ROCK’S BAD NIGHT
A Mudflat Magic Story
“Nah, not tonight, kid. We’re closing. Come by at eight tomorrow morning and pull up behind the office. Don’t forget to change the plates.” Before Rock could object, the line went dead.
He banged his fist on the steering wheel and heard the crack and let out a howl of frustration. He had not hit the wheel hard, just a glancing blow, but Rock was a smash wizard. He had the start of power in his bare hands, and that was what he had used, a bare hand. If he had hit the steering wheel with a tool, like a hammer or screwdriver, or even if he had had a stick or wooden ruler in his hand, the blow would have been magnified enough by his smash power to shatter the wheel. As it was, it was slightly bent and had a crack.
A steering wheel was cheap to replace. If Cashman noticed it, he would deduct fifty bucks. Rock didn’t like dealing with Cash who did always pay him, but never enough. On the other hand, the used car dealer had been around forever, bought stolen vehicles, and covered himself and his suppliers well. Rock had had enough run-ins with the cops to know he had no skill in ducking them. Instead, he stuck with the safe buyers, even if they paid a little less, and Cashman was one of the safest.
He ran his fingers around the wheel, rubbing lightly on the crack, while he thought. Plates?
Right. He hadn’t done that. He would need a plate for the back, a Washington State one because the cops had a bad habit of looking closer at out of state plates and he didn’t want to take a chance on getting pulled over. They did that, sometimes, if it was a slow night and they saw an out-of-stater.
As his driver’s license wouldn’t match the truck’s papers, he would have to jump out and make a run for it.
Rock was an athletic guy. He could do that. The road between Seattle and Tacoma, cut past wooded areas, less every year, and strip malls and industrial parks, all places he could go on foot faster than a cop could chase him. Most of them were out of shape, middle-aged and overweight. Sure, they had guns, but with all the pressure on police departments to up their images, they wouldn’t shoot, not unless he threatened one of them.
He wasn’t that dumb. Sure, in a fight he could mangle any of them, but that would be inviting a gunshot.
The Seattle Southcenter mall would be open late, he knew that, and it was a quick detour off the highway. He drove through its maze of turns and entrances to one of the larger lots, where the lights were shining in stores and restaurants, and then drove up and down the crowded rows until he spotted a truck of the same size and make as the one he was driving. It was even the same white. The only difference was that it had an open bed in the back. His had a camper fitted to it, which was what Cash had asked for.
Rock found an empty parking place on the far edge of the crowded lot. It was exactly what he needed, with a minimum chance of foot traffic. Sliding out of the truck and leaving the driver side door open, he checked the pocket of his raincoat to be sure he had his screwdriver, went to the back of the truck and had the plate off in seconds. He’d left the door open in case anyone drove past. They would see him crouched down behind the truck, see the open door, and presume he was the driver working on his own vehicle and pay no attention.
He didn’t bother with the front plate. Cops didn’t check in their rearview mirrors for stolen trucks.
Standing, he slipped the metal plate into the large inner pocket of his coat, slammed the door shut, pulled up the hood on his coat, and walked across the lot to the other truck. There were several people going up and down that aisle, to and from their cars, and when a car pulled out of a slot, another was waiting to pull in.
Standing between two dark cars, Rock was almost invisible in his black raincoat. He could have been back on the highway in the time wasted waiting for the aisle to be empty and it was the sort of circumstance that made him want to hit something, anything, even smash the windshield of the closest car.
“Your worst problem is that you lack patience,” his mentor often said. “With your skill, patience is necessary.” His mentor was a old mage who didn’t want to mentor anyone, and had been coerced into working with Rock by a witch who lived in the same area. The mage had no interest in teaching Rock how to increase his smash abilities. That was fine by Rock. He knew he needed a mentor, not to increase his strength but to teach him patience. The mage made him stand silently for hours at a time. Rock hated those lessons. But if he mastered patience, he knew he was much less likely to end up in prison, and so he did as told. His reason for putting up with the mentor was unknown to both the mentor and the witch and he intended to keep it that way.
Now he stood waiting as the mist turned to rain. From a nearby restaurant came the smell of barbecued ribs, reminding him he hadn’t had supper.
