The sign ahead said, “Welcome to Judgment: Population 801.” It was crooked, like the tower in Pisa, and the white background was badly rusted. Weeds, like tangled wires at Christmas, wrapped tightly around the metal stem of the sign. Pete Simpson, who was driving, wondered if the population hadn’t changed at all since the sign had gone up.
Maybe if he’d done a better job of watching the road instead of becoming so enthralled with the sign, Pete wouldn’t have lost control of the rental Buick he was navigating.
The Park Avenue hit a slick spot and began a perilous doe-si-doe. Pete found himself rapidly facing north, then west, then south in a centrifugal counterclockwise spin. When he regained control, he saw not wet road ahead of him, but a tree straight out of Sleepy Hollow. Jerking the wheel once more, Pete managed to avoid a head-on collision with the tree, but the back quarter panel on the passenger side wasn’t so lucky. It struck the tree with enough force to lock his seatbelt. The car rebounded, and Pete slammed on the brakes, bringing the car to a hard stop in the ditch.
The whole experience lasted about two seconds, but it was enough to wake his passenger and fellow sales partner, Anne Quigley, from her slumber. Their cross-country sales trek had taken a short recess.
Pete called a tow truck out to the crash site, which in turn brought the car to Judgment’s only collision repair shop, Scale’s Auto Body. The prognosis wasn’t good. At minimum, it would take a good three days to fix the car, maybe two if they hustled. No razzle dazzle. Just pounding out the dent so the trunk could open again. Pete tried to throw a few extra bucks around to move the Buick higher on the repair order (there was one other car in the shop), but the shop owner wouldn’t hear of it. In 70 years, his shop had never put one car ahead of another for any reason, and he wasn’t about to start now.
“Just be thankful you’re not at one of those big city shops,” the owner stated. “Your wait could be a month.”
Pete wanted to complete that sentiment by saying, “Yeah, but those shops have tools more sophisticated than hammers,” which seemed to be the apex of technology here, but he thought better of it. Three types of people Pete learned to never anger were dentists, barbers and repairers. Instead, he gave the go-ahead to perform the repairs.
“Do you think the boss will mind we’re paying the repairs out of pocket?” Anne asked Pete when they arrived at the motel the shop owner had recommended.
Pete shrugged. “I doubt it. The price wasn’t bad, and I’m not about to waste any extra time here waiting for an insurance claim to come though. Besides, have you seen this town? It’s like we went in a time warp. I doubt anyone owns a computer, and indoor plumbing may be a luxury. It’s unlikely an insurance adjuster would get here within a week, and only then if he were lost.”
The wreck couldn’t have come at a worse time, Pete thought. He and Anne had been about halfway across the country on a sales onslaught. The whole idea of the trip had ticked him off, but the boss had insisted the sales people speak directly with clients. It was an insane schedule. Two months, a stop every 50 miles, and a diet of coffee, bagels and the occasional Dorito. But the boss promised huge checks to the team with the best results. He and Anne had been on a roll lately, even if she’d gotten off to a slow start. And now, this accident was going to take a week from their efforts. Wonderful. Just wonderful.
Anne was surprised to hear a knock on her door this late at night. She doubted it could be room service, since she hadn’t ordered any and since this dive didn’t even have a vending machine, much less a kitchen. If it was Pete, he had a lot of nerve, since time apart from your “teammate,” even if he were James Bond (which Pete obviously wasn’t), was something to be cherished. Still, she had the door open before she could realize what a dumb mistake that might be. The person outside could be the Hillside Strangler. It was the day before Halloween. Anything could happen.
It turned out the person doing the knocking was a skinny old man in a ragged flannel shirt, a fluorescent green baseball cap and jeans that had likely been purchased during the Kennedy administration. Anne pegged his age at about 75, give or take. He looked harmless, but nervous … like someone was watching him, and he didn’t like it.
He was direct. “Come with me for a ride in my car. Your life may depend on it.”
Anne smiled. The guy’s senile, she thought. Maybe I should call the front desk …
Before the thought could be completed, the old man grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her outside. His grip was strong, and though she struggled, he managed to pull her across the parking lot to his car, a beautiful Cabriolet. Even in the darkness, Anne could see how gorgeous its fiery red finish shone. The vehicle had to be from the ’30s, but it looked brand new. Still grasping her wrist the old man said, “I’m not going to hurt you. I just need to talk to you. Just give me five minutes.”
