Usually in her studio.
Or spending time with family.
Or any number of places.
If those have to do with writing, they'll be listed




















Louie Stella's voice chugged like a Model T Ford. As it choked and sputtered, its owner going on about the virtues of the old classics over the newfangled, high-technology, electronic look-alikes, Jeff Talbot parked the phone between ear and shoulder and allowed his mind to wander.

He'd had his '48 Chevy Fleetmaster, with its splintered wood, caved-in fenders, and buckled chrome bumpers, towed to Louie's Retro Resto and Chop Shop several months earlier after a killer had run him off the road one dark and stormy winter night. Since then, Jeff had survived another Pacific Northwest plaid flannel season, laughed as the rest of the country put so much store in a groundhog, and seen the schools release masses of students from their chalky walls for another summer.

It was high time he got his car back. "So," Jeff prompted Louie, when the grease monkey's motor ran out of gas, "any chance I can pick up the woodie before football season starts?"

"You can pick her up now, if you've got the money to bail her out." Louie chuckled, then the half-lurching noise in his throat sputtered to a stop.

"Now?" Why hadn't Louie said so when he'd called and woke everyone up fifteen minutes earlier?

Jeff should've remembered what conversations with Louie were like. He blamed his lapse in memory on the fact that it was morning, early morning, and he'd just gotten started on the pot of coffee that Greer brought in with the cordless phone and the Post-Intelligencer.

He wouldn't give Louie any grief over the wasted time. Jeff was an antiques picker now, but back when he was with the Bureau, Louie was one of his best informants. If Jeff needed a lead on a classic car that had been stolen, Louie was his first contact. If an antique Duesenberg had been lifted from an auto museum as easily as a thumbprint from glass, Louie was as likely as anyone to have gotten wind of the transaction. Jeff's own vintage car was a bonus, kept his visits to Louie's from drawing attention. The primo woodie got the curious stares, not the G-man.

The auto shop had always been a gathering place for all sorts of people from all walks of life, and Louie had created an atmosphere where car people relaxed. If Louie hadn't heard scraps of info about the cars that had disappeared, he knew enough about the whole classic auto world to point Jeff in the general direction. It just took him longer than most to spit it out.

"Sure," Louie now said. "She's all dolled up and ready to go. Better than new, in fact. And the place is like a morgue today, so you won't have to wait. We've been working our butts off to get all the jobs done so's people can squeeze every minute out of showing off their babies-summer cruise nights and car shows are hotter than ever, you know."

Jeff didn't know, but he could trust Louie to. It was no secret that Louie, his two sons (who worked with him), and the other two men he employed were not only passionate about their work, but about old cars, period. Any number of the crew-if not all of them-participated in every auto show and cruise night that came down the pike.

Cars got into people's blood, Jeff knew, much like being a cop did. Having been with the FBI for several years before throwing it all over for the antiques world had taught him that. He didn't miss those days, necessarily, but he recognized the obsessions. To Louie, he said, "What's the damage?"

When Louie rattled off the long string of numbers, Jeff was grateful that he was sitting down. He had insurance-paid more than most because he used his classic car on a daily basis-but this blow would likely raise his premium. "I'll bring a check with me. Should be there in--" Jeff glanced at his watch--"about forty-five minutes."

"Sounds good."

As Jeff started to hang up the phone, he heard Louie's voice calling his name.

"Yeah?" Jeff parked the phone back in the crook of his shoulder.

"I damn near forgot. Tony said tell you he's got a surprise for you when you get here-found a piece of nostalgia while he was working on the left rear door panel."

Tony was the oldest of Louie's two sons (the other boy, Michael, worked in the shop, too, doing grunt work while he learned the finer points of restoration) and had overtaken his old man in skill as far as restoring vehicles was concerned, especially woodies. Tony could turn timber into art on wheels. "Nostalgia? What is it?"

"Damned if I know. He said tell you he put it in the--hang on."

In the what? Jeff waited, heard voices on Louie's end of the line, but he couldn't make out what they were saying.

Finally, Louie's voice was in Jeff's ear again. "Gotta go, Talbot. Kid dropped a transmission." He hung up, leaving Jeff to learn later about what Tony had found.

Jeff showered, shaved, and dressed in record time, then grabbed the tray and telephone that his butler had brought up and headed down the service stairs that led to the kitchen.

"Breakfast will be ready in two minutes," Sheila announced as she removed a pan from the oven.

"Sorry, hon," Jeff said, kissing the nape of her neck below the blonde ponytail, "but I don't have time. The woodie's ready, and I told Louie that I'd head on down."

"Ten more minutes won't make that big a difference."

Jeff's jaw tightened. He'd waited months for this day, and on top of that, had agreed to pay extra so he wouldn't have to wait even longer. Now, the thought of tacking on ten minutes seemed too much to ask. He was debating how to explain this to his wife when his stomach growled. He dropped the issue.

