The job seems simple. Conway Sax, a no-nonsense auto mechanic with a knack for solving difficult problems, has never liked obnoxious blowhard Tander Phigg. But a promise is a promise. Tander’s a Barnburner, a member of the unique Alcoholics Anonymous group that rescued Conway, and when a Barnburner has a problem, Conway takes care of it. Besides, all Tander wants is to get back his baby, a vintage Mercedes that’s been in a shady auto shop far too long.
But Conway soon discovers there's much more to the problem than Tander first let on–especially when Tander turns up dead. Conway was the last person seen with the victim, and on top of that, he has a record, making him the cops’ top suspect. He must catch the killer to clear himself, but beyond that, he’s a man who honors his promises, even when the guy he made them to is dead.
In the tradition of Robert B. Parker and Dennis Lehane, Steve Ulfelder’s crackling debut mystery features a gritty, razor-sharp new voice in crime fiction. Conway Sax isn’t a hired gun or a wise-cracking urbanite. He’s just a mechanic trying to make his way, a blue-collar guy whose ideas about family and loyalty are as deeply held as they are strong. He’ll break your heart if you’re not careful.
There are drunken assholes, and there are assholes who are drunks. Take a drunken asshole and stick him in AA ﬁve or ten years, maybe you come out with a decent guy.
Now take an asshole who’s a drunk. Put him in AA as long as you like. Send him to a thousand meetings a year, have him join the Peace Corps for good measure. What you come out with is a sober asshole.
Tander Phigg was a sober asshole.
I was thinking this while he bought me lunch at a diner in Rourke, New Hampshire, just across the Massachusetts border. From the outside, it looked like one of those small-town diners people wish were still around—plate-glass windows, ﬁfties-style brushed-aluminum letters that spelled DOT’S PLACE, turquoise tiles surrounding the door.
But once you got inside you stopped pining. It smelled and felt like ﬁfty years’ worth of grease had coated the ﬂoor, the walls, the vinyl stools, even the black-and-white pictures of locals and the deer they’d killed. The food was bad, too.
Sitting across from me in a booth, Tander Phigg gave me an eyeful of some of it while he chewed—an egg-salad sandwich. He was pushing seventy-ﬁve and getting heavy. His belly pressed Formica through a yellow polo shirt with the collar ﬂ ipped up. He had a red nose that twenty-plus years of sobriety couldn’t get rid of, snow-white hair that was too long for a man his age. He’d always worn it that way. You got the feeling somebody once told him he had a great head of hair, and he believed them.
There were other things: The hair was a little too greasy, and Phigg’s eyes had gone greedy when he looked at the menu, and there was a smell to him he hadn’t quite masked with Old Spice.
Tander Phigg was desperate.
I’d never liked him, hadn’t wanted to drive an hour to meet him. But I shut up and ate my burger and listened anyway.
Tander Phigg was an asshole, but he was also a Barnburner. Barn-burners saved my life. I help them when I can. No exceptions.
“So what do you think?” Phigg said. “You going to let these crooks hold your baby hostage?”
“Hey, you were always talking about how she was ahead of her time, all the technology packed inside her.”
“Here’s what I liked about that car,” I said. “The technology you’re bragging on was always screwed up. It kept me busy, made me money.” I hit the it extra hard. I hate when people talk about cars like they’re women or babies. A street car’s a tool. A race car’s a weapon. When they break, I ﬁx them. There’s not much more to it.
Phigg’s baby, his her, was a 1980 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9. Nice car, ahead of its time. It had the ﬁrst antilock braking system I ever saw, a suspension you could adjust from the driver’s seat, and a bunch of other fancy features.
But the fancy stuff broke—all the time. Those 450SELs made techs like me a lot of dough, even when they were brand new. And by ’99, when Phigg bought one with 140,000 miles on the clock, it was an ass-dragging smoker. I went through each system at least once. I’d been happy to do it as long as his checks cleared.
Which they didn’t always anymore, according to the Barnburner grapevine.
“I had to ﬁx her,” Phigg said. “With a car like that, a classic, I didn’t see myself as the own er. I was more of a caretaker.”
I rolled my eyes, wiped my mouth, dropped my napkin on the plate.
Phigg’s eyes darted to the plate. He made a lightning grab for three fries, chewed. “How about it?”
Hell. He was a Barnburner. “How long they had it?” I said.
“Going on eigh teen months, for chrissake.”
That did seem like a long time, unless there was something else Phigg wasn’t telling me. “How far have they gotten with the work?”