“Couldn’t you have told me back at my door,” Anne asked, seriously shaken, but starting to calm down a bit. The old man had a gleam in his eyes, a gleam that was trying to hack through the nervousness that seemed to engulf him.
“No, ma’am,” the old man said, speaking fast. “This is something I have to show you. I saw you and your friend at the body shop earlier today. I’ve seen most – maybe all – of the cars that go through Scale’s Auto Body, but this is the first time I’ve tried to warn somebody about that place.”
This guy is senile, Anne thought, trying to remain poker-faced.
He went on. “Guess how old I am,” he said.
“What? I’m not sure I understand,” Anne replied, surprised. Suddenly, this conversation had turned into a carnival guessing game.
“Just guess how old I am.”
Anne decided to humor him. “70?”
The old man smiled. “I know I look a bit older than that, but thanks for trying not to hurt my feelings.” He paused. “I’m 98.”
Anne started looking for a medical ID bracelet on the man’s wrist. He was nuts. If there was a cuckoo’s nest around here, this gentleman had just flown over it.
“Sure you are. Look, this has been fun, but I have to go,”
“This car was the ninth one ever repaired at Scale’s Auto Body,” he said, motioning to his vehicle. “I nearly totaled it 68 years ago. In fact, by today’s standards, it would have been totaled, and I probably wouldn’t be here today. I’d have died of old age years ago.”
Anne was confused.
“Scale’s had been in business for about a year by then, but in a town this small, only so much body work could come its way. I’ve lived in Judgment my whole life, and I bet I’ve seen only 349 cars get repaired there.”
Anne did the quick math. It equaled about five or six cars a year. “How could they stay in business?”
“Come for a ride, and I’ll show you,” the old man said. “It may help me prove my point, and I don’t like standing out here. I may not look my age, but this cold weather still hits me pretty hard.”
Anne was hesitant, but then realized being killed by a man who claimed to be 98, while in a strange town, could actually improve this horrid sales trip. She got in on the passenger side, and within a minute, they were off.
“When I got this car fixed, it only had 6,000 miles on it. Back then, Buck Scales was the only one who worked in the shop. Strange fella. Comes to Judgment from this town we never heard of, starts a collision repair business right about the time the Depression starts, and somehow keeps it afloat despite the fact he got maybe one car in every two months.
“He was here for about 25 years and never seemed to age a day. Then he leaves for three years, back in ’55, and his son comes back to re-open the family business. Buck Jr. People would remark how much like his daddy he looked.
“By then, I was starting to think Buck and Buck Jr. were the same person and that Scales had somehow found the Fountain of Youth. Another 25 years later, Buck Jr. left and surprise, his son, Buck III – the shop owner you spoke with today – comes back to take over the business. And once again, he’s the spitting image of his dad. It was odd, because no one in town was friends with the Scales. No one knew where they lived. In fact, if the Bucks had wives, no one saw them.
“But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to 1932. Buck fixes my car in a week, and it looked better than new. This wasn’t just what repairers call ‘pre-accident condition.’ This was pre-driven condition. And Buck tells me, ‘This repair has a lifetime guarantee. You won’t need to do anything to this car except add gas.’ Of course I was skeptical, but he was right. Can you feel how smooth this ride is? I can take sharp curves at 80, and the wheels never make a squeal. The tires still look new, and I haven’t changed them in 68 years. No oil changes. No tune-ups. No broken fan belts. No scratches. Nothing. I’ve flipped the odometer more than 10 times in my travels, and I’ve only had to keep it filled with gas.”
Senile or not, this guy told an interesting yarn, Anne thought. Maybe he was hypnotizing her to take her to his cult for a ritual sacrifice. The old man went on.
“A week later, John Aire, the local schoolteacher, takes his car in to get repaired, the 10th car to get repaired at Scale’s, right after mine. His car comes out perfect, too, but two days later, he’s in another wreck. This one killed him. Casket was closed at his wake.
