Sundown Car Repair was ten blocks from the Mycroft Manor. With snow on the streets, the walk took the better part of an hour, which was not helped by all the people who were not Jude having such a loose relationship to space and time. It was snowing, which at least meant nobody stood in the street gaggling around before Christmas displays. Jude was a figure in a green greatcoat outlined against white streets and pale grey building faces. When he crossed the street, too many drivers thought maybe they could save a few seconds by acting as if they weren’t going to stop, which availed them nothing.
Crunching through the last of the snow that led up to the closed-front auto-shop, Jude shook snow off his shoulder and undid his scarf on the way in the front door. A jangle of bells followed while he waited for his skin to stop stinging. “Murphy.”
The man behind the counter looked up. “Hey, Jude.” He cracked a grin, a grin that didn’t seem dulled by the dozens of times he’d made that joke in the past. People had their joys, after all. Murphy was a man mostly extruded from a general roundness – portly belly, rounded cheeks, but also rounded at the shoulder – showing the place where he’d once had a neck, his shoulders had deemed it unnecessary. “The lady’s car need attention?”
“Try to not sound eager,” Jude said, tugging off his gloves and folding them into his pockets. “No, I’m here to talk to Sparrow. You need him for the rest of the day?”
Murphy pushed his thumb against his forehead, scratching the area his face had reclaimed from his hairline. “Nah, this is all knucklehead stuff today – bumps and scratches. Don’t need him for anything special.”
“Good to know,” Jude said, hanging his coat by the door. “I’d hate for you to lose to Ms Mycroft again.”
The flat concrete floor of the workshop was cold enough to feel through Jude’s boots. With three cars set on the floor, only one had the doors closed, the windows fogged, and the lights on inside the fog. Jude stepped around to the driver’s side, bent down, and rapped a bare knuckle on the glass.
Slowly the glass wend down, and a burst of warm air creaked out of the sliver. The windows were tinted, and the condensation made it even harder to see out, but with that tiny sliver, a bright brown eye peeked out.
“Oh, hey, Jude!” called a voice from within the car. “You need something?”
“Come on, Sparrow,” Jude said, gesturing with his head. “Ms Mycroft has work for us today. Are-” he stopped short. “Hang on, are you smoking in there?”
“What? No!” the boy said plaintively. “I’m just using my lighter to keep my hands warm. It’s cold out there!”
“It’s cold everywhere.”
“Alright, alright.” Sparrow muttered, “So you need a ride?”
“Mm. Can’t use taxis today.”
“Yes, usual rate.”
The window wound up again. Jude stood, looking left and right, waiting for the door to open. A moment later, the window wound down again.
“I’m not getting out. It’s warm in here. Get in the back, it’s big enough for you.”
A laugh. “My coat’s by the door. Bring it around, I’ll meet you out the front, okay?”
Thankfully, Sparrow was right about the back seat. Jude was a man used to keeping his knees up by his chin when he rode in cars. Sparrow had the front seat yanked all the way forward so he could reach the pedals, emphasising the scope difference between them.
Half-Polynesian, Half-Japanese, born in the same hospital as a president, Kalei Suzume went by ‘Sparrow’ when surrounded by people who couldn’t pronounce either part of his name. Jude had never been a master of the phonemes, but he did his best. After two months of trying, Sparrow had made it politely clear he should stick with what he knew, and giggled at him from time to time. Wrapped in three flannel shirts, each one worn at the elbows creating a weird little rainbow there, he wore dark brown, serious driver’s gloves, which didn’t match quite so well with the little wolf-tail ponytail he had and the bright pink tie holding it in place.
Mycroft had called as they left the store, with a cab company, address, cab number, a driver number, and a name:
“Whitney Gage,” she said. “No particularly noteworthy appearance in any news prior to now.”
“This was in the police report?” Jude asked, writing on the notepad on his knee.
“That would be private information in this circumstance. It was just an extrapolation.”
And you’re sure? Jude definitely didn’t ask, because he did not need an earful of intensely withering silence and a click on the other end of the line.
Sparrow held his hand over his shoulder for the piece of paper. “Got that address for me?”
Paper handed over, Jude refocused on the phone call. “How’d you – ”
“The other reports filed by the journalist responsible for the piece, a photograph near the crime scene on twitter, and the facebook presence of a person interviewed by the journalist. It was not hard to triangulate, people do not move as much when it is snowing.”