“I went by last week. They’ve done nothing, Conway. They parked her by a back wall and threw a tarp over her.”
“Why’d they say it’s taking so long?”
“Blah blah this, blah blah that, parts from Germany, other customers ahead of me.”
“That’s bullshit,” I said. “They ought to’ve taken it apart by now, put it on a rotisserie. Or given you a good reason why not.”
“So you’ll take a look?”
“Where’s the shop?”
“Two blocks back.”
“On Mechanic Street,” I said.
“How’d you know?”
“Every town has one.”
The waitress came by, coffeepot poised. I ﬂat-handed a no-thanks. Phigg ignored her until she left, then leaned in. “I want my car and my money back,” he said. “I can drive it around a few more years before I ﬁx the rust. Hell, maybe I’ll sell it as is.”
“What money back?”
His face went the same color as his nose. “They wanted some dough to get started.”
“That was stupid and you know it,” I said. “How much?”
“The way the guy explained it, it’s like when a contractor gets money up front.”
“Thirty-ﬁve hundred.” Phigg ﬁngered his yellow collar, ran the back of a hand across his mouth.
I took a breath, let it out. “Stupid.”
“You’ll help me?”
“I’ll talk to them. Not today, though. Busy.”
He smiled, rapped the table twice, reached to touch my forearm.
I pulled it back.
He wrote the name of the shop and his phone number and address on a corner of his paper place mat, tore it off, handed it to me, said thanks, split. He was in a hurry to get out the door before the waitress made it over with the check.
I wanted a peek at the shop before I headed home. I hadn’t lied to Phigg: Every town does have a Mechanic Street, and they’re all the same. They run perpendicular to the main drag in what ever part of town was lousy when the town was born. More often than not they dead-end at railroad tracks, as this street did. Before I U-turned at the tracks, I passed an off-brand transmission shop, a generic diesel station with a propane-reﬁll cage, and a place called Santo’s Custom Interior where a Mexican and a pit bull chained to the Mexican’s chair stared at me.
I cruised past the place that was ripping off Phigg. It had been high-end once. The building was a former barn, thirty feet across and deep. It had two roll-up doors and a simple sign: DAS MOTORENWERK.
One of the roll-up doors was open. I saw a two-post lift with an Audi A4 up high, its engine oil draining into a long funnel stuck in a drum.
I’m a grease monkey myself—I’ve worked at dealerships, run a shop of my own, even been part of the NASCAR traveling circus—so I could see Das Motorenwerk wasn’t breaking any rec ords. For starters, there was no little group of customer cars outside. One lousy oil change was the day’s workload.
The Dumpster at the side of the barn was overﬂ owing, which meant the shop had saved a few bucks by switching from an every-two-weeks Dumpster ser vice to monthly. Next to the Dumpster stood a triple stack of used tires with weeds growing through. It costs money to get rid of tires, and God help you if you’re caught sneaking them into the Dumpster.
I put my F-150 in reverse, backed to the upholstery shop. As I neared, the pit bull went crazy. Without looking at the dog, the Mexican hit its nose with a closed ﬁst. The dog shut up.
I leaned, rolled down the passenger window. “I’m a tech looking for work,” I said. “Heard Motorenwerk was a good outﬁt, but the shop looks pretty tired. Know anything about it?”
He looked at me ﬁfteen seconds and said, “Where the fuck you hear that?”
I’d wanted him to ask. Pretended to hesitate. “The guy who told me, he’s been away awhile.”
The Mexican smiled, rose, hitched his khakis, came to my window. The pit bull whined. Up close the Mexican looked older. Had a tear tattooed at the outside corner and just below one eye. He said, “State time?”
Another fake pause. “Walpole.”
“You on paper?”
“Eleven months to go,” I said. “How about the shop? They any good?”
“Used to be. Now . . .” He ﬂuttered a hand, stopped in mid-ﬂutter, narrowed his eyes. “State time down in Mass. Mass. license plate. So why you looking for work up here?”
“I live in Townsend, ten minutes away, so my PO said I can work in New Hampshire.” I took off before he could ask more questions. Or unchain the pit bull.
I’d lied. I didn’t live in Townsend. Lived in Framingham, Massachusetts. Or Shrewsbury, a couple towns west. Or both. I wasn’t sure, and that was a problem.
I headed for Framingham, thought about Tander Phigg while I drove.