“About two years later, another car Buck Scale fixed was in an accident hours after the repair. Same result. The owner died. Freak occurrence, too. Empty road, no trees, but fell into a ditch and the driver was tossed from the vehicle. Then I started getting curious. Sure, every car Buck fixed became a masterpiece, but every so often, someone would drive away and end up dead within a couple days. So I started keeping track. I rented the apartment across the street from Scale’s. I would log each repair in a notebook. Make and model of car, the damage, and if the owner was from out of town or was a local.
“Then I saw a pattern. A couple of them, actually. First was that every 10th car that was repaired, without exception, was soon in a wreck and the driver was killed. Ten cars would be fixed to pristine condition, but the 10th car owner would be in a fatal accident. This pattern went on for decades, but Scale’s got so few customers, it was hard for many people to take notice. I also saw that most of the unlucky ones were out-of-towners. In fact, about half the time an out-of-towner got his car fixed, that out-of-towner was dead not long after he left Judgment.”
“So let me guess. My partner and I are in the 10th car this time, right?”
The old man nodded.
“And you wanted to warn us?”
The old man nodded again, this time more slowly.
“I’ve been doing some investigative work,” he said. “Much easier to do these days with the Internet. Trying to see if I can connect the patterns I’ve seen with Scale’s repairs. I think I may have stumbled upon something. I’m almost there, but not quite. I think another trip to the university library tomorrow will help me figure it all out.”
Suddenly, Anne was curious. Maybe the guy was nuts, but if he was on to something, and if that something was the determining factor as to whether or not she would be in a fatal car crash in two days, she wanted to know. She’d seen too many episodes of X-Files to want to dismiss this now. She didn’t believe the old man, but she wasn’t convinced he was wrong either.
She was about to ask him what he thought he’d found when flashing red and blue lights came up behind them. The old man pulled over and whispered, “Look in your glove box when you pick up the car. If you don’t believe me now, you will then.”
It was an hour later, back at Anne’s room. It turned out the old man had been a fugitive. He’d been caught breaking into Judgment City Hall earlier that night. Caught red-handed with a flashlight in the mayor’s office, rooting through the mayor’s desk. But somehow, the cops had lost him, until they spotted him again with Anne, driving around in his beautiful 70-year-old car.
It was almost 3 a.m. but Anne was far from sleep. Why would the old man continue to drive around in an easily recognizable car (and that florescent ballcap) when the cops were after him? Was it to make his point to her about the job quality at Scale’s? Had he really risked getting captured so he could prove to her that she and Pete were in danger? Or was he just really crazy?
Two days later, Pete and Anne were walking to the body shop, ready to pick up the rental Buick and get the hell out of Judgment.
Over the past two days, Anne had seen some things that prevented her from forgetting the old man and what he’d said (even though her common sense had prevailed, convincing her he was a loon). For one thing, Judgment had a lot of nice, classic cars. This wasn’t to say that each house had a sparking new Model T in front, but there were enough old cars in mint condition to keep her wondering. But if Scale’s Auto Body could magically restore any car, permanently, to pre-accident condition, then why wouldn’t everyone go there? Why had only a few hundred cars been fixed there in 70 years? Why not thousands?
She tried to let it go and took her place in the passenger seat. Straight ahead of her was the glove box. She half-smiled, but prevented herself from opening it up. To do so would be an admission that she suspected what the crazy old man said was true. But still, it wouldn’t hurt to look …
Pete climbed in and started the car, remarking how perfect the repair was, like there’d never been any damage at all. He pulled out of the body shop lot and they were on the road, at least temporarily. “Diner up ahead,” Pete announced. “I’ll get us some coffee. Wait right here?”
Anne nodded and watched Pete go in. One more cup of coffee on the endless cycle of caffeine, a cycle that wouldn’t end until this trip was over – which could be any second, according to the old man, she thought, smiling to herself.
Anne could see that Pete was still in line at the counter. He’d be a few minutes. Enough time for the glove box to beckon her. Just a quick look, she thought. Open it up, see nothing but an owner’s manual, and close it. Simple.
Without hesitation she flipped it open and saw the manual. But on top of it lay an envelope. She pulled it out and opened it, removing a single sheet of notebook paper filled with scrawling handwriting. Anne had no doubt it came from the old man. Somehow the crazy old coot had snuck into the body shop and left this note to continue scaring her.
