The Local Big Brother You Can Trust
Pace arrived early to open the shop. Before seven used to be the only time he had to himself to tinker around anymore; by eight the shop would be full of people dropping their cars off on the way to work, and then one of the junior mechanics would drive them all to work and the shop would swing into gear.
This half hour or forty-five minutes with the shop to himself used to be the best time of the day. Pace had gotten into mechanics in the first place because he liked tinkering with things, but the demands of running a commercial shop meant that he had to account for all his time, which meant that a lot of the joy of simply wrenching on something had leaked away over the years. By the time the shop closed at night, he was exhausted and ready to go home, so hanging around and working on a project for the joy of it…. Well.
First thing in the morning was when he reclaimed the joy. Or had been.
It’s hard to complain about an employee who arrives before sunup, works solidly and steadily all day long, and leaves well after sundown, and only ever clocks eight hours. Hard, but if you pressed him, Pace could find a way to complain.
Fishy Jackson, nineteen years old, was a natural with all things mechanical. He couldn’t get enough of them, and they responded to him: he seemed to be able to diagnose a problem by simply standing nearby and feeling the vibrations in the air. Give him a problem, he’d solve it, quickly and with something approaching genius; cars often ran better after Fishy fixed a small problem than they’d run before they’d had the problem.
Pace had a hard time keeping up with Fishy. He wasn’t going to take work away from the other mechanics because this prodigy did fast work; that was just bad business in the long run — it seemed obvious that Fishy would move on, sooner or later; there were opportunities for a genius that Pace couldn’t compete with, and then the shop would go back to simply having its normal cadre of mechanics, and having all of them hold a grudge because Pace had favored the new kid… well.
So the kid was at loose ends in the shop a lot, and he worked on things. There was a working PA system, now, because Fishy though there ought to be one, for calling to the floor from the office. Pace had thought standing at the top of the stairs and raising his voice worked just fine, but a PA was fine too. There was a much-improved computer diagnostic station, now, and…
Well, there was a computer near every bay, that way mechanics could look up problems on the Internet. It wasn’t that Pace was opposed to new things, but he’d learned the trade by shoving everything into his brain, so it was hard for him to accept that… well, it wouldn’t have occurred to him, that’s all.
Fishy was hunched over a keyboard near his bay. There was something exciting sounding playing on the computer’s speakers.
For the six hundredth time, Pace decided to try and talk to the kid. Eventually he’d figure out how to interact with him in some other way than giving him work to do.
The sound coming out of the computer was a police scanner. Pace did a lot of work on police cars, so he knew a lot of the local police and he recognized voices.
“What’s going on?” he said it from a little ways back, so Fishy knew he was there. Fishy didn’t startle — ever — but it seemed polite anyhow.
“Bank robbery last night,” said Fishy. “That guy came in two days ago, looked weird? Sort of shifty? Robbed the First National, downtown. Almost got away, too; hid that car out in the shed behind Lefty’s, slept in it. Started moving first thing this morning, so I called the cops.”
“You called the…” Pace looked over Fishy’s shoulder. There was a map of Brownsville on the screen, zoomed in to a couple of blocks of downtown. Little icons of cars were arranged on the screen; it was easy to tell the police cars — blue — from the red of the perpetrator’s car. “Where’s this coming from? Where’s… how can you watch where all those…”
Fishy turned on his stool and gave him the look that had gotten him his nickname. Pace stared at the screen, listening to the drama unfold over the radio.
It was buried in between two layers of baffling next to the wheel well, so he’d had to trace out the entire wiring harness to find it.
“Fucking bastard,” he muttered under his breath.
It was maybe the hundredth of these he’d removed from a customer’s car since he’d fired Fishy.
After seven, the shop was basically abandoned; Pace was spending more and more time here at this hour, getting things done that hadn’t gotten done during the day. He found it peaceful, and a surprising number of his customers were happy to come pick up their cars outside of working hours. He was thinking of just setting up a regular evening-shift.
At least this one was simple: A tracking device which broadcast its location to anybody who knew what to listen to. The more complicated ones gave periodic updates of engine status and logs, and had to be dug out of the OBD harness as well as the power system.
There was a bin full of the little devices tucked into the bay that was currently his, formerly Fishy’s. He was having to do a lot of work himself to make up for Fishy, even after he’d hired another mechanic; the creepy little fuck, it turned out, was an even better mechanic than Pace had thought he was.
He pulled the sinister little thing out of Bob Whittaker’s truck, painstakingly trying to make sure there was no sign it’d been there. He even ended up smudging the dirt on the wiring harness to cover up the fact that some wires’d been removed.