He’d been sober forever, was already a Barnburner old-timer when I showed up ten-plus years ago. I’d looked up to him for a while, the way new ﬁsh always look up to old-timers. Hell, he’d even been my sponsor for six months.
But the more I hung around, the less I liked him. The stories he told at AA meetings changed as years passed. What had been arguments became bar ﬁghts. What had been funny DUI stories that ended with Phigg in the drunk tank became COPS-style megachases, half the cruisers in Worcester County hound-dogging Phigg.
As I exited Route 495 I set aside my dislike and focused on the interesting development: Tander Phigg smelled broke. Back when I’d worked on his Mercedes, he was a cost-no-object guy—and happy to tell you about it. He’d moved to New Hampshire to escape Taxachusetts and build his timber-frame dream house on a river. For a while, he’d bored us all half to death with artist’s renderings and blueprints.
Now he was a man who seemed itchy to get thirty-ﬁve hundred bucks out of a car-repair place. And as I thought about it, I realized it’d been a long time since he’d bragged about his big house at the Barnburner meeting-after-the-meeting.
I sobered up a long time ago. I’ll never know why: People talk about hitting bottom, but what’s the bottom? I’d crashed through a dozen.
What ever the reason, I woke up one day in the dry-out wing of a Brockton, Massachusetts, VA hospital—a clerk’s mistake; I’m not a veteran—and grabbed the tired mattress with both hands and white-knuckled my way through the worst of the DTs. When they ﬁ gured out I shouldn’t be in the VA hospital and bounced me, I wound up in Framingham. Salvation Army cot, day-labor gigs, food-pantry handouts.
What you have to learn for yourself is that each AA meeting has its own character. Some groups—in Framingham, a town full of halfway houses and methadone clinics, a lot of groups—go through the motions so attendees can get their parole cards signed. Others wheeze along for the beneﬁt of a half dozen old-timers. Some groups give you the hairy eyeball if you bring up drugs. Some are cliquey as hell. All you can do is stick with it, try meetings until you ﬁ nd the right ﬁ t.
It took me three months. My knees were bruised from praying. My knuckles were death-grip white. I was tipping, getting set to backslide, feeling ashamed of the next inevitable relapse, when I hitched a ride to a Barnburner meeting.
As soon as I stepped into the basement at Saint Anne’s, everything changed. I knew I was in the right place. Didn’t know how I knew—still don’t—but I knew.
Three people shook my hand. A biker with a cobweb tattooed on his neck took one look at me, knew I didn’t have a buck for a rafﬂe ticket, and gave me one on the house. When I made my way to the coffee table and started throwing back Dunkin’ Munchkins like they were dinner (they were; it was February, a slow month for day labor), people pretended not to notice, and an old-timer who turned out to be Mary Giarusso disappeared into a back room and came out with another box.
As soon as I sat on a folding chair, I ﬁgured out the Barnburners’ core. The key players sat at the left front, kitty-corner, where they could see the speaker while keeping an eye on the rest of the room.
Charlene wasn’t there yet—she came along later—but most of them were. Mary Giarusso took a seat. Butch Feeley, who was seventy then and beefy, sat near the center like the group’s Godfather (he was), arms folded, legs stretched, ankles crossed, a lieutenant whispering in each ear. One of the lieutenants was Chester Bagley, who didn’t yet wear a toupee but did have a horrendous comb-over. The other was a mean-looking South American dude—Colombian, I found out later—who wouldn’t even speak to you until you were sober a year.
Tander Phigg was in that front corner, of course. Hair already white, vinyl jacket with a Porsche logo, Rolex Daytona slopping around on his wrist. He was telling a Commander McBragg story to a shaved-head black guy who looked like he wished he’d picked a different seat.
There they sat, nine or ten altogether, giving off a parole-board vibe I hadn’t yet seen in a meeting. The vibe said this was serious AA for serious people. No tools, posers, or dilettantes need apply.
I wanted in. Hung around after the meeting, putting chairs away and checking out the parole board, who were in no hurry to leave. Aware of me, they hemmed and hawed and made small talk. Finally the cobweb-tattoo guy took my arm. “See you next week, pal?”
“Well,” I said, glancing at the front of the room.
“That’s the meeting-after-the-meeting, pal,” he said, gently aiming me at the door. “You’re not ready for that. No way, no how.”
I hit my house just before twelve and saw Randall Swale in the driveway staring at a pile of decking. The wood delivery was the reason I’d made the Phigg meeting a very early lunch deal: In this neighborhood, anything we didn’t screw down today would be stolen to night.