“What do you have there?” Pete asked, getting back into the car and handing Anne her coffee.
“Just some notes for the next stop,” she lied, sipping the coffee. It was strong. She read the note to herself as Pete drove. There was no greeting on the note. No “To whom it may concern.” It just got down to business.
“I made the connection. I sold my car today to make bail, and I walked to the library to find the final piece to the puzzle. I only hope you read this before it’s too late. It turns out that everyone who had been killed in a wreck following a repair at Scale’s had some skeletons in their closets. Big skeletons. John Aire, that schoolteacher I told you about, was a suspect in the murder of his cousin years before he came to Judgment. Not enough evidence to convict him back then, but it looks like he got his comeuppance when he got his car repaired at Scale’s.”
Pete drove past the “Leaving Judgment” sign, and the Buick picked up speed. the speedometer needle hovered at 60 mph. Anne took another gulp of coffee and read on.
“I checked on as many of the doomed repairs as I could, and each owner had been suspected, or had gotten away with, some type of murder. And the fact that so many of those repairs came from out-of-towners tells me these people were drawn here by some force, as if it was pulling them to their final judgment. Their comeuppance. The city’s name is no accident. We had cars from all over the country get repaired here, and the ones from farthest away were ones most likely to be the 10th cars in the pattern. Judgment isn’t a tourist town, and the only people who visit are those who get in wrecks and need to take their cars to Scale’s. In other words, they had to be here. I tried breaking into City Hall a couple nights back to get more info, but got caught. Maybe if I were younger than 98 …”
Anne couldn’t believe this. The whole story was making her feel lightheaded, like she was in a dream. She looked out the windshield and saw nothing but clear blue skies and straight, flat driving as far as she could see. If a wreck was imminent, it would have to be the freakiest of accidents. Her eyes blurred a bit. She shook her head from side to side, clearing her vision, and went back to reading.
“Now my guess is that you or the man you came with killed someone; it could have been last week or years ago, and you came to this town, ended up being the unlucky repair, and now the punishment’s going to come. But I figure one of you must be innocent, too. Somehow, Buck Scale has found a way to punish people and put out high-quality repairs, neither of which is an easy task. And clients like me seem to live longer. Maybe driving around in cars he fixed prolonged our lives, but at the expense of those killed, or punished, depending on how you look at it. That sounds like a deal with the devil to me.
“I want out of Judgment. I think the people of this town who got a great repair at Scale’s – myself included – used that as a means of turning their backs to something terrible that was going on. I’m not saying those killers didn’t deserve a punishment, but I don’t want to be part of a process that decides who lives and who doesn’t. So I’m leaving Judgment. I got no car now, but my feet will take me where I want to go, down a long road to a new life. I hope you somehow manage to avoid whatever curse this town and Scale’s Auto Body has put upon you. But no one’s been able to stop fate in this town for 70 years, so I don’t imagine it’ll stop now, either.”
That’s how the letter ended.
“Pete,” Anne said, her throat dry, but her spirits brightening as Judgment got further behind them. “Have you ever killed anyone?” She meant it as a joke.
He looked at her, then at the empty coffee cup she had in her hand, and smiled. His eyes squinted and suddenly, Anne felt the onslaught of a raging headache. Her senses started to abandon her and she felt like she was about to pass out. “No, I haven’t killed anyone … yet,” Pete replied, still grinning that evil grin. “But give it a few minutes.”
Anne looked into her coffee cup and saw a milky white residue at the bottom. Poison. Pete had poisoned her! She heard Pete laugh and could feel him looking at her, watching her fade. Before she closed her eyes for the last time she saw, out the windshield, a familiar old man walking alongside the road. An old man in a flannel shirt, ancient jeans and a fluorescent green ball cap, and the Buick — being driven by a currently distracted driver — was heading right for him. The last thing Anne felt was Pete swerving the car to avoid hitting the old man, and then the vehicle flipping over. Her last thought was thinking that Pete was now getting his comeuppance.
Writer Mike Lawrence is associate editor of BodyShop Business. He was dropped on his head as a baby and is obviously still in the midst of recovery.