When the aisle finally emptied, he hurried to the nearby truck. This close to the buildings the aisle wouldn’t stay empty long. It took him seconds to remove the plate, and another second to slap the one from the stolen truck in place and tighten a screw, but before he could add another screw, a car turned in to the aisle. Its headlights swung along the row of parked vehicles.
Rock dodged fast, dropping into a crouch at the side of the truck. The moving car passed by. He started to stand. Four people turned up the aisle, probably returning to their car. All he could do was hope they weren’t looking for the car or truck on either side of him. If they were, he would have to say something fast. What to say? Oh, right, he could say, “I dropped my phone around here somewhere. Maybe the next row over.”
With any luck at all, they wouldn’t want to stand around in the rain questioning him.
His luck was slightly better. The two couples went to a car on the other side of the aisle, then stood there for ten minutes discussing who wanted to do what next, go to a film or go home and watch a game on TV or maybe look for those new shower curtains one of them needed. Biting hard on his lower lip and clenching his fists, Rock thought about his mentor and waited, maybe not patiently but at least he waited. After they got in their car and drove away, having agreed ‘the rain might get worse and snarl traffic’, Rock realized the cold rain had slid between his hood and collar and was running down his back. He would have liked to snarl louder than the highway traffic.
Instead, he hurried back to the truck with the dangling plate, slapped in the remaining screws, and then jogged across the lot to the stolen truck.
He wasn’t surprised to see more people now walking down that aisle. Not surprised, just furious. He clenched the plate he was carrying and felt it bend. It took the last of his patience to wait for this second group to leave, but he did it.
And then he set a new record for himself, had the snitched plate flattened back into shape and screwed on the stolen truck in no time. He started toward the door. He would get back to the highway and be in Tacoma and collect the five thousand in small bills that Cash had promised him if the truck with camper was in good shape. It was, except for the little almost invisible crack in the steering wheel.
Rock snapped his fingers, remembering. Cashman’s lot was closed for the night.
Bummer. As he stood by the truck, trying to decide what to do, he smelled the barbecue all the way across the lot. Or maybe it was his imagination. Either way, he was hungry and standing near a good choice of restaurants. Cold rain outdoors, warm food indoors, now that was the sort of choice he liked to make. He headed toward the food.
It was a nice restaurant and enough past the busy supper hours that he was led immediately to an empty booth. He took off his raincoat and started to roll it up.
“Looks damp,” the waitress said. “Here, let me hang it over the end of the booth. Give it a chance to dry.” She was a pretty woman and when she smiled at him he remembered he was a reasonably good-looking man. He seldom thought about his looks. They were of no importance to him beyond attracting women, which was important, sure, but he was hardly going to offer the waitress a ride home when he was driving a stolen truck. Not that it mattered. She probably had a boyfriend or husband.
Or maybe not. When she came back with the beer he’d ordered, she set it down and then grabbed his hand and turned it over between her two hands, surprising him.
“Am I?” He glanced down and saw that she was right, he had a gash on the side of his hand. “Huh! Wonder how I did that?” When he did a quick wonder, he knew. He’d bent that license plate. His hands were cold with rain at the time which must have been why he hadn’t felt it. “Uh, yeah, I kind of caught my hand in my car door. Didn’t know I’d broke the skin.”
She fussed over him, unwrapping his silverware from the paper napkin and dabbing at the blood. “Hope your car isn’t rusty. You could get an infection.”
He took a quick gulp of beer, than slid out of the booth. “I should go wash my hands.”
“Yes, good idea. And I’ll go and check on those ribs for you.”
Check his ribs? He stared at her, for a moment thinking she planned to follow him into the men’s room and then what? Before he blurted something stupid, he realized she was referring to the barbecued ribs he had ordered. He gave her a wide smile, laughing at himself, and she tilted her head and smiled back. Right. He knew he had good teeth. He also knew she thought he was flirting.
When he returned from the men’s room, three more booths near his had filled. The waitress paused to say, “Your ribs will be right up,” then hurried away.