A friend had left me the house. He’d died badly. I made sure the guys responsible did the same. I was spending a lot of time there, rehabbing the place so I could sell it. Needed the cash: My last job at a Pontiac-GMC dealership hadn’t worked out, and I’d sworn off working for anybody but myself. The idea was to ﬂip the house and use the dough to start another shop of my own.
It’s an old four-square colonial on a quarter acre, south side of Framingham. For years the neighborhood had been mostly Brazilian, but the Brazilians were moving out because the feds were busting illegals. That was a bad deal for the neighborhood. Brazilians liked to get drunk and ﬁght each other with knives on Saturday night, but otherwise they mostly worked their asses off and minded their own business. And as the houses emptied of Brazilians, they either went to Section 8 tenants or became squats for bums and junkies.
The guy who left me the house, and his mother before him, had lived here sixty years. Everything needed work, especially the in-law apartment on the top ﬂoor: I couldn’t sell the place until I brought the place up to code. I was nibbling away at the work. Sometimes I slept here. Sometimes I slept at my girlfriend Charlene’s place in Shrewsbury.
I stuffed my truck at the foot of the driveway and climbed out. Randall wore work boots, khakis, no shirt. He worked shirtless a lot in this freak mid-June heat wave. His skin had started UPS-brown and had gone purple-black in the sun. He’s half a foot shorter than me and has half a pound of fat on him. Earned his muscles in the army, not the gym. His father, Luther, my parole ofﬁ cer, introduced us. Randall had standing offers, some with full-boat academic scholarships, from a half dozen good schools. I didn’t know why he was still hanging around with me; the nearest I’d ever been to college was a transmission swap I did for the dean of Framingham State.
Heat wave or no, Randall always wore long pants. He’d lost his right foot to mid-calf in Iraq and wore a prosthetic with a cool ceramic-and-titanium ankle joint. You’d never guess he had a leg and a half—especially if you challenged him to a footrace.
He swept a hand. “What in God’s name is this?”
“Lumber for the deck,” I said. “Ordered twelve hundred linear feet. Looks about right.”
“You call this lumber?” He picked up an eight-footer, sighted down it at me. “I’ll never claim to be an expert, but this isn’t Home Depot decking. This is serious, tight-grained hardwood, and the truck that delivered it had a fancy specialty-shop logo.”
My face went red as he spoke. I knew where we were headed. I said, “Ipe.”
“Ee-pay?” he said. “Are you speaking Pig Latin now?”
I spelled it, pronounced it again. “It’s a Brazilian hardwood. Good stuff, lasts forever.”
Randall shook his head, bent, picked up more ipe, headed for the back of the house. I scooped ipe and followed. “The plan was bring this place up to code, pretty it up a little, and sell it fast,” he said. “Remember?”
We stepped through the skeleton of the new deck we’d built off the kitchen. I said, “In case I wind up renting the place instead of selling, the ipe’ll save me money in the long run. No maintenance, no splits.”
“You can barely say that with a straight face,” he said. “What about blowing out that kitchen wall? What about the fancy tile in the bathroom? What about pulling the perfectly decent vinyl siding?” He ﬁnger-ticked as he spoke.
I said nothing.
We went around front for more wood.
“You keep ﬁnding excuses not to ﬁnish up and sell,” Randall said. “And the neighborhood’s going downhill fast, so every nickel you spend is a nickel lost.”
We stacked a half dozen twelve-footers and each took an end. I walked backward and said, “Nothing wrong with doing a job right.”
“Nonsense.” Randall’s voice was soft now.
I said nothing.
Randall said, “Ask yourself what’s really going on, Conway. And be honest, okay?”
“I’ll get the chop saw.”
Five hours later we stood sweating on ipe. I held a water. Randall held
“Nice,” I said. “Small, but a good selling point. You think?”
“ ’Preciate the help. You take off. I’ll clean up, put a coat of oil on it tomorrow.”
He toasted me, ﬁnished his beer, set the empty next to the kitchen door, grabbed his T-shirt. On his way past he set a hand on my shoulder. “Ask,” Randall said, “and be honest.”
My jaw felt tight. I nodded.
I swept, policed up screws we’d dropped, stacked leftover ipe in the one-car detached garage we planned to tear down soon. Although lately I’d been rethinking that: It’d make a nice workshop. For someone.
I brought the chop saw and cordless drills into the kitchen. I didn’t dare leave them in the garage, with its rotted door. The way this neighborhood was going, they’d be stolen and traded for meth before the eleven-o’clock news.