As near as Pace could tell, Fishy’d been doing his actual job about twice as fast as Pace’d thought he’d been doing it, and using the extra time for personal projects — like putting tracking devices in all Pace’s customer’s cars.
If Fishy’d kept any records of what cars he’d installed tracking devices in, Pace hadn’t been able to figure it out. He’d simply taken to checking each car that came in; there were three or four places they were usually hidden.
Pace had seriously considered just having every customer who’d been in since Fishy’d worked there come in, but he just didn’t have the mechanics to handle that kind of job; so he’d been doing it on the down-low, as they said, checking each car as it came through again.
Pace nearly jumped out of his skin; he hadn’t heard the owner of the car he was working on come back in, and the tension of working through the secret of Fishy’s little spy network was playing on his nerves.
“Bob,” he said, not looking up. “Just about done…”
Tune-up, he thought, forty-five minutes. Oil change, 15 minutes. Removing a tracking device… priceless.
“Everything where you left it?” Bob Whitaker’s joke, meant to emphasize his ongoing relationship with the shop and with Pace, almost sent Pace into a tail-spin of self-doubt.
“Uh… yeah,” he said. “Just about.”
He was trying to think of some counter-joke when the dim light of evening was suddenly full of blue-and-white flashes as a bunch of police cruisers revved into the bay, carefully slotting together to make sure it would be impossible for either man to escape on foot.
Pace put wrench down and raised his hands over his head, making sure to step away from the truck’s open hood. Whitaker did the same, stepping in the other direction.
After all of the police cars were in position, one of them gave its siren a single hit, just in case the two men in the shop hadn’t noticed the cruisers rolling up on them.
“Fuck,” said Whitaker.
“Bob Whitaker,” said a voice over the loudspeaker, “You’re under arrest for dog fighting. Please remain where you are while officers secure you.”
As the voice boomed out, two officers bounced out of two different cruisers and grabbed hold of Bob Whitaker, turning him around and cuffing his hands behind him.
“Fuck,” said Whitaker, again.
“Shit,” said Pace.
As the two police officers hustled Whitaker into the back of one of the patrol cars, a policeman with silver around his temples and a sergeant’s strips on his shoulder stepped out of his car and walked up to Pace, offering his hand; Pace shook it.
“How’s it going, Hal?” The sergeant completed the handshaking maneuver and turned to stand beside Pace, both of them watching as the patrol cars pulled away, one by one.
“Good, Larry.” Larry Service was one of Pace’s regular contacts with the little local police department; in a town this small, they didn’t have a dedicated motor-pool specialist, so Larry handled it.
“Want to thank that mechanic of yours,” said Service. “Jackson. He’s been giving us some valuable tips…”
Pace pursed his lips.
Driving home that night felt surreal, like he was in a movie, one of those dark sci-fi ones where unseen people were watching him from shadows or spaceships or whatever. He couldn’t get over the idea that there was a camera in the car, a microphone…
He’d been over his car from top to bottom. He’d found a tracking device, one of the standard ones, and then he’d found another, more sophisticated tracking device, mounted under the battery. He couldn’t shake the idea that there might be more that he just hadn’t found yet.
He wasn’t getting enough sleep, he knew that, and the overwork… it was not doing anything for his sense of equilibrium. It was after eight, and he’d be back at work again before seven, and then again, and again, until he was caught up. He hadn’t even decided when that would be; maybe when a week or two had gone by and he hadn’t found a bug in a repeat customer’s car.
Speaking of repeat customers… He slowed to a halt and pulled to the right, then backed up until he arrived back at the car he’d just passed on the side of the road. He jumped out of the car and walked over to where Mrs. Carlton was sitting in her car, looking lost.
“Evening, ma’am,” said Pace. She looked concerned, but not particularly panicked. She was the wife of a long-time customer — customer from before it was Pace’s shop, in fact — who’d died last year; he’d been making sure to take good care of her and the car, though he hadn’t seen her lately. He suppressed a twinge of guilt over not having noticed until now. It was one of the thing that happened when you got too busy, you dropped the little touches that made everybody happy.
“Oh, Mister Pace,” she said. She looked a little sheepish. “How fortunate that you came by, I just… well, it made a funny noise, and then it started driving strangely, so I decided…”
Pace smiled. “Of course, ma’am,” he said. “Probably a good choice. Maybe I could have a look under the hood?”
