The Extra Cars is a story told in six episodes, posted serially by me, your nocturnal host, Cheeseburger Brown. Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6
"To observe is to disturb, Mr. Kim."
Our story continues:
It's two o'clock in the morning. The sky is starless. The glistening pavement exhales fog as the recent rain evaporates.
A series of reflective orange and black warning placards stand in a row where the exit lanes are being widened at Middle Street. Each placard is topped by a round yellow beacon that blinks on and off at a sedate pace. The beacons along the row are not synchronized -- the weave in and out of concert with one another, periods of apparent order fleeting through the random blinks.
The MacDonald-Cartier Freeway is quiet. Only the occasional vehicle drives past the construction site. Most of them are trucks. It's the hour when roadkills happen, when the asphalt is quiet enough to invite investigation.
A rabbit hops across the lanes.
It freezes, suddenly uneasy. The rabbit feels as though it is not alone -- that something lies in wait.
It sits up to cock an eye at the rainy gloom that glows with soft-edged blossoms from the construction beacons. In a fit of apparent order the beacons illuminate in sequence, a yellow pulse of light shooting from the far end directly toward the rabbit.
The rabbit bolts. In a beat it's just a rustle in the bushes.
After a moment the crickets resume chirping.
Splayed shafts of light play at the horizon, then glare across the lanes as a pair of headlights appear. The vehicle's tires hum against the wet pavement. An instant later it is backlit by the beams of a long transport truck riding almost directly behind it, revealing the broad shouldered silhouette of a micro-schoolbus.
The truck signals, formation lights winking on and off. It draws into the inside lane, and begins to overtake the schoolbus, engine roaring.
Instead of passing, however, the truck matches the schoolbus' pace, becoming a speeding wall throwing trails of spray up from each set of wheels. The schoolbus shies away to the outside of its lane. The truck follows it, turn signals still flashing insistently, herding the schoolbus further and further toward the edge of the freeway.
The truck blasts its horn and eases into the outside lane.
The schoolbus meeps feebly and then smacks down two of the winking warning placards as it runs into the construction zone, wheels rumbling loudly as they cross onto the unfinished surface.
Its brake lights flare brighter. The bus skitters and screeches, swerving to avoid a green plastic port-o-potty and then sliding to a diagonal halt. A high concrete barrier ahead bars any further progress. A cloud of dust washes over the schoolbus as the last lurches die out of its shocks.
The transport truck speeds away into the night.
At that moment four more headlights come on: the eyes of cars hiding in the dark. Their engines keen as they bumble over the ditch and then bump onto the construction site, splitting around the port-o-potty and then stopping sharply at opposing rear quarters of the schoolbus.
It's Sun's iridescent purple Civic and Becca's scraped burgundy Camry. The schoolbus has no escape route.
A moment passes. The warning beacons flash patiently. Fog swirls.
Phat-so Kim emerges from the Civic. He's dressed entirely in black because Sun has assured him that all covert operations should be performed while wearing black. He stands behind the door and keeps his camcorder held aloft in front of him.
Sun emerges next. He's wearing a black, woolen balaclava. It's a very warm balaclava so sweat keeps running into his eyes. He blinks, his vision swimming.
Becca steps out of her car last. She wears mottled green camouflage fatigues from head to toe, except for a glow-in-the-dark Ghostbusters logo across her chest. She holds her tire-iron at the ready, like a baseball bat. She whispers, "What do we do now, boss?"
Phat-so swallows. He closes his eyes for a second, then nods to his brother and walks around to the front of the Civic. Sun meets him there, eyes on the bus, his hand hovering over the canister of pepper spray in his pocket. Phat-so passes the camcorder to Sun, who seems relieved to be given a clear function. He blinks in blurry confusion at the green, nightvision smears on the viewfinder.
Phat-so wipes his moist palms on his black jeans and then begins to cautiously step closer to the schoolbus. "Hello?" he calls, his voice echoing flatly off the concrete barriers.
Becca tightens her grip on the tire-iron.
Phat-so licks his lips nervously and pushes forward beyond the rear bumper. The faded black letters along the side of the bus spell out EA T YOR SCHOOL. He watches the shadowed square of the large side view mirror for any sign of eyes.
"Hello?" he calls again, less certain this time.
He draws up to the driver's window. The cabin is dark, the view through the glass confused by reflections from the winking yellow beacons. Phat-so takes a breath and moves close enough for his shadow to block out the glare. He looks back at his friends sharply.
"There's no driver."
Sun mops the sweat from his wide eyes, and leans against the Civic. His mouth hangs open. Becca purses her lips. "I knew it," she says, then glances apprehensively over each shoulder.
Something shifts inside the schoolbus. Phat-so jumps.
He stumbles back, then slowly rounds the nose of the schoolbus using his hand to block the headlights' shine. He squints. "No, wait," he says. "There's some...body in there." He clears his throat and squeaks, "Hello?"
Motion flashes inside the cabin, and machinery clanks. The bus' red four-way flashers light up and an octagonal sign folds out of its side. It says TOP / ARR. Beacons above and below the mangled lettering pulse, clicking as they light and dim.
The micro-bus' folding door chuffs open, then groans and rumbles as a handicapped access ramp lowers from the stoop. It clanks on the gravel, disturbing the fog.
Phat-so wonders whether he's about to have first contact with alien life. Unconsciously, his fingers twitch into a Vulcan greeting. His feet feel numb and far away.
Something inside the bus coughs. It then begins to shuffle down the ramp, one heavy foot at a time.
Phat-so tries to speak but finds he cannot.
The flashing red lights reveal a tall figure in a long coat and a hawkish blade of a nose. He moves stiffly, like an imitation of a man. "Do not be afraid," he says in a low, grainy voice. "I am not one of them."
Sun passes out, falling backward onto the hood of the Civic and then sliding to the ground. Becca cries out, "What the hell is it?"
Phat-so's mouth moves but no sound comes out. His eyes are locked on the tall shadow loping down the ramp toward him.
Becca yells, "Are you some kind of alien? Tell us!"
"No," says the shadow. "I am a detective."
"Yeah, but are you human?" she challenges, taking a step closer and shaking the tire-iron menacingly.
The man limps closer to Phat-so. "You're hunting them," he says.
Phat-so can't see the stranger's eyes in the backlight, lost to the shadows of his brow. He's facing a nobody, pulsing in and out of the crimson gloom. He feels himself nodding slowly. "The extra cars," he says.
"Leave Phat-so alone!" yells Becca.
The man turns toward her and frowns. "That seems needlessly cruel. He's not even heavy."
"It's Korean," explains Phat-so.
"What does it mean in Korean?"
"It's just my name."
"Ah." The man nods, and then extends his arm stiffly. It ends in a black glove. With dread Phat-so realizes that he's supposed to shake it. With an effort he does so, meeting with a brief, mechanical squeeze that faintly buzzes.
"I'm Phat-so Kim," says Phat-so Kim.
"S. Mississauga, Mr. Kim. And while I applaud your ambitions here tonight, you haven't done your homework. You've mistaken me for one of them."
"We've seen you out there...going nowhere."
"Yes," says Mr. Mississauga, "because I track them, my behaviour parallels theirs. There's a certain element of entanglement in the data that makes your mistake understandable. Never the less, you're interfering with my investigation."
"Also, I have to ask you to stop railroading me into dead ends. My brakes leave a lot to be desired. That was very dangerous."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry -- I don't know what we were thinking. It was dangerous."
"How did you enlist the transport truck?"
"We met him a couple of nights ago. He'd been noticing, too. Noticing the extra cars." Phat-so shifts, letting his shadow slip off to reveal Mr. Mississauga's face in the intermittent light of the yellow construction beacons. He's just a man. Phat-so asks, "Is this bus some kind of undercover unit?"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "It's where I live."
"You're doing this off-duty?"
"I'm not a cop. I'm a private detective."
"Who are you working for?"
"Mr. Kim, that is an impertinent question."
Becca steps closer again, the tire-iron sagging forgotten at her side. "Oh," she says, "you're like an Indian or whatever."
"I am native," admits Mr. Mississauga.
"I'm half Irish," contributes Becca. "So are they like escaped totem spirits or something?"
Mr. Mississauga compresses his mouth into a tight line and sniffs. "You tell me, miss: are they leprechauns?"
Becca frowns. "What?"
Phat-so raises his brow. "So you don't know what they are either?"
"No," replies Mr. Mississauga heavily. "My mind hasn't made itself up yet. How long have you been watching them?"
"About two weeks."