I drank another water. Talked to my cats, Dale and Davey. Thought about dinner.
Thought about Charlene. I should call.
I texted instead: Wrking on deck, will stay here 2nite, xoxo.
She texted back: K.
I stared at the letter.
I’d been pushing Charlene away for a while.
It was working. Shit. I looked at Dale. “We like it here,” I said. “Right?” Both cats stared.
The next morning, a Tuesday, at nine, I parked across from Das Motorenwerk and crossed the street. Out front was parked a BMW 2002tii, one of the last ones they made. It was rotting from the rockers up, the way those cars do.
Through the open roll-up doors I saw two cars on lifts, a newish Mercedes SUV and an Acura Legend. The Acura told me a lot. Snooty German garages don’t work on Japanese cars unless they’re in deep shit. A few years back, when I had my own shop, I’d been forced to bite that bullet myself. It was Charlene’s idea. The move had worked, business had grown. Then a jerk I’d hired out of pity had torched the shop.
I stepped inside the garage, knowing I’d learn more there than in the ofﬁce, and looked around.
In a back corner I saw what had to be Phigg’s car beneath a dust-cover. I started toward it but stopped under the Mercedes SUV. They were doing a soup-to-nuts brake job. On a two-year-old truck? I spotted the old brake pads and rotors on a rolling cart, picked up a pair of front pads. They were only two-thirds gone.
The garage held some expensive restoration tools: an En glish wheel and metal brake for bodywork and fabrication, a small paint booth, a bead-blasting cabinet. But all that good stuff looked unused, tucked away, shoved in corners. This used to be a serious automotive shop. Now it was doing yawn-city maintenance. Why?
“Help you?” The bathroom door closed and a voice rose. Work boots squeaked toward me. “Sir, please don’t stand under the lift!”
I turned. He was a young guy, short, with red wire-brush hair and pale green eyes that were bugging with anger.
I stepped from beneath the SUV, knowing how the kid felt. No tech likes civilians in the shop, let alone dicking around under the lift.
I held up the brake pads. “I’m guessing here,” I said. “The customer’s a lady, probably a mom with young kids. She came in and said her brakes felt funny.”
The kid folded his arms. From the way his lips thinned I knew I was on to something.
“So your boss looked her in the eye,” I said, “and told her brakes aren’t something to gamble with. Now you’re nicking her for all four corners, rotors and all. I’ll say . . . eleven hundred, eleven-ﬁfty?”
His face had gone the same color as his hair. “What the heck do you want, mister?”
“Was I close?”
Long pause. “Fourteen hundred,” he ﬁnally said. “The parts for these German cars, you wouldn’t believe it. Besides, the dealership wanted seventeen hundred. Can I help you?”
The way he looked at me made my shoulder blades tense, and I wasn’t sure why—if I had to, I could pick him up with one hand and body-slam him. But there was something at work behind his eyes, an ice-cold evaluation, that tweaked me.
I pointed at the ofﬁce. “Boss in there?”
The kid nodded and wiped his hands as I walked away. I felt his stare. My shoulder blades didn’t unclench until I was through the door.
In the ofﬁce, the boss stood behind a counter and tried to sell work to a tall thin man. I listened as I eyeballed the usual ASE certiﬁcation plaques, photos of the Little League team the shop sponsored, and Chamber of Commerce testimonials. The thin man owned the 2002 out front and didn’t look like anybody’s sucker. His frozen smile told me he wouldn’t let this shop touch his car. He was waiting for a pause so he could leave without being rude.
But the boss knew all this too, and he wasn’t giving the thin man a pause to leave on. On the other hand, he wasn’t pitching real hard. He should’ve had the prospect out in the shop, showing off the spray booth and the English wheel. Instead, he was going through the motions.
In four minutes the thin man stopped being polite. He said he’d take a business card and call later, then walked out.
I stepped to the counter, elbow-leaned, shook my head. “Selling the job,” I said. “It’s always the hardest part, huh?”
“Right you are, friend, right you are.” He looked past me through the plate-glass window, wondering what I’d driven up in, whether I was another prospect. If he stood ﬁve-six he was lucky. He was bald on top with a ring of black-running-gray hair. Above the pocket of his light-brown work shirt: MOTORENWERK and Ollie.
In maybe three seconds, he ﬁgured out the F-150 was mine and realized I wasn’t a potential customer. His eyes shut down. “Help you?”
“Tander Phigg’s 450SEL,” I said, nodding toward the shop. “The one you’ve got covered in the corner.”
