by Dan Swanson
“Don’t worry, Miss,” the police sergeant chuckled as he saw Aleny Huong’s puzzled expression at being brought to a blacksmith’s shop. “Wayland Steele’s also the best mechanic for miles around.”
His partner snickered, “The only one for miles around,” but they both ignored him.
“Around here, see, it’s a mite different than what you big city folks are used to. Folks are still as likely as not to get around on their horses as in a car. Cheaper, more reliable, and a durn sight better in the snow!” He smiled. “Int’restin’ his name is Steele, him being a blacksmith an’ all, isn’t it? If he can’t get the car fixed, nobody can. Probably can point you to a place to stay, too.” He hopped out of the patrol car and opened the rear door for her. “If you have any problems at all, you just call Highway Patrol Post 37 and ask for Sergeant Lester — that’s me!”
Ironic that a cop would be sweet on her, she thought. “Thanks, guys. I should be OK from here.” She waved as they left, and walked into the smithy. It was hot, probably close to a hundred degrees, but ever since she had gained her powers, heat no longer bothered her much. A big man dressed in black leather was pounding away at a glowing iron bar; she was amazed at his strength and skill as he quickly and easily formed it into a horseshoe, then quenched it in a tub of oil. He finally noticed her, put down his tools, and removed his mask. He was an imposing man, with wide shoulders and a narrow waist, muscular arms, and a handsome face, with a twinkle in his dark eyes, a big smile, and white-blond hair in a short, flat-topped crewcut.
Looks a lot like Bud Barcley, but with white hair, she thought. Bud Barcley was a famous pilot, explorer, and adventurer on the parallel Earth she’d come from.
“Hey, pretty lady, c’mon in here — it’s a lot cooler.” Wayland Steele walked through a door, waving her to follow. “Welcome to the House of Steele. What can I do for you?” The room she stepped into gave her more confidence that he could fix her car; it was a large, cool garage with several bays, a lift, and auto mechanic’s equipment scattered throughout. “Smithy, auto mechanic, small engine repairs, and a tip-top machine shop,” he continued. “Whatever you need, I oughtta be able to fix you right up!” He certainly didn’t lack for confidence. She was happy to hear that confidence; she’d liked her poor, damaged Studebaker Commander and wanted to have it fixed up right.
“The highway patrol says you can fix cars; I need you to fix mine.” She followed this up by telling him about her crash.
“So, I’ll take the wrecker up to the highway and tow her back here to see what she needs,” said Wayland. “Wanna ride along?” Of course she did; she needed to make sure he didn’t do any exploring down on the riverbank.
“I have to say, I never ever expected to meet a blacksmith in my entire life,” Aleny said wonderingly as the big truck roared to life. “Didn’t know there were any left.”
“Well, it’s a big country, an’ a lot of folks ain’t ready to give up their hosses just yet. Sides, fixin’ cars just don’t take up ’nuff time to keep me busy.”
“So, where’d you learn to fix cars, anyway?” She still wanted reassurance that he’d take good care of her car.
“B’lieve it or not, in the Navy! I did maintenance and engineering on a troopship for five years. Worked on ever’thin’ from the ship’s engines to her generators to the radar, sonar, and communications gear to the kitchen appliances. When you’re halfway ‘tween California and Korea, you can’t just call out for the Sears guy to come fix what’s broken. Reckon I can fix just about anything, mostly better’n new.” He turned and winked at her. “So, tell me ’bout you.”
She wasn’t really comfortable talking about herself. She’d spent some of the lonely hours on her drive figuring out her public story, but she’d prefer to keep him talking. “What’s a Navy guy doing in the mountains? There’s no water within a hundred miles where you can float anything bigger than a kayak.”
“You got that ‘xactly right!” Wayland agreed vehemently. “After five years on that damned boat, I don’t never again wanna see more water in one place than a farm pond!”
“You were on the same ship the whole time you were in the Navy?” she wondered.
“The C.C. Balloo, most of it,” he said. “Posted into frogman school after that, and started training for UDT, but I had to drop out. Can’t clear my ears below about sixteen feet. Could’a re-upped after that, but I had me a belly-full’a officers, and a hankerin’ to come back to the mountains. So’s here I am.”
By now they’d reached Aleny’s car, and Wayland pulled the big wrecker in behind it. They got out to look over the damaged Commander. Wayland whistled. “Wooo-eee! You’re shore lucky you didn’t roll that baby!” She’d thought so, too, but she felt like she was becoming an old hand at keeping a car under control during a spin.