"What's in the pan?"

"Dutch Babies," she said, looking at him as if his sanity were questionable. "I've only made them for you every Friday morning since the moment I moved in here. Well, except for last winter. Still, it looks like you'd remember."

"Chalk my failings as a husband up to distraction. I hadn't realized how much I missed that car till I heard it's ready to go."

"Come on, then. The quicker we start, the quicker you can leave."

They sat in the breakfast nook slathering the cakes with butter before pouring hot syrup on them (and balancing the indulgence with turkey bacon and fresh cantaloupe), and Jeff tore into his food as if he were bound for the wilderness. "Where's Greer?" he asked around a chunk of melon.

"Washing the car."

"What?" His shoulders dropped, causing the butts of his knife and fork to strike the table. "We don't have time for that."

"He said it wasn't acceptable to drive a dirty vehicle to a restoration shop." Sheila eyed her husband. "He'll be finished before you are-if you eat like a normal person, instead of inhaling everything."

"Sorry." He took a deep breath. Sheila was a chef, and Jeff knew the importance of appreciating the creative efforts she put into everything she prepared. He brought the next forkful toward his mouth more slowly, then paused midair. "I should've checked with you first. Will you be okay while Greer drives me down to Louie's shop?"

"Would you stop asking me that every time you set foot out the door? I'm fine. Anyway, I've got a busy day planned, and it'll help to have the place to myself for awhile. After I list another two dozen items on eBay, I'm packaging the week's sales. After that, I'm providing a Labor Day menu and recipes in a chat room for my agoraphobic chefs' group."

Jeff shook his head. "Always surprises me there's more than one of you."

"Obviously, you mean agoraphobes who are chefs, but I don't know why. We have to eat. And, besides, I spent a lot more time in the kitchen before I started our on-line auction business. Some agoraphobics are into the food and nothing else, which is understandable if you're not into arts or crafts. At least I paint some-or, I did before eBay. Besides, I get some good recipes in our recipe exchange."

Well, Jeff thought, at least she's back into her old routine. He listened as she talked animatedly about her plans, thankful that she'd overcome recent traumas, then advanced even further to overcome their physical effects. While holed up in their bedroom for over a month just prior to the previous Christmas, she'd gained fifteen pounds, and lost all semblance of normalcy. Now, seven months later, the extra weight was gone (he didn't care about it, except that it had depressed her), and her muscle tone was better than ever. She was all but obsessed with working out. He joined her in the basement's workout room a couple of times a week, and it helped marginally to keep him from gaining weight. Additionally, he'd noticed that a typical flight of stairs no longer left him winded-all a plus, since his "thirty-nine and holding" birthday was only a few months away. He admitted to himself that he'd missed the workouts, which had been a regular habit when he was an agent, but he didn't let on to his wife. Although the euphoria of exercise was addictive, he wasn't about to match her schedule. Besides, he had a decade on her.

Sheila reached over and tugged a lock of his hair. "Weren't you going in for a haircut this morning? You've been putting it off all week."

He waved her off. "I'll have it done on my way back from Louie's."

The back door opened and closed, followed momentarily by Greer approaching the breakfast nook with the coffeepot.

"Greer, can you spare the time to run down to Louie's with me?"

"I'm looking forward to it, sir." Greer poured warm-ups in the cups. "The men over at Woody's Car Wash were asking when you'd be back with the forty-eight. They've missed seeing her."

"That's good of them to say, especially since they don't make any money off the deal." It was company policy that bona fide wooden-bodied cars went through for free.
Jeff swigged coffee, said, "Well, that's one more reason to go get the car," then kissed his wife before hurrying out the back door.


Chapter Two


Louie's garage sat just off an isolated stretch of road southeast of Renton between communities dotted with stripmalls, Laundromats, and tire stores.

The exterior of the large building from which emerged gleaming works of pricey auto body art looked as if it hadn't been painted in thirty years. The once-white structure was grungy, and nearly half its milky coat was worn away, revealing weathered gray boards. Beyond the building was the graveyard: acres and acres of salvage vehicles-everything from rusted-out shells gutted for parts to panel wagons whose sides bore the faded names of businesses that had also faded from the landscape, to pickup skeletons that had given up either their cabs or beds or both.

As Jeff pulled the PT Cruiser off the state road and down the slight incline toward the parking area, Greer said, "Sir, the place looks abandoned."

"Yeah. Louie told me they were pretty much caught up on their work, and most of the cars were picked up last night. Maybe the guys pulled their own vehicles inside to tinker on them."

"True, but why would they have all the doors closed?"

The closed doors-three oversized panels designed to slide to the side, thus allowing room for pulling vehicles in and out-did make the place look abandoned. Beyond them, near the end of the long building, was an entry door with a small window near the top. This door led to a reception area that fronted Louie's office. It was also closed.