The eyes went hard. “What about it?”
“He wants it back.”
Ollie reared back, laughed hard, clapped his hands a couple times. Later I wondered if it was a signal, or maybe a distraction while he hit a panic button.
Ollie’s laugh slowed. He wiped an eye. I said, “Wants his thirty-ﬁve hundred bucks, too.”
Ollie loved that. He slapped one hand on the counter, braced himself with the other on his thigh. He was laughing too hard to stand up straight, saying “thirty-ﬁve hundred!” over and over like a punch line.
The laughter was contagious: It made me smile even while I wondered what the hell was going on. I watched Ollie, waited for him to catch his breath so I could get the real story.
I felt an air-whoosh as the door behind me opened. Ollie cut his eyes toward the door. I started to turn.
Too late. Something busted my head open. I watched the ﬂoor come up at my face. The ﬂooring was antique oak. Good stuff.
I woke up on my left side, scrabbling away from a roar, then ﬁnding my back against something hard. I felt a pulsing ache that was like biting down on tinfoil—but in my head.
I creaked an eye open and reached behind me, ﬁguring things out. The roar was a train, a long CSX freight, forty feet dead ahead.
I squinted at my old work horse Seiko diver’s watch. It was going on ten. I’d been out ﬁfteen minutes or less. The hardness behind me was a Dumpster.
Connection: I was at the end of Mechanic Street, a few lots west of Motorenwerk.
I blinked, shook my head to clear it. Saw the Mexican from the upholstery shop. He was maybe ten feet away with his back to me. Had his hands splayed on his hips while he took a piss and watched the train.
His pit bull was licking blood from my head.
The train passed. The Mexican zipped up. I started to put my right hand to my head wound, but the pit bull growled and got low. The Mexican turned. “He like you better when you out cold,” he said. “Think I do, too.”
I said, “Willya?”
He whistled. The pit bull backed off but stayed low. I sat, got a head rush, closed my eyes, let it pass. “You didn’t do this to me,” I said.
The Mexican said nothing.
I said, “You see who did it? Who dragged me here?”
He said nothing.
I swiveled left. My neck felt like somebody’d poured sand between the joints. “How bad is it?”
“Pretty bad,” he said. “I looked while you out. Nothing busted, I think. Lump like this, though.” He made a ﬁst.
I rose, turned, got both hands on the rim of the Dumpster to steady myself. Felt okay for a few seconds. Then the heat-wave trash stench came at me, and I lobbed puke into the Dumpster. Then again.
I took deep breaths and looked at my truck, seventy yards away. I could make that. Took two steps, still holding the Dumpster.
Behind me the Mexican said, “Hey.” Then I heard soft sounds in the weeds next to me and looked down. He’d tossed my wallet, phone, and keys. I stooped for them.
As I straightened I said, “You leave my plastic in the wallet?”
“Fuck yes,” the Mexican said. “I got no taste for ID theft. ’Sides, you don’t look like you got much of a credit limit.”
I waved to thank him. Criminal etiquette: He was within his rights to rob me, and we both knew he’d done me a favor by not throwing my stuff over the tracks. It was the only break I’d gotten so far on Mechanic Street.
I wobbled toward the F-150. As I passed Motorenwerk I stared in the plate-glass ofﬁce window. Ollie was gone. In the garage, the redheaded kid was lowering the Mercedes SUV. He looked at me from the corner of his eye, pretended not to see me. I decided that when I came back, I’d start with the kid—creepy or not, he was the weak link.
And I would come back.
As I neared my truck I saw they’d slashed all four tires and busted out the side and rear windows. “Windshield’s good,” I said out loud. “My lucky day.”
I opened the door, brushed safety glass from the bench seat, climbed in, and ﬁred it while I thought. There were a dozen people I could call for a lift, but any of them would have to piss away their day coming up.
I sighed. Tander Phigg. He lived nearby and deserved to see his day pissed away after what he’d sucked me into.
I called. Voice mail. Like anybody in hock, Phigg was screening his calls. I needed to leave a message that would bring him quick. “Good news on your car,” I said. “Get over here to Motorenwerk before Ollie changes his mind.” Click.
By the time Phigg rattled up in a shitbox ’92 Sentra, I’d talked the redheaded kid into helping me. His name was Josh Whipple. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. I didn’t ask him who’d cold-cocked me. Gain trust now, ask questions later. We used two ﬂoor jacks to trundle my truck to a lift. That way I didn’t have to pay for a ﬂ atbed to haul it to a tire shop.