The decision to stop for supper proved to be a good one. The food was excellent and he could have sat there all night ordering more beers and getting in a few quick chats with the waitress if the restaurant hadn’t closed at midnight. He’d keep her in mind, maybe stop in another night when he was driving his own car and could offer her a lift home.
The midnight closing left him with another eight hours before Cashman would be at his lot. That meant he needed to find a place to park that was out of sight of the highway and not on a metered street.
By the time he reached Tacoma he knew he was fighting sleep. Going all the way into the city would be a mistake. He needed to find a place where he could slide down on the seat and not have a cop knock on the window, ask him to step out, and then smell the beer on his breath. He didn’t usually drink when on a job. However, he had wanted to stay in the warm restaurant as long as possible and he couldn’t very well sit in the booth, with the waitress stopping by regularly, without ordering another beer.
At the city outskirts he turned south on the street that led to the TacomaDome, an event center used for everything from conventions to exhibits, and most popular for shows by musical groups. None were his thing, but he knew the area and knew from the empty streets that there was nothing going on that night in the center. Cops wouldn’t be circling the parking lot. Nor would he. Instead he drove down a side street with two cars parked at the curb, only two, probably belonged to people working late in one of the closed businesses. It didn’t matter. The fact they were there meant there was no time limit, at least not at night. He parked the truck behind the cars, making the front license plate hard to see.
Twenty minutes later he woke up, his long legs twisted under the steering wheel, his neck twisted against the top of the seat back, his nose pressed against the window glass. The top of his head didn’t feel too good, either.
“Oh, hell, what am I doing here? Lugging a camper, that’s what,” he muttered. And then he did what he knew he should have done to start with, he got out of the truck, walked around to the door of the camper, climbed in, found it had a bed with a mattress and blankets, and gave the setup a careful once over. He always thought carefully about how to avoid cops.
If they patrolled this street, all they would see was a parked truck and a couple of parked cars. If they got nosey or wanted to get out of their own car to stretch their legs, they might decide to take a look in the windows. Nothing up front. So then they’d glance in the camper. Cops can get snooty about people living in campers out on city streets, he knew that.
First he made sure the door was locked from the inside. Then he left the empty bed as it was, covered with a light colored blanket, then rolled up a dark blanket into a pillow, stretched out face down on the floor, and pulled the hood of his black raincoat over his head. As all his clothing was black, he figured he was safe enough, practically invisible. He was too tired to care that the floor was hard.
In his dreams he saw the moon, and then a flash of lightning, followed by thunder. He woke, rubbed his eyes, saw nothing but darkness beyond the windows, and knew he’d been dreaming. He stretched, lay back down, and dreamed he was in a small boat, tossing from side to side in the rough waters of the Sound. He muttered, “Stop that,” and the boat stopped and his dreams returned to the waitress, much pleasanter. He was between girlfriends at the moment.
An ex-girlfriend who was still a friend, which most of them weren’t, said he was between girlfriends more often than with a girlfriend. “It’s no point being sweet and generous, big guy,” the ex had told him. “They are always going to leave you as soon as they figure out you’re a thief.” His one complaint about that ex was that she was usually right.
The boat did another roll and he banged into the hard side. He moaned, pulled the folded blanket under his head, and went back to dreaming about the waitress who now looked exactly like his favorite ex.
The next light shining through the window was daylight, plain old pale gray morning light. Sleeping on the floor wasn’t usually so bad, he thought, and then noticed a few sore spots on his shoulders and hips, the places that he remembered bumping in the strange dream about being tossed around in a boat. He didn’t bother standing. Instead he turned around on the floor and crawled to the door, rose to his knees to open the latch, pushed the door open and swung his legs out.
It wasn’t until he was standing outside and straightened up that he looked around. Side to side. Then he did a complete turn.
He was surrounded by vehicles, all kinds of vehicles, cars, trucks, and even a few motorcycles. The pavement beneath his shoes wasn’t pavement, he realized, and that’s when his brain woke up.
He was standing on gravel in a messy parking area where everything was jammed in with no rows, none of the orderliness of the usual parking lot and besides that, the whole place was surrounded by chain link fence.
He would somehow have to move a dozen other vehicles before he could move his truck.
