by Trey Dowell
Twenty-five years of renting cars had taught Hector Ramirez many things that were often true.
A smile costs nothing.
The customer is always right.
It had also taught him one thing that was always true: three-piece suit + Bluetooth earpiece + $200 haircut = douchebag.
“Look, I don’t have time for excuses,” Trent Jameson said. “I need a luxury car and I need it now, comprende?”
Hector strained to maintain his customer-service smile. “Mr. Jameson, it’s two days before Christmas. All we have left are compact and sub-compact models—”
“That’s the same crap those morons at the airport Hertz fed me, which is why I’m standing in your shit-pot rental office, twenty miles from nowhere.”
Sweat gathered at Hector’s rapidly graying temples. “My son is out back checking if anything’s just come in…”
The door to the cleaning bay opened and Mateo popped his head in. “Sorry, pop. Nothing new.”
“Jesus Christ, what a joke,” Jameson muttered.
Mateo stepped fully into the office. “Excuse me?”
Jameson scoffed. “I’ll say it louder, Paco. This place is a joke.”
Hector saw his son bristle, the young man’s hands curling into fists. Thankfully Mateo didn’t move toward Jameson.
“This joke,” Mateo said, chin jutting out, “is one of Brownsville’s oldest family businesses. My grandfather worked that counter for forty years. Dropped dead right there, helping jerks like you.”
Jameson laughed. “Let me guess, this tattered sign on the counter was his? ‘Making the world a better place, one customer at a time.’” He waved around the office. “Dirty floors, dingy windows, and…” He pointed to a shadowy corner. “…you’ve got mousetraps on the freaking floor. Your grandpa’s ‘better place’ looks an awful lot like the john at a Quik Trip.”
Mateo took two steps in Jameson’s direction, but Hector stopped him with a firm hand on his chest. “Out. Now,” he ordered. The young man exhaled in frustration, but did as he was told. Hector turned back to Jameson. This time, he didn’t bother with a fake smile.
“Sir, I think it’s time for you to leave.”
Jameson raised both hands in mock surrender. “Okay, so I’m rude. Sue me. That’s no reason to escalate things. Listen…” He approached the rental counter, bent over and motioned for Hector to lean in. Hector glanced at the otherwise empty room, then humored him.
“I know you keep something nice out back for top-shelf clients,” Jameson whispered. “You’d be an idiot not to. I also know this is Brownsville, Texas, two miles from the border. Now, are you gonna upgrade me? Or do I need to call my friends in Immigration and have them comb through your employee records? Because either way, I’m driving a luxury car to Padre Island tonight.”
Hector’s lips pressed together in a thin line. He stared into Jameson’s unblinking gaze. Without answering, he straightened and thumbed the intercom to the back room. “Mateo, bring up the Rolls.”
Jameson’s eyebrows arched.
The intercom was silent. Then, “Grandpa’s car? Are you sure?”
“Yes. Bring it up, please.”
Jameson clapped his hands. “Rolls Royce! That’s what I’m talkin’ about.”
“You haven’t heard the daily rate yet,” Hector warned. “Muy caro.”
The customer plucked a credit card from his jacket pocket. “I don’t speak Spanish. I speak American Express Black Card.”
Hector pinched the card between his thumb and forefinger, barely touching it, as though the plastic was tainted by the hand that offered it. Jameson strode to the front door and waited, tapping his foot like a spoiled child.
He didn’t wait long.
The silvery car glided around the corner and pulled to a stop, engine channeling a throaty purr.
“1946 Rolls Royce Wraith” Hector said. “Repaired and restored by my father.”
Flared fenders, pearlescent finish, Flying Lady ornament perched atop the hood’s leading edge, everything glistening beneath the halogen glow of the streetlights.
“Wow,” was all Jameson uttered. He scrambled back to the counter, ready to sign.
Within five minutes, he and the Rolls pulled out of the lot.
Jameson kept a heavy foot on the accelerator as he went down University Boulevard, the Rolls’ engine offering plenty of power. He cranked the window and let the night air muss his hair. Jameson ran his fingers across the polished wood grain of the dashboard.
“This magnificent machine was wasted on a spic,” he laughed. “Grandpa probably swam across the Rio Grande himself. Wetback knew how to a restore a car, thou—”
The wheel jerked left, and Jameson struggled to prevent the car from rubbing against the median. The pedal beneath his right foot slowly sank away from his sole, the Rolls accelerating as it did. Fifty, sixty, seventy miles per hour. When Jameson tried the brake, the pedal collapsed all the way to the floor.
“What the hell?!”
The Wraith gave up all pretense of being driven at that point, and started driving. Weaving between cars, blowing through stoplights, taking corners…as though the vehicle had its own destination in mind, and would not be stopped.
Jameson stopped panicking long enough to see he was headed toward the border, as fast as the Wraith could take him. As they drifted around the last corner and accelerated toward the river, Jameson saw the massive earthen berm ahead: a solid ramp, servicing the giant machines building a new border wall emplacement.
“Nonononono,” he wailed.
A crackle of the speakers. Wetback, they howled. Weeeetttttbaaaaaaaack.
The seatbelt unlatched itself as the Wraith launched off the berm.
Jameson’s scream finally ended when the car smashed into the waters of the Rio Grande.
Hector slumped onto the stool in the empty garage behind the building. He stuffed Jameson’s rental agreement papers into a metal bucket, then flicked in a lit match. After the papers burned, a flash of spectral light bloomed. As it died, the 1946 Wraith appeared on the parking pad, completely pristine, as before.
Hector rose, looked at his father’s car.
“Making the world a better place, one customer at a time.” He smiled. “Gracias, papa.”
Trey Dowell is an award-winning author of more than 50 short stories, spanning genres from hard sci-fi to noir western. He won NYC Midnight’s 2017 Flash Fiction contest, out of a field of 2500+ writers, and The Bethlehem Writer’s Roundtable’s Short Story Contest in 2021. His fiction has been published by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Metastellar, and several anthologies. He won the 2022 Derringer Award, which honors excellence in mystery/crime short fiction. His debut novel The Protectors was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014.