The problem was obvious to him, just standing there: the front driver’s side tire was flat. But he couldn’t not look for a tracking device; it was just part of his process now.
“Of course,” she said, and reached down to pop the hood. She was still looking sheepish. He suddenly realized that he could guess why.
“Been taking the car over to Fishy’s?”
“Well,” she said, “It’s closer to the house, you know…”
And, of course, although he’d fired Fishy, he’d been very cagey about it, not wanting to explain to his customers that they were all being tracked, so when Fishy’d opened up his own garage, a lot of his customers had tried him out, assuming it was a case of the fledgeling taking flight. Pace’d gone along with it, though he gritted his teeth.
There it was, wired into the battery harness and tucked up beside the wheel well; it was one of the complicated ones, though, and it looked like it was even more sophisticated than…
“Oh,” said Mrs. Carlton. “Look at that, we’re saved.”
Pace looked up; a tow truck had pulled up behind the car, and the driver was climbing out.
“Ma’am,” said the driver. “Mister Pace.”
“Sid,” said Pace. He was trying to come up with an explanation as to why he was under the hood when the flat tire was obvious for all to see.
“Ma’am, Fishy Jackson, over at Jackson’s Garage, called me up, said you might have had a spot of trouble.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Carlton, “I did, but Mister Pace stopped by, so…”
“No,” said Pace, “It’s just a flat tire, he’s better equipped to…” He glanced longingly at the tracker, tucked down in its little niche, and let the hood slam.
“Well,” said Mrs, Carlton, “That’s so nice. I swear, Mister Jackson just seems to have a sixth sense for when things go wrong, don’t you think?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” said Pace, then tipped his hat, nodded to Sid the tow truck driver, and climbed back in his car.
To hell with it, it was time to get some sleep anyway. Things would look better in the morning.
In the morning it was clear to Pace that he had to do something.
He wasn’t sure what, or why. It seemed obvious that something… that…
It seemed like it was clearly wrong that Fishy was putting bugs in his customers’ cars. It seemed likely to him that that was against the law in some way, but he wasn’t sure that it was.
Pace had learned the Constitution in school, had had to memorize the bill of rights, but he was pretty sure there was more to it than that. The whole thing with courts and Congress. He’d been thinking, in Civics class, about how to make his old Dodge Dart lay a hundred feet of rubber, so the knowledge of how laws work hadn’t really penetrated.
Fuck it, he thought, he knew the police, right? He’d ask Larry Service about it.
“Well.” Larry looked sheepish and wouldn’t meet Pace’s eyes. “I mean, the way it works is, if it was us that planted tracking devices in everybody’s car, it’d be an invasion of privacy and an overstepping of police authority.” He said “invasion of privacy” and “overstepping of police authority” as though he were quoting something.
“The thing is, though…” Larry was sitting behind his desk, looking at his hands. “The thing is, if some private citizen is doing it…”
“What, seriously?” Pace couldn’t believe that this might be the way it worked.
Larry shrugged. “As far as I know,” he said. “If you like, I can get you an appointment with the DA and she can go over the finer points; I ran this all past her and she’s OK with it.”
“Yeah, but… Larry, it’s just wrong.”
“I suppose…” Larry sighed. “It depends on how you look at it, right? Fishy’s a private citizen providing a service. He’s…”
“…Just hear me out… he’s proactively monitoring the status of his customers’ cars, in order to provide better service, and he’s doing it free of charge. Right? So in the course of providing this free service, information becomes available to him that shows that the customer is breaking the law…”
“We’re not talking about… about monitoring their timing, we’re talking about tracking their every move.”
Larry shrugged, as if to say that the physical location of the car in space was only one of many relevant details that a mechanic might want to know about his customers’ cars.
“None of them know he’s doing it.”
Larry nodded. “Well,” he said, “that brings up an interesting avenue. You can certainly sue him, if you like… I mean, if you’re one of his customers. Or you could just try telling his customers what’s going on…”
“Yeah, but…” That would mean telling them that he’d been doing it when he worked at Pace’s shop, too. That would require some thought.
“Look,” said Larry, “For what it’s worth, we here in the police department think it’s making for a safer town. For everyone. And we don’t see that it’s doing anybody any harm. If you can come up with an example of Fishy misusing the information he’s gathering…”
Well, thought Pace, he’s turning it over to the police. He didn’t expect Larry to see things his way on that one.
“Shit.” Pace got into his car and drove down to the shop. He managed to stop himself from checking, again, to see if his car had been bugged. It had never re-appeared after he’d removed it, but finding it there… well, he was feeling a little paranoid about everything.