Walking toward the fence, he first saw the barbed wire along the top and next saw the double gates and right after that he did a fast jog to the gates and discovered they were chained shut and heavily padlocked.
At the side of the lot was some kind of building. He ran to it, noticed a sign but didn’t stop to read it, and tried to open the door. It was locked.
He stepped back to read the sign. It had a bunch of junk on it about hours. According to his watch, it was almost six a.m. and according to the sign, whoever they were, they didn’t open until eight.
Furious, he went through his favorite profanities. Considering the way he earned his living plus hours of silence training with the mage, he did it quietly. When his anger ran out, he knew where he was. Well, not exactly. He knew he had been towed to some kind of impound yard. But why? Was that street near the TacomaDome patrolled, and was overnight parking not allowed? Had the cops called for a tow truck to pull him to any old yard? Or had they checked the front license plate and had him towed to some city impound for stolen vehicles?
Didn’t matter. Either way, he couldn’t take a chance on this being a private lot, where some guy would turn up at eight and want a couple hundred bucks to let him get his truck back. By eight the police could also be there.
He walked around the dozen or so cars blocking his truck, knew he could break into each of them, knew some would have alarms he couldn’t turn off, and so even if he could drive them out of the way, he’d be surrounded by screeching alarms.
If there were only one or maybe two cars, he could hand push them out of the way. He was strong enough. But a dozen? No. Even with his wizard strength he couldn’t do that.
In frustration, he hit the door of the building with his bare fist and it cracked.
His only choice was to leave before whoever ran the place turned up for work. He knew that. Worse, he must have left prints all over the truck. He never worried about that when he took a vehicle to Cashman. Cash had guys who cleaned off all identification on a vehicle and replaced it with something safe to use before it went to the buyer, and in the process they scrubbed down all the surfaces.
The truck was never going to get to Cashman. And Rock was never going to get paid. And on top of all that, he now needed to take care of the fingerprints on the truck and on the camper.
He gave the cracked door a push that shattered the knob and the lock, went inside, found the usual cramped space, went behind the counter and found the rest room, grabbed a handful of paper towels, soaked them at the sink, took a deep breath to stop himself from ripping the sink off the wall to get even with the tow truck that had hauled him here and was probably connected to the company who ran the impound yard, went back out and did a wash down of the truck and camper, inside and out, and by the time he was finished he was ready to shatter every bone in the next person he saw.
And spend the rest of his life in jail. He could hear his mentor telling him so.
Wherever he was, he would have a long walk to find a highway and hitch a ride. And that thought made him even madder. What point was there in being a smash wizard if he couldn’t smash something?
Staring at the fence, he decided he was not going to cut his hands on barbed wire and he was not even going to bruise them by pounding on the padlock on the gate. No, sir. For a change he was going to do things the right way.
He glanced around the yard, found a box of tools, pulled on his gloves, grabbed a jack out of the box, marched over to the fence, lifted the jack and took a baseball swing. The result was beautiful. What’s more, it worked out a lot of anger.
The chain link fence exploded outward, one loud bang, and then it rained broken links in a jangling of metal bits hitting the street on the other side.
In front of Rock was an opening as tall as the fence and a good six feet wide. Wide enough to drive a car through. Or even a truck, but he knew it wasn’t worth the bother trying to retrieve the truck and besides, it was probably too tall with the camper on it.
He picked an old car, old enough to not have an alarm, broke open the door with one smash of his fist, hot wired it, and was out and gone by seven a.m., an hour before the employee or the police would show up.
The car door refused to close with the broken lock, which didn’t surprise him at all. Nothing in the whole stupid night had gone right, except maybe supper.
He smashed out the window and held the door closed with his left elbow on the windowsill. That got him to the highway where he left the car on a side street, walked up onto the edge of the road and thumbed a ride back to Seattle.
Copyright © Phoebe Matthews
Copyright © cover design LostLoves
The Mudflat Magic novels are listed on the HomePage, including a link to the first novel, the EPPIE award winner Tyrant Trouble. This novel is currently free.
For more short stories about Mudflat's smash wizard, there is an ebook titled Rock's Dogs