“And what do you want me to find? Talk to Whitney, of course—”
“I doubt that’ll be necessary. Ideally, I need a look at the car.”
Jude took a moment, tilted his head back, and imperceptibly drew his breath. “Alright, Ms Mycroft.”
“Good boy. You may go.”
Jude hung up the phone. “We far?”
“Nah. Not a great neighbourhood, though. Down by the harbour.”
“Harbourfront property can be nice.”
“I said down by the harbour, Jude.” Sparrow looked over his shoulder with a feigned grimace. “Not up by the harbour. We’re talking docks here.”
“Cheap car storage, I suppose.”
“I suppose,” Sparrow shrugged. “I’m just saying if a big guy covered in tats offers to sell me union membership down here, I’m hiding behind you.”
Sparrow found a park a block from the address, which wasn’t bad, considering nearly every square foot of kerb was occupied by bumper-to-bumper cars, some without license plates and several with clamps on the wheels. Folk walked a lot in this part of the city, probably because they couldn’t drive their cars without triggering some Tetris-like collapse.
Some of the cars had ice on them. All the cars had snow on them. Jude pushed the door open, and unfolded onto the street with a minimum of fuss, closing the door behind him and adjusting his coat in the street. “Come on, Sparrow.”
Sparrow wound the window down and leant out, elbows on the frame. “Wait, you don’t want me to wait with the car?”
“You’re more precious than the car.”
“Aww,” Sparrow said, slipping on his scarf and popping the door. “Hang on wait,” he said, trotting after the long-legged Jude, remote lock peeping behind him. “You expect the car to get stolen?”
The lot looked like something a particularly tidy child might make with a playset. Dozens of yellow black-and-white checkered cabs sat in rows, nose-to-nose. The only sign this wasn’t the same gridlocked mess that gnarled the streets outside was the steady gradient of snow on the hoods; more on the cars nearest the office, less towards the edges. About a third of the lots were empty, and there, snow filled the parks – but gritty lines throughout.
“Don’t they salt this yard?” Sparrow grumbled, pulling his chin down, trying to hide in his scarf.
Office door open, receptionist charmed, break room. Sparrow stood next to him, peeking at the various mugs sitting on the countertop. “Ms Mycroft wants a look at the car, right?”
“You got a camera?” Sparrow asked, gesturing around. “I mean, aside from your ph- what the hell is that?”
“… It’s my phone.” Jude said, turning the device over. “I mean, I think they sold it to me as a phablet?”
Sparrow walked over and took the device, some eight inches span, out of his hand and turned it over. “This isn’t a phone, it’s a kickboard with apps.”
“It fits in my hand well.” Jude muttered, feeling weirdly defensive.
“And you can use it to kill roaming pumas,” Sparrow turned the device over and over between his hands. “You just stick this thing up by your ear?”
Sparrow leant back and looked up at Jude. “You’re like something out of the Bible, I swear. Do you live in a swamp?”
“Um, am I interrupting?” A woman’s voice cut through Sparrow’s next prepared remarks. He turned to see her, a woman who was somewhere between the two of them in height – though such a description could count almost all the people Sparrow had ever met.
Sparrow shoved the phone back into Jude’s pocket. “No! No, he’s just a freak.”
Jude rubbed his face with his hand for just a moment, before he stepped forwards, holding out his hand. “Excuse me. Ms Gage?”
“Um, hello! You’re Mister Jude, yes? The front desk said you wanted to meet with me.”
Jude inclined his head politely, fishing a notepad – an actual piece of paper, flattened tree, bound with metal at the top – and a pen. “Why, yes, Ms Gage. I’m asking some questions about the robbery yesterday.”
Whitney sat down, her expression unhappy, but nodded. “Well…”
Whitney’d had her heart in her throat since the window tap. This was something you always feared, something you were always cautious about. Driving a cab wasn’t easy work, it wasn’t fun work, and it wasn’t remarkably profitable work, but she’d been happy with it until about four minutes before the stranger tapped on her window.
Living your life riding casual, calm highs and then plunging down into miserable, panicking moments of Oh God What’s Going Wrong Now was no way to get through life but she’d been told it was typical for other women too, so she’d just dealt with it. Most of those days hadn’t, however, involved an armed gunman holding her and her fare hostage.
Sat tight against her chair, she handed over her wallet. Swallowed nervously when it was handed back. Left the credit cards, took her cash. Not that there was that much.
