THE STARTER COMPLAINED AS IT TURNED OVER THE old Buick's heavy engine. I felt a lot of sympathy for it since fighting outside my weight class was something I was intimately familiar with. I'm a coyote shapeshifter playing in a world of werewolves and vampires - outmatched is an understatement.
"One more time," I told Gabriel, my seventeen-year-old office manager, who was sitting in the driver's seat of his mother's Buick. I sniffed and dried my nose on the shoulder of my work overalls. Runny noses are part and parcel of working in the winter.
I love being a mechanic, runny nose, greasy hands, and all.
It's a life full of frustration and barked knuckles, followed by brief moments of triumph that make all the rest worthwhile. I find it a refuge from the chaos my life has been lately: no one is likely to die if I can't fix his car.
Not even if it is his mother's car. It had been a short day at school, and Gabriel had used his free time to try to fix his mother's car. He'd taken it from running badly to not at all, then had a friend tow it to the shop to see if I could fix it.
The Buick made a few more unhealthy noises. I stepped back from the open engine compartment. Fuel, fire, and air make the engine run - providing that the engine in question isn't toast.
"It's not catching, Mercy," said Gabriel, as if I hadn't noticed.
He gripped the steering wheel with elegant but work-roughened hands. There was a smear of grease on his cheekbone, and one eye was red because he hadn't put on safety glasses when he'd crawled under the car. He'd been rewarded with a big chunk of crud - rusty metal and grease - in his eye.
Even though my big heaters were keeping the edge off the cold, we both wore jackets. There is no way to keep a shop truly warm when you are running garage doors up and down all day.
"Mercy, my mama has to be at work in an hour."
"The good news is that I don't think it's anything you did." I stepped away from the engine compartment and met his frantic eyes. "The bad news is that it's not going to be running in an hour. Jury's out on whether it will be back on the road at all."
He slid out of the car and leaned under the hood to stare at the Little Engine That Couldn't as if he might find some wire I hadn't noticed that would miraculously make it run. I left him to his brooding and went through the hall to my office.
Behind the counter was a grubby, used-to-be-white board with hooks where I put the keys of cars I was working on - and a half dozen mystery keys that predated my tenure. I pulled a set of keys attached to a rainbow peace-sign keychain, then trotted back to the garage. Gabriel was back to sitting behind the wheel of his mother's Buick and looking sick. I handed him the keys through the open window.
"Take the Bug," I told him. "Tell your mom that the turn signals don't blink, so she'll have to use hand signals. And tell her not to pull back on the steering wheel too hard or it will come off."
His face got stubborn.
"Look," I said before he could refuse, "it's not going to cost me anything. It won't hold all the kids" - not that the Buick did; there were a lot of kids - "and it doesn't have much of a heater. But it runs, and I'm not using it. We'll work on the Buick after hours until it's done, and you can owe me that many hours."
I was pretty sure the engine had gone to the great junkyard in the sky - and I knew that Sylvia, Gabriel's mother, couldn't afford to buy a new engine, any more than she could buy a newer car. So I'd call upon Zee, my old mentor, to work his magic on it. Literal magic - there was not much figurative about Zee. He was a fae, a gremlin whose natural element was metal.
"The Bug's your project car, Mercy." Gabriel's protest was weak.
My last project car, a Karmann Ghia, had sold. My take of the profits, shared with a terrific bodyman and an upholsterer, had purchased a '71 Beetle and a '65 VW Bus with a little left over. The Bus was beautiful and didn't run; the Bug had the opposite problem.
"I'll work on the Bus first. Take the keys."
The expression on his face was older than it should have been. "Only if you'll let the girls come over and clean on Saturdays until we get the Bug back to you."
I'm not dumb. His little sisters knew how to work - I was getting the better of the bargain.
"Deal," I said before he could take it back. I shoved the keys into his hand. "Go take the car to Sylvia before she's late."
"I'll come back afterward."
"It's late. I'm going home. Just come at the usual time tomorrow."
Tomorrow was Saturday. Officially, I was closed on the weekends, but recent excursions to fight vampires had cut into my bottom line. So I'd been staying open later and working on the weekend to make a little extra money.
There is no cash in battling evil: just the opposite in my experience. Hopefully, I was done with vampires - the last incident had nearly gotten me killed, and my luck was due to run out; a woman whose best talent was changing into a coyote had no business in the big leagues.
I sent Gabriel on his way and started the process of closing up. Garage doors down, heat turned to sixty, lights off. Till drawer in the safe, my purse out. Just as I reached for the final light switch, my cell phone rang.
"Mercy?" It was Zee's son, Tad, who was going to an Ivy League college back East on full scholarship. The fae were considered a minority, so his official status as half-fae and his grades had gotten him in - hard work was keeping him there.