Nicky Rawlins feels as if he’s in a coffin made of twitchy, defensive muscle surrounded by “Silver Dollar” Sam Carolla. He wonders if he’s actually hearing a deep, low dirge as they walk from Mr. Carolla’s car to his garage, an expansive one-story block with several vertically-aligned doors. The closest one begins sliding up and he ponders if, when it closes behind him, someone’ll be kind of enough to mark his final resting place.
“I’m so glad we could come to an understanding, Mr. Rawlins,” explained Sam Carolla. “Perhaps if you’d been wise enough to accept my earlier offer, the men I lost might still be alive.”
Nicky’s not normally smart at figuring what to say to people, but even he knew not to mention that if the men Sam referred to were alive, it’d mean him and his’d be dead. He just nodded his head, that seems to make most happy.
He put an arm toward the gentleman opening up the door, a man in his forties in crisp khaki overalls. “Now this man here is my personal mechanic. He will be supervising your stay here, and if you have any questions, they should be asked of him first, isn’t that right, errr…”
“Eric, sir,” he said tonelessly. “We’ll make sure he’s seen to.”
Mr. Carolla turned back to Nicky. “Eric knows what I’m looking for, he’s actually the one that suggested bringing in a more eccentric mind, so this job of yours is actually his idea. I expect to hear you thanked him before your time here is done.” Nicky nodded again. “He’s in your hands, Eric,” and with that Sam Carolla left, dumping Nicky out of his muscle-bound coffin and into Eric’s space.
Looking around, the place was spotless. Concrete floors without a spot of grease, not even a treadmark. Five cars were in the building, each one parked ready to pull out, each one park with geometric precision. This wasn’t a garage, Nicky thought to himself, it was a showroom.
A couple of Ford Model-As, one red and one black, polished so much they could qualify as light sources. A silver Rolls-Royce 20/25 that from the wear on the tires may’ve been driven five miles in its life. There was a 1929 Chevrolet sedan that, while spotless, showed a few signs of use, clearly the workhorse of the garage. Last of them was a [car John sent me]. Nicky suspected that was the newest addition to Carolla’s fleet, couldn’t quite figure why he thought that.
Nicky’s head swiveled back toward Eric, only then did Nicky realize Eric’d been tapping his foot for a while. “You listen to me you swamp-brained circus monkey,” Eric started, “this garage is MINE. Mr. Carolla trust ME with his cars, which makes it MINE. You have one job here, one purpose, and if you so much as put one drop of oil out of place, you will answer to me. You hear me, monkey? You mess up my garage and you will have trouble on a whole other front.” I nodded again. Eric glowered at him a bit longer, but soon tired of it. He took Nicky by the shoulder and led him down the garage, toward the Fords.
“Mr. Carolla’s interest in armored cars has been developing for a long time. New Orleans is his home and he’s tired of it being invaded. He needs the big guns. I saw what armored cars could do in the war, but I can’t build one from scratch.”
He led them through a door into the employee lounge, where three men in similar khaki overalls sat with paper cups of coffee trying to burn their hands. “These’re your fellow grease monkeys,” Eric said. Going left to right he introduced them, “Mark, Sam, and Terry. They’re gonna show you how we do things here. Once you get started working, which better be in no more than half an hour, these chimps are gonna be there to do whatever needs doin’. Capisce?” Everyone nodded.
Eric nodded back. “Alright, once you settle him in, come get me in the office and we’ll work out a shopping run.” He slammed the door behind him, leaving a blast zone of silence behind him.
Nicky looked at each of them, looking for the brave one to stand up and get this train wreck of a building project started. He waited long enough to confirm that any sense of bravery had been beaten out of them already before announcing himself. “I’m Nicky. What grade motor oil you drinking?”
Terry smiled first, hesitantly, but with the tension broken Mark and Sam both relaxed noticeably. “Some mixed blend Mr. Eric took a liking to during the war,” Terry explained. “Mr. Eric likes to run as close to military spec as he can.”
Nicky blinked at that. “I thought war was something of a dirty business, so how come he keeps his garage like a diner?” Nicky figured Claude wouldn’t serve his food off a floor no matter what, but in this place’s case, it’d be purely a matter of principle.
Mark spoke up, “Mr. Eric ain’t so bad, just really careful ‘at everything’s in its right place. Honest.”
Terry added, “You’ve just seen the staging area. Mr. Eric convinced Mr. Carolla to set up a separate area for the real work. Let’s go.”
As a unit, the three got out of their seats and scooted them back under the table. There was a different door from the one Nicky’d come through that they led Nicky through. It opened into a wide area that stank of scorched metal, burnt rubber, and filthy oil. Nicky blinked his eyes, took a deep breath, and thought this might not be so bad after all.
It was less than half the size of the “show room”, and most of the lighting was concentrated on the central stage, in which sat the carcass of another Chevy. This car was in the process of being torn down – Nicky heard a drip he figured was engine coolant being drained from the radiator. Mobile cabinets overflowing with tools surrounded it.
Sam announced, “This is where the work happens. Mr. Eric gave us this car to scrap over the weekend, thought we’d save the best stuff for your first day.”
Nicky swallowed. This was the nicest thing one “grease monkey”, let alone three, could do for another. It was so nice it hurt, but not as much as looking at the American-made car on stilts, in pieces but restorable. This car could drive out of here in a few days, but Baby… Baby wouldn’t.
He swallowed again, and took a deep breath. Another breath. He knew the words he needed to say, but they couldn’t get through. He slapped the railing, took one more breath, and snuck the words around the lump in his throat.
“Let’s do it.”
He fell into line with the others, maybe half a step behind, and took position under the radiator. This was easy. It was practically breaking it down itself, he was just watching. His hand shot up and plugged the hole – he couldn’t stand the idea of just watching while another car broke up. He blinked at himself, it was the last thing in the world he expected of himself, but here he was with his hands in another car. He put another hand in, gripping the radiator at its bolt to the engine block.
The next thing Nicky knew, Terry gripped his shoulder. It was 2am, and Sam and Mark were fading out. Nicky blinked a few times and reviewed the items tossed in a cone around his spot that, given three days of cleaning, greasing, and sweat, could be made into an engine.
“Oh, uhh, yeah. Surprised Mr. Eric hasn’t yelled at us already.”
Terry’s smile, the core of which never seemed to go away, took on an exhausted tone. “He doesn’t yell at us for staying late, he yells at us for coming in late. You got a ride?”
“No,” Nicky said matter-of-factly.
Terry sighed. “I’ll drive you tonight, but you should figure yourself a ride from now on.”
Nicky had something in mind.