“You really got a rifle…?” she’d asked. The fare behind her was scared, she was practically squeezed into her chair, in the rear view mirror. Breathing heavy, trying to hide in the bags she’d piled into the back seat. Maybe she could reassure her, with a sign there was –
CRACK went the front window. The whole sheet of glass burst inwards, collapsing into a shard of tiny glass granules, treated somehow, with glue, Whitney thought, like those little safe beads that weren’t as dangerous as big chunky sheets of glass that ran through her imagination in a wave of terror between the crack and the landing of the tinkling shards.
“Yes.” Said the robber, leaning back. “Now. Sit still. This isn’t something that has to take much time.”
Whitney didn’t need to see. She heard. The door opened, then the robber spoke –
“Purse, wallet, what-have-you. Billfold if you’re fancy.”
– and then a moment more. “And while we’re at it…”
Some of the bags moved. A ruffle of sound, of what, of pieces of formerly-luggage-bound clothing bouncing out around the back of the car? A cry from the fare—
And then the door closed. Whole thing, maybe thirty, forty secondsd longer than she’d taken on handing over her own wallet, and the figure in black with the mask and the phone was on their way away. Whitney was trembling, she knew, sitting still as she could and feeling bits of broken glass in the footwell. Then, as the figure moved away, they gestured – pointed at the front of the car.
An explosion of smoke, and Whitney swung the door open, dove out – praying that the open door, the smoke, and the general snow meant she’d just hit the side of another stopped car – and skidded around in the street, yanking open the passenger door. Grabbing the first piece of fabric she could she held it over her face, and helped the fare out – managing to pull them both over to the side of the road.
“So, uh, that’s how I wound up on the side of the road breathing through a stranger’s bra,” Whitney said, shrugging her shoulders helplessly. “He – or she, I don’t know, but like… he just took my wallet? So I thought it was just like, going to be the start of something awful, or… like I don’t know, you know. There’s… there’s a lot to be scared of.”
Jude nodded and took the words down. Very quietly, very patiently throughout it all. “And the car is…?”
“Well, the police filed it as a carjacking. I think the company have it in lock for repairs? They have to clean out the glass, replace the windshield, and dig out whatever, you know, is stuck in it that made it blow up like that?”
“Ah, there’s a different depot for that?”
“No, the machine shop on the other side of the yard here. You might have to talk to someone at reception. I – “ she laughed. “You’re not kind of what I expected when I was told there were detectives coming to talk to me.”
“Us? Detectives?” Sparrow blinked. “I’m a driver.”
“Oh! Oh, so you’re like a private eye?”
Jude gave a small smile, adjusting his coat and tucking away the notepad. “Sorry, no. I’m a butler.”
Crunching snow underfoot – again – Sparrow shrugged his shoulders. “Creepy story.”
“Mm.” Jude not-answered. His hands in his pockets, he pulled his shoulders in and dipped his head down.
“Let me guess, something’s not right with all that?”
“Hm? No, no, it all sounds like it happened.” Jude looked through the chain-link fence that surrounded the depot. “Doesn’t sound like something I’d do, but—”
“Course you wouldn’t do it, you’re a butler.” Sparrow chirped cheerfully. “Whatcha looking at?”
“Why? Old habits or something?”
“There are four men, armed, following us.”
“Wait, what?” Sparrow stopped short and looked around, snow flaring around the bottom of his long pants, hands at his side. “I –“
In the yard, moving between cars, were exactly what he’d described. Four men, white guys with short hair, tattoos on necks, faces, and wrists, moving between the cars. Three rows away, they were all wearing hardworking dark blues atop different flavours of jeans. Boots, all of them, but working boots. One held a bat. Another a length of wood, and another a chain. That meant, in Sparrow’s not-so-expert guesses, the fourth guy was hiding a knife somewhere.
“Uh, Jude, is it Catholic or Protestant I should lie about being?” Sparrow asked nervously.
Jude stepped forwards, as the men, two rows away, approached closer, gathering into a knot. “Just don’t say anything too Yankee for them.” He offered, letting his coat fall open slightly, giving more space for Sparrow to stand back. “Can I help you guys?” he called out.
“Hey there,” asked one of the men – idly rapping his fingers along the bat. “Hope you don’t mind, lad, but we’re just on our way to the shed to inspect a vehicle. Insurance reasons. Got involved in an accident yesterday, you see. Don’t mind stepping aside, do you?”
“You know,” Jude said, slipping his hands into his pockets, head tilted to the side, looking down at the four heavyset men. “I think I do.