Jeff pulled to a stop. "They've probably got the back doors open, so they can keep these closed. You know, make it look like they're not open for business so they can take a breather. Louie sounded beat. He said they'd been working around the clock."

"Yes, sir. Should we park around back, then, in order to keep the ruse going?"
Jeff considered the question. "Nah," he said. "If Louie wanted me to do that, he'd have said so." Jeff parked the Cruiser near the entry door.

"May I join you, sir? I'd like to see what else they're working on."

"Sure." Jeff hid his surprise. Although Greer had shown great skill in maintaining the woodie-keeping it waxed, changing the oil, replacing the plugs and, well, whatever it was he did toward the car's upkeep-Jeff thought he was more likely to show interest in HGTV than in STP.

Greer opened the door for his employer. Chemical fumes hit both of them in the face.
Jeff coughed. "I'll never get used to the smell. How on earth do they work in this and keep from passing out?"

Greer fanned the air. "It's typically not this strong, sir."

Jeff studied his butler as they stepped inside, and thought, How would you know from smells in a garage? He had to agree, though. "Usually Louie's coffee is worse than the paint fumes and Bondo."

Jeff squinted as his eyes adjusted to the dim garage. The place was gray, for the most part, with glowing dots here and there where trouble lights hanging on latches of open hoods illuminated the guts of vehicles, and naked bulbs shed weak light on worktables crammed with wrenches, distributor caps, tailpipes, ratchets, oil cans, and a hundred nondescript items, most of which were coated with a mucky layer of grime.

To the far left was a large, partitioned segment that Jeff knew as the dust-free paint room.

"Louie?" Jeff called out, his voice echoing in the cavernous building. It had been laid out with enough right angles so that those working in the smaller rooms weren't visually distracted by those in the main room.

"Perhaps they're taking a coffee break." Greer pointed toward a cubicle in the corner opposite them. He pulled a white handkerchief from his hip pocket and covered his mouth and nose.

Jeff nodded, and the two men walked that direction, the echo of their footsteps bouncing off the rafters. A bright light caught Jeff's attention.

He stopped short. There, in an area spotlighted like a showroom floor, was his car.

This setup was new. Jeff walked toward the showcased vehicle. The varnished ash and mahogany glowed warm and golden next to the Lake Como Blue body. Jeff had instructed Tony to paint the car its original factory color rather than the black that his grandfather, Mercer Talbot, had switched to years before. The chrome replating was the best he'd ever seen, the windows shone like a bartender's polished glass, and new whitewalls all around completed the picture. Jeff was sure she was better than when she'd rolled out of Detroit under Truman.

"Look at her, Greer," he said, only vaguely aware that his throat was getting scratchy.
"You can't tell she's ever been wrecked." He coughed, called out Louie's name again as he examined the left front fender, which had taken the brunt of the accident. He rarely referred to the woodie as gender-specific. That jargon was for the obsessed, the possessed, the men-and women (more and more females were getting into the old-car hobby)-who spent every free moment dressing up their toys and entering them in classic auto shows, parading them down the boulevards on cruise nights, vying for trophies and prizes, joining clubs.

But the sight of his '48 Chevy back in working order had its effect. He jingled the extra set of keys in his jeans pocket, anxious to get behind the wheel.

"Yes, sir," Greer said, "but have you noticed that the back doors are closed as well? The fumes are too strong in here."

Jeff buried his nose in the crook of his elbow as he looked around. His eyes stung. He inhaled, coughed, then shouted again: "Louie?"

No response.

"Over there." Greer pointed toward the end of the building farthest from the office. "Hear that hissing? Someone's using a paint sprayer on one of those forty-nines, either the Chevy pickup or that Merc." Greer started toward it, looked up. "That exhaust fan should be on."

Merc? Jeff wondered if Greer, too, had been caught up in the world of classics. The young butler rarely used slang.

Greer walked toward some tanks hooked up to hoses near a paint station. "Hello?" he called.

No response. To Jeff, he said, "The person using it must be wearing earplugs." Greer paused at the tanks, studied the gauges, then flipped a wall switch. The exhaust fan motor started up, its tone raising an octave as it gained RPMs and overrode the sound of the Mercury's engine. Greer moved gingerly toward the far side of the car.

Jeff followed, watching as Greer glanced between the two vehicles before moving on toward the far side of the truck.

"Here he is, sir, on a creeper under the pickup."

"Give him a kick, let him know we're here."

Jeff caught up, saw two denim-covered legs and two scuffed brogan work boots extending beyond the wooden platform of the wheeled creeper. Greer gave the sole of one boot a slight kick, got no response.

Jeff stepped forward, nudged the booted foot nearest him that stuck out from under the running board.

The leg fell like dead weight to the concrete floor. Jeff dropped, grabbed the ankles, and pulled. The creeper rolled forward, carrying its cargo out from under the vehicle.

The lifeless load was Michael Stella, Louie's youngest son.

(End of Chapter Two)



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