The work day went by in a blur. The number of cars in was down; of course, there were two shops in town now. And none of the ones that came in that day had tracking devices in them; but that took almost more time, because finding something that isn’t there always takes more time than finding something that is.
By the time the last of his mechanics went home, he was exhausted and ready to go home and go to bed. He sat at his desk, though, and stared through the big window that looked down onto the shop floor, and mostly saw his reflection, and he thought about the future.
“Fishy.” His voice echoed in the big, dark space. Fishy’s shop was bigger than his, but it had less stuff in it — there were just two work bays, and a lot of empty floor between them. It had been a warehouse until a couple of years ago, and then empty until a couple of months ago. There was a lofted office area, just like in his shop, but instead of a big window looking down, there was just a railing.
The rolling doors had been up when he got here; there was a light up in the loft, the kind of light you got from a computer screen, but he didn’t hear anything coming from up there. There were big construction lights shining on the two work bays, but there was nobody in them.
“Fishy!” He raised his voice; it echoed even more.
With a bang and a hum and a long, mechanical rattle, the big rolling doors started to go down. He whirled around to stare at them; he considered stepping outside. Certainly, he thought, if I were a sane person, I would just leave now, because I have no idea what Fishy’s going to do once the doors are down.
His feet didn’t move.
He took a deep breath and turned back toward the light above in the loft. There was a tension in the air, somehow, and it felt electrical on his skin as he moved through it.
There was a fuzzy crackle that seemed to come from everywhere at once.
“Police’re coming.” Fishy’s voice, from all around him in the darkened space. “Shouldn’t ought to go in other people’s shops after hours.”
“Doors were open, Fishy,” said Pace. He turned around, once, trying to come to grips with the giant, all-around-him effect that Fishy’s PA had. Trying to convince himself that Fishy wasn’t huge and God-like just because his voice was.
The stairs up to the loft were along the wall. Fuck it, thought Pace, in for a penny.
“Doors were closed,” said Fishy, loud and all around but somehow also quiet and insinuating. “I got footage showing where you busted the little door, come in that way…”
Okay, thought Pace, I just wanted to talk, but if that’s the way this is playing out…
“Can’t just spy on everybody, Fishy,” he said. “Cant’ just… watch people, like that.”
He started up the stairs, then stopped and took a look around. There was a big wooden crate in the space next to the stairs, and somebody’d pried the lid off it; the crowbar was leaned up against the crate. Pace picked it up and hefted it in his hand.
“Somebody has to take care of people,” said Fishy. “Somebody has to make sure everything… goes, the way it’s supposed to…”
There was a click, and the world erupted in fire and noise. Pace threw himself sideways off the stairs, but the edge of the shotgun blast still caught him in the side; he went strangely numb where the birdshot had got him under the arm.
He landed awkwardly on the cement floor, and lay still for a while, getting used to this new reality with shotgun fights and blood.
“I ain’t up there anyhow,” said Fishy, over the PA.
Yes, you are, thought Pace. You’re up there where you can watch what’s going on down below, with us mortals.
He didn’t say anything out loud. There didn’t seem to be any point.
“Gotta make sure people get taken care of,” said Fishy, over the PA. “Got to make sure the bad guys get taken care of, too.” A long pause. “I hoped you’d be one of the good guys, Pace, but you’re just another one of those pansy-asses that think everybody’s rights’re more important than what’s right…”
After a while, Pace realized that it was dark, here under the stairs; Fishy probably couldn’t see. He was still talking because he wanted Pace to move, do something to show if he was still alive. If he didn’t… if he just stayed put…
Eventually, he heart a cautious step on the stair.
Can’t watch the screen and carry a shotgun down the stairs at the same time, thought Pace. As quietly as he could, and resisting the urge to moan out loud with pain, he rolled to his feet, careful not to scrape the crowbar on the pavement.
From under the stairs, he watched Fishy’s shadow move slowly down the stairs, hunched around the shotgun. When his feet were level with Pace’s shoulders, Pace slid the crowbar out between the stairs and hooked Fishy’s foot with it, pulling back hard; at the same time he reached up and grabbed the heel of his other foot.
With a startled cry, Fishy went headfirst down the rest of the stairs. The shotgun clattered away across the concrete floor, but didn’t go off.
There was a wet crunch when Fishy’s face hit the bottom step that made Pace want to throw up.
After a while, he realized he’d sat down, and a little while after that there were blue lights flashing from outside, and then there were people shouting, and then he went to sleep.