"Almost since the beginning, then..." mumbles Mr. Mississauga pensively. "Have you collected many artifacts from them?" he asks, his expectant look revealed and vanished in blinking turns by the beacons.
"Yes, from the...extras, as you put it. Cigarette butts, pop cans, traffic tickets -- anything they leave behind that stays behind."
"Well, no," says Phat-so, "we don't have anything like that. I mean, I've noted stuff in my log book, but we didn't take actual samples." He clears his throat as Mr. Mississauga continues to watch him expectantly. "We were trying to be, um, scientific about it -- like trying not to disturb what we were studying too much."
Mr. Mississauga straightens, his mouth hard. "To observe is to disturb, Mr. Kim."
Phat-so flushes. "Yeah, I guess that's true."
An SUV coming along the freeway slows as it passes the ramp construction. Mr. Mississauga watches it intently, his head panning to follow. The truck is white, its windows opaque. It crawls past the schoolbus, then accelerates away.
Becca watches it go, then turns to Mr. Mississauga and observes the sour expression his long, tired face. "Someone you know?"
"Is it -- the government?"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga quietly. "Worse."
Phat-so looks around wildly, brow furrowed. "Where the hell is Sun?"
Becca and Phat-so run to the Civic and kneel at Sun's side. Mr. Mississauga shambles after them, limping stiffly. Becca pulls the sopping balaclava over Sun's head and then gently slaps at his clammy cheeks. "Sun? Sunny? Come on, Sun -- wake up now."
Sun blinks. "Fuh?" he says.
"Are you okay?" she demands breathlessly.
"I just got a little hot."
"Have some water," says Becca, helping him to sit up and lean against the bumper. She jogs off to her car and returns with a bottle.
"Mr. Mississauga, meet my brother, Sun," introduces Phat-so awkwardly. "Sun, this is Mr. Mississauga. He's a private eye. He's on the case of the cars."
"Um. Hi," offers Sun, his brow furrowed.
Phat-so leans inside the car and brings out his log book and map binder. "Detective," he calls. "This is what I've got, if you're interested. Well, this and about a billion hours of videotape. That's in the basement."
Mr. Mississauga rocks into place at the boy's side. He leans over and turns the pages of the map binder with his rigid left hand. "This is good," says Mr. Mississauga, nodding. "Very thorough work, Mr. Kim. Your data complements mine nicely. Perhaps we should pool our resources."
Phat-so looks up. "Really?"
Becca glances over from Sun's side. "I thought we were cramping your style or whatever. Disturbing everything with our looking, right?"
"Miss, I am not a scientist," says Mr. Mississauga evenly. "I am a detective, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to unravel this. I don't need to keep my hands clean. I like your idea of catching a car -- the only problem is you chose the wrong car. What we need is more information on the target."
"How are we going to get that?" asks Phat-so.
Twin cones of light splash down the length of the site. A car approaches, winding its way around the port-o-potty and stopping with a faint squeak behind the purple Civic. A siren chirps, and red bubble lights begin to flash and spin.
"Shit," says Becca, standing up. "It's the pigs."
The driverside door of the cruiser opens, and a figure steps out. Her boots crunch on the gravel as she approaches, silhouetted by the cruiser's headlights. "Kingston Police," calls out a woman's voice, edged with authority. "Has there been an accident?"
"Everybody's fine," Phat-so calls back. This gets him pegged by a flashlight beam, held over the officer's shoulder. He squints against the glare. "We were just...um, helping this guy out," he offers lamely.
"Car trouble?" asks the officer.
"I think it's fixed," says Becca. She blinks and holds up her hand as the flashlight beam swings over to her face. "Damn, can you not do that?"
"Check your attitude," the officer barks. The wandering beam next finds Sun sitting against the front fender of the Civic. "Is this man injured?" snaps the officer, shining the light back and forth between Phat-so and Becca.
"I'm not injured I'm just hot," says Sun weakly.
"What's the situation here?" demands the officer.
Mr. Mississauga clears his throat. "I can explain," he says, his low voice rasping. He doesn't squint when the flashlight beam hits him. The beam plies Mr. Mississauga's flecked brown eyes out of the dark, and they stare back unflinchingly.
The police officer begins to chuckle. "Goddamn Sky Mississauga," she says slowly, shaking her head. "Of all the wraiths to run into in the dead of night..."
"Sergeant-Major Wainwright," says Mr. Mississauga. