determined that he was going to get at least five hundred dollars for this car.
He kept talking as the approached the car. “Young lady, that’s not just any car we picked up off the street. Our buyer only picks the very best cars to start with, then we clean ’em, tune ’em up, give them a top-to-bottom one-hundred-point certification inspection, and then spray on undercoating. And there’s only fifteen-thousand miles on that baby — it’s almost as good as new!”
“I really can’t go any higher than three hundred,” she insisted. “Darn!” She started to turn away. “I guess I’d better not get attached to it.”
“Hold on,” he said sympathetically. “I might be able to come down a little bit. Why don’t we go for a drive?” They could now see the sides of the car.
“Oh, no!” she exclaimed with a little choke in her voice. “Look at that!” she pointed to the side of the car, where there were at least three scratches running from the front fender all the way to the back.
“Crap! It’s been keyed!” Harley started swearing. He looked at the next car in line, a ’54 Studebaker Conestoga station wagon. It, too, had been keyed. He ran down the line of cars and found five more of them defaced with the same type of ugly scratches. “I’m sorry, lady, but I gotta go tell the boss!” He ran off toward the office.
An hour later, after the police had come and gone, Harley was surprised to find that Aleny was still there. “Mr. Harley, is the Commander still for sale?” she asked shyly. “I’m still interested.”
“I’m going to have to raise the price to cover getting the paint job fixed,” he said heavily. “You couldn’t afford it.”
“Can you cut the price and sell it as is? I can do the bodywork and touchup myself,” she said, almost pleading.
Maybe he could still get that bonus, he thought. “Let’s take a ride, and then see if we can agree on a price,” he said.
A couple of blocks from the lot, they merged onto a highway. As she accelerated, the car started to shudder, and a few seconds later, a cloud of blue smoke poured out of the exhaust. The car slowed considerably, even though she held the pedal down. As they slowed, the shuddering eased, but the car continued to spew blue smoke.
“Damn! The same thing happened to my family’s car. Head gasket gave out and let oil leak into the pistons. Oil doesn’t burn as well as gas; the car loses power and spits blue smoke until you replace the gasket — or burn all your oil and melt the engine! Took me a whole day to replace it.”
“I know how cars work, young lady,” he snapped at her. Coming on top of the breakdown, he didn’t need some woman lecturing him on cars.
“I thought you said your mechanic did a thorough checkup on this car?!” she snapped back. “It’s a good thing we haven’t gone very far — we may have to walk back.”
Harley was having trouble believing this. His lot didn’t actually have a mechanic do a one-hundred-point inspection on their cars, but he’d never had one fall apart like this on him before. All he wanted right now was to get back to the lot. He snarled at her, “Stop the car — I want to drive!” He was sure it was somehow her fault; things like this never happened when he let a man test drive a car.
By the time they got back to the lot, he was even more livid. He had never been more embarrassed in front of a customer before. The damn car had stalled twice on the way back to the lot, and even when he could get it moving, it wouldn’t go over ten miles per hour, and clouds of blue smoke were billowing out the back. Passing cars were blaring horns at them for driving so slowly, people were leaning out their windows and swearing at them because of the smoke clouds, and passing pedestrians were flashing salutatory hand gestures. Harley’s mood got even more savage.
“This #^@%!*& piece of $#!^ car!” Harley screamed as they turned off the road. “Now you die!” He tried to accelerate and crash into the stone wall surrounding the lot, but it stalled again. “I’m going to give you to the shop for spare parts and send the rest the damn crusher!” He heard a muffled noise from the passenger seat and looked over. If she was trying to hold back laughter, he wasn’t sure how he would react.
Instead, he was stunned to see that she was sobbing. “It’s such a beautiful car… if the engine wasn’t in pretty good shape otherwise, we wouldn’t have made it back. Don’t let them wreck it!” He was astonished. His sales instincts took over, and his anger was swept temporarily into mental storage. Maybe he could make something out of this yet.
“Miss, you said you and your dad rebuilt the engine on his car?” She looked up at him, held back a sniff, and nodded. “And you like working on cars?”
Again she nodded. “It… sniff… reminds me of him.”
“Would you like to be able to work on this one?” This time she nodded eagerly, and stopped sniffing. There was hope in her eyes.
“Tell you what — it would cost me a lot to have our shop put this car back in condition to sell it. Maybe we could make you a deal to take it–” He raised his voice for emphasis. “–as is, for say, three hundred?”
“I offered you three hundred when I thought it was in good shape, remember?” she asked scornfully. “You’re going to end up junking it — I’ll just wait and buy it from the junkyard.”
He thought fast. She was right; the cost to fix the paint and put a new head gasket in, assuming that was all that was wrong with this beast, would be more than the dealership would pay. They’d get twenty-five dollars, at most, from the junkyard. “How about one hundred?”
“Fifty bucks — and you fill the gas tank,” she responded.
It was after five o’clock now, and the dealership was deserted. Harley was anxious to get home, so he filled out the paperwork himself, and they did the deal. Aleny babied the car around to the service area where Harley filled it up, and then drove slowly off the lot, spewing blue smoke as she went. Harley congratulated himself on making lemonade and went home. It wasn’t until after his second martini that he started to worry about what he was going to tell his boss.
A few blocks away from the dealer, the smoke cloud from the Commander’s exhaust started to clear up, and the power picked up, and by the time Aleny reached home, the car was running like a watch. She’d learned a trick when she was younger. A couple of quarts of oil in an almost-empty gas tank sure caused a car to burn oil. And her super-speed vibrations made the car shake so violently, just before the oil had finally worked its way through the fuel line and into the carburetor, perfectly timed to simulate the head gasket giving way. The full tank of new gas had diluted the oil and pretty much negated the bad effects. Even the scratches on the sides would make the older car even less attractive to thieves. Yes, a very satisfying deal.
In preparation for this day, she’d already bought and packed some big suitcases. She stuffed them into the trunk, then used a little super-speed friction to weld the trunk shut. She piled the rest of her bags in the back, hopped in, and headed west. She was hoping to get to Cedar Rapids before midnight.