Phigg popped from his car with hope on his face. As he looked at me, my truck, and the back corner where his Mercedes sat covered, the hope faded. “I got your message,” he said. “Good news on my car?”
I rolled him a tire, faced him full, waited for him to spot the lump on my head. He stopped the tire with his foot. “Put the tire in your car,” I said. “Looks like we can ﬁt two in the trunk and two in the backseat. What’s with the shitbox? Thought you were driving a Jag.”
“It’s a loaner. Jag’s in the shop. What about my Mercedes?”
I stepped toward him and pointed at the lump.
“What happened?” he said.
I jerked a thumb at Josh, who was lugging tires to Phigg’s car. “Somebody who works for this kid’s boss clocked me.” I did a double take as I said it: Even with all the air gone, those tire-and-wheel units had to weigh sixty pounds apiece, and Josh had one tucked under each arm like beach towels.
Phigg ﬁngered his collar. “So you haven’t, ah, liberated my Mercedes?”
“I told Ollie you wanted it back,” I said. “He laughed in my face. Then somebody creamed me. We’re going to buy me new tires now. While we wait you can tell me the truth.”
Ten minutes later, we sat with our backs against the shaded side of an Exxon. I’d bought us each a Gatorade. Red for him, yellow for me. I’d also bought a bag of ice. I pressed it to my head and said, “Cost you almost seven hundred with the mount-and-balance and the disposal fee.”
“You sent me in there with a bullshit story. You didn’t tell me Ollie’s some kind of hard case. You’ve heard stories about me, about what I do for people. You thought I was going to walk in and kick the snot out of Ollie, then drive your car out of there whether he liked it or not. I got that about right?”
A semi blatted past on Route 31, downshifting for the speed zone ahead, full load of tree trunks on its ﬂatbed. I smelled pine and diesel.
When the noise died Phigg said, “About right, yes. But . . . you do kick the shit out of people. The stories are true. I’ve seen the aftermath. All the Barnburners have.”
Well, he was right about that. “Point is, my fresh tires are on you,” I said. “New glass, too.”
“I don’t have it.” Real quiet.
I sipped. “Say again?”
“I don’t have any money,” he said. “I’m broke, Conway.”
“Finally.” I looked at him for the ﬁrst time since I’d sat. “It’s obvious you don’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out. I can’t help you unless you tell me what’s really going on.”
“I’m broke.” I barely heard him over the air compressor inside.
Phigg’s face was pale, his eyes ﬂat as he stared at his shitbox Sentra that wasn’t a loaner after all.
“You drinking?” I said.
“Cocaine? Prescription drugs?”
I wondered what else could burn through the kind of money everybody thought Tander Phigg had. Needed to get him talking.
“Your dad made paper, do I have that right?” I said. “Did okay for himself.”
“Phigg Paper Products, Inc. Biggest employer in Fitchburg for thirty years.”
“Left you in good shape?”
Phigg half laughed. “Money to burn,” he said. “But good shape?” He tried to shrug and laugh again, but his breath hitched. He put up a hand as if to scratch his forehead—he didn’t want me to see him cry.
The Exxon guy leaned out the door, hollered my tires were all set.
I paid with the credit card the Mexican hadn’t stolen.
Phigg and I were quiet as we loaded tires in his shitbox, drove back to Motorenwerk, and unloaded.
As Phigg got set to drive off I stepped to his window. “Let’s meet at eight tomorrow, that diner again. You can tell me what’s going on, we’ll try this Ollie again.”
“Sure.” He rattled away, pale, staring straight ahead.
Five minutes later my F-150 was down on its fresh rubber. While Josh torqued the wheels I said, “Where’s your Shop-Vac?”
“I vacuumed the glass out of your interior already.”
I looked. He had. “Thanks.” I stepped to the right side of the truck, away from the ofﬁce. Josh was ﬁnishing the right front wheel. He straightened. I said, “What are you doing here?”
“Working.” He looked me in the eye, and my shoulder blades tensed again.
“You know what I mean,” I said. “What are you doing here? You’re fast, you’re good, you’re ASE certiﬁed. You could be pulling sixty an hour at any dealership. Something stinks about this place. Best case, Ollie’s set to go belly-up. I think it’s worse than that. I think there’s some crooked shit going on. You may think you’re not part of it, but you are.”
“Why are you even talking to me, after what happened in the ofﬁce?” Josh said. “Why aren’t you either talking to the cops or hightailing it home?”
“I’ll answer your questions when you answer mine.”
He held my eyes. For a few seconds he looked like a ner vous kid, and I thought he might tip and talk to me.
“Yoo-hoo!” The voice came from the ofﬁce. We turned. A mom, maybe thirty, cute, two little kids hiding behind her jeans. She said, “I’m here to pick up my car? The black Mercedes?”
Josh said, “Right with you, ma’am,” and walked away fast.
Shit. Almost had him. I would have to come back later.
I climbed into my truck, backed out, and drove to the mouth of Mechanic Street. Phigg had turned left here. A right would take me south, homebound.
I took a left. Why not? Phigg wasn’t telling me everything. Thanks to him I had a gashed head and a big-ass credit-card bill coming. I help Barnburners, no questions asked. But not all Barnburners are created equal.
When they saw I was showing up at every meeting and working hard, Barnburners ﬁlled me in on the group’s backstory. It was launched by outcast bikers, post-WWII GIs who were into vendettas as much as sobriety. They called themselves the Barnstormers because AA National refused to sanction them, and without the sanction they lacked a regular meeting place. For ﬁfteen years they met every Wednesday in people’s homes, ﬁelds, ware houses, barns.
Over time, the rowdy regulars aged and the Barnstormers matured, but the core remained a group of hard cases with an Old Testament credo. Barnstormers believed in an eye for an eye, and they never turned the other cheek.
One mid-sixties Wednesday, during a meeting at a dairy farm, some joker ﬂipped his cigarette butt the wrong way and burned the host’s barn to a cinder. Twist: The host was the town ﬁre chief. Once they realized the barn was a goner and nobody was hurt, everybody (including the chief) laughed their asses off, and the Barnstormers instantly renamed themselves the Barnburners.
Time passed. AA National sanctioned the group. Saint Anne’s became the regular meeting spot. But the take-no-shit mentality hung on, boiling down to a kernel called the meeting-after-the-meeting.
It took me six months to earn my way in. I hit Saint Anne’s every Wednesday. Got there early, set up chairs, made coffee, doled out rafﬂe tickets. Spoke a couple times a week, driving to Ashland, Up-ton, Clinton, Hudson with a carload of Barnburners to tell my story. Got my ﬁrst steady job in ﬁve years, working the muck pit at a Jiffy Lube.
The commitment I showed was half the picture. But you needed skills to get into the meeting-after-the-meeting. As I got to know the old-timers, they realized I had skills. Skills I’d picked up in rail yards, alleys, county jails.
One Wednesday, as I ﬁnished stowing the little banners we hang on the walls next to the picture of the pope—ONE DAY AT A TIME; LET GO, LET GOD; like that—Butch Feeley said, “Conway.”
I turned. Butch had never spoken to me. I didn’t think he even knew my name.
“Why don’t you stick around?” Butch said, softly kicking the chair next to his.
I was in.
No shoulder-claps, no “welcome to the group,” no initiation. I was just there, one of them. Pretty soon I learned why.
“Rosie Fagundes,” said Mary Giarusso, glancing at a reporter’s notebook. “Brazilian girl, three months sober, sits in back by the long radiator?” Mary had a hellacious Boston accent: three months sobah, long radiatah.
“Why’s she still sitting in back if she’s got three months?” Butch Feeley said. Serious AA for serious people.
“Be that as it may,” Mary said. “She waitresses at the Early Bird over on Fay Court. The own er’s all right, but the manager knows she’s an illegal. He’s been helping himself to half her tips right from the get-go, and now he wants to help himself to some blow jobs, too.”
Far as I could tell, I was the only one surprised at how easily this woman, who looked like a retired school principal, said “blow jobs.” Lesson: A lot of things got talked about in this room, and none of them were dainty.
“Manager’s name?” Butch said.
“Oswaldo. He’s Brazilian too, but legal.”
Butch turned to me. “Want to take this one, Conway?”
Every head turned. Every eye locked.
“Hell yes,” I said.
By dinnertime the next day, Rosie had 100 percent of her tips, retroactive. Oswaldo had a busted nose and a dislocated shoulder.
And I had a purpose.
Copyright © 2011 by Steve Ulfelder
Steve Ulfelder is an amateur race driver and co-owner of Flatout Motorsports, a company that builds race cars. He was a business and technology journalist for 20 years. In addition to trade and automotive magazines, he wrote for the Boston Globe, Boston magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many others. Purgatory Chasm is his first novel.