“Might have something to do with the low profile of the car, too,” she responded thoughtfully. Wayland was now on his back, taking a peak inside the wheel compartment.
“Looks mighty serious. Busted tie rod, toe control, and both ball joints. Plus, you’re gonna need a new wheel and tire. I’m gonna have to take ‘er back to the shop. Don’t have the parts we need there, either, gonna have to call around. Once I find ’em, prob’ly take three, four days before they get here, at least.”
“Show me!” she suggested, while thinking that once he’d located the parts, she could probably get them here a lot faster than whatever method he had in mind.
“Hold yer hosses, pretty lady!” he replied. “Once I get ‘er up on the hook, it’ll be way easier to take a look.” He looked surprised at what he’d said, then smiled. “Say, I’m a poet!”
“I guess you are, at that,” she agreed, smiling back at him. She wasn’t surprised at the diagnosis, and the wait didn’t really dismay her. She wasn’t in any hurry, and she’d already decided that this small city might offer some pleasant distractions.
Once the front end was off the ground, Wayland pointed out the damage. Aleny was a good enough mechanic herself to see how serious it really was, and she shuddered as she realized how close the hit had come to totally collapsing the wheel. That likely would have flipped the car, regardless of her efforts behind the wheel. Even if she could have vibrated out of the car, it could have been very serious.
On the way back to the shop, Wayland gave her the run-down on Benington. “We got one hotel, the Benington Arms. Fancy name, and years ago it was a fancy place. It’s full up now, anyways, with the big convention in town. The widow Marmion runs a roomin’ house, cheaper ‘n the hotel, and she serves breakfast and dinner. You can prob’ly stay there. We got us the mine, the horse track, the best semi-pro football team in the ‘Merican Southwest and, once a year, the convention.”
She could tell that he approved of the convention. And it sounded like it might provide her with some business opportunities as well. If she was going to be stuck here for several days, she was going to need some more spending cash, and she didn’t want to disturb the cases buried near the riverbank unless she had to. “OK, I’ll bite. Why are you so excited about this big convention?”
“It shows, huh?” he chuckled. “The Second Annual Benington and Southwest Conference of Inventors! This year, we got a guest ‘ppearance by Joe Wright, an automotive inventor who used to be a good friend of Captain Marvel Junior. (*) We got more’n thirty inventors signed up to show off their new inventions and more’n a half-dozen major corporations lookin’ to license patents.” Pride was evident in his voice as he spoke.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Captain Marvel Jr. Fights Terror on the Speedway,” Captain Marvel Jr. #66, (October, 1948).]
“You’re somehow involved, aren’t you?” she guessed. She was smiling, too; his enthusiasm was contagious.
“You betcha!” said Wayland Steele, giving her a smile as big as a mountain. “I got the Chamber of Commerce to sponsor the whole thing last year. In fact, I sold a patent to DeSoto for a seventy-mile-per-gallon carburetor; oughtta start showing up in new cars around ’63. I’m gonna be get rich and famous, and DeSoto is gonna be the biggest car company in the world!” He turned and winked at her. “And I got somethin’ even better comin’ this year!”
He pulled up to the garage behind the smithy. “Let me put ‘er into a bay, and I’ll walk over to widow Marmion’s with you, get you settled.” He checked his watch. “Should get there just about dinner time. You’ll love it; she’s a great cook!”
Aleny was satisfied. At least something was going her way today.
Mrs. Marmion invited Wayland Steele for dinner, as he had clearly expected. He managed to sit next to Aleny Huong and was very attentive to her throughout the meal. There were three other boarders, and they frequently turned the conversation to her. Eventually, her fabricated story came out.
“My name is Lee Han.” Or at least, that’s what it said on her license. “Not too long ago, my folks passed away. After they died, there was no reason for me to stay in Chicago, so I’m moving back to San Francisco, where I grew up.” She never gave a specific amount of her inheritance, but managed to give the impression that it was around $50,000; she didn’t want anyone thinking she was a rich heiress, but that was enough so that no one ought to wonder how she could afford to hang around Benington waiting for her car to get fixed. She didn’t have to feign sadness over her parents, as she knew she would probably never see them again, and in fact would never actually know if they were still alive or not.
She asked a lot of questions about the town, and Mrs. Marmion gave her some brochures with maps describing all the local attractions. Everyone was excited about the convention; it would bring about five hundred people into town and do a lot to pump up the local economy. The pleasant conversation continued over tea in the sitting room, and Aleny was surprised when Wayland begged off at nine o’clock, saying he had to get his sleep. She’d been hoping he’d ask her to go for a stroll under the stars. They tried to get him to stay, but no luck.
“Drop by the shop early t’morrow, and we’ll get the paperwork out of the way,” he said with a grimace. He didn’t like paperwork any more than she did. “I’ll git started taking out the busted stuff, and see if’n there’s anythin’ we missed out on the road. I usually git goin’ ’round seven.” She said she would, and he shook hands with her before he left. She smiled as he gave her hand an extra squeeze.
She’d spent a lot of time thinking on the road, and not just about her cover story. If she kept pulling unsolvable, impossible crimes all the route from Chicago to Las Vegas after Zing’s disappearance from Chicago, any smart investigator would be able to connect the dots. And Colonel Anthony Spinelli was as smart as they came. She was fortunate the convention was going on; if she was the only outsider in town and there were a bunch of robberies, people would naturally suspect her. But with that many extra people in town, she probably wouldn’t be the primary suspect. But she had to make sure nobody would suspect Zing the Queen of Quick was involved. Maybe she could get some ideas from the inventors’ convention.
The next day was very relaxing. She watched Wayland Steele put her poor, hurt Commander up on the lift and start taking out broken parts. He didn’t find any additional damage from the accident, but pointed out a dent in the oil pan. “You don’t need t’ change that, but you oughtta know it’s there.” Finally, he had all the damaged parts out.
“OK, now that I know what I need, I can get started on findin’ this stuff. I could check wi’ Studebaker, but I can prob’ly get good-as-new used parts a sight cheaper from a guy I know in Denver a lot sooner. If’n he’s got ’em in stock, I’ll wire him the cash via Western Union, and he’ll box ’em up, take ’em down to the Greyhound terminal, and put ’em on the overnight bus to Kansas City. If he doesn’t, he’ll check with the other used parts places in Denver and get back to me. New or used?” he asked.
Aleny knew from experience that used-parts place usually meant junkyard, but her dad had got almost all his parts from a used-parts dealer, and if Wayland thought it was all right, she was willing to trust him. “If you think the used parts will be OK, go ahead,” she agreed.
“What happened to the sides and trunk latch?” he asked curiously.
“They were like that when I bought the car; the reason I got it so cheap,” she responded a little nervously. “The guy who was selling it was pretty secretive about it, and I didn’t press him for details. I got the impression there was some kind of feud involved.” Wayland looked thoughtful, but to her relief, he changed the subject.
“Why don’t you check out Benington f’r th’ rest of the mornin’, and meet me for lunch ‘cross the street.” He pointed to a neat little café. “See you about one?”
“See you then,” she agreed, pleased.
There were two car dealers, one of which sold Henny Kilowatt electric cars and King Midgets, and the other was a Rambler dealer. No wonder they still use horses! she thought with amusement. They wouldn’t have enough cash on hand to warrant a return visit some night later this week. She paid special attention to the two banks, both of which were fairly innocuous.
The convention didn’t actually start until tomorrow, and it was being held in the high school gym. She’d watch to see what they did with the cash box at the end of the day. The Benington Arms would make an interesting target as well. She walked into the lobby and checked it out, pleased to see the big walk-in safe behind the check-in desk. She wondered what might be in it tomorrow night, when the hotel was filled to capacity.
She passed the Western Union store, which had a sign in the window indicating that Greyhound busses stopped there twice a day, one headed for Denver and the other for Kansas City. There was a pretty big grocery, Furr’s, and two service stations, Enco and Signal Oil. The Enco station was still in transition; they had the new sign, but the pumps still had the Humble logo. And then it was time for lunch.
After lunch, Wayland proposed taking her on a tour of the mine.
“Hey, shouldn’t you be working on my car?” she complained.
“Nothin’ more I can do ’till the parts get here. Ol’ Roge is gonna have t’go out on the lot and pull out what we need. He’ll call me t’morrow and let me know.”
She was enjoying spending time with him, so she agreed. He stayed for dinner at the rooming house again that night, and after tea, they sat together on the swing on the porch. Wayland pleased her by taking her hand, and they snuggled together as the temperature went down and the moon came up. But he puzzled her again, when he went home around ten. Did he think she was going to change into a pumpkin, or maybe a dragon?
Unknown to Aleny Huong, and everyone else in Benington, Wayland Steele wasn’t heading home to bed. He needed to get ready to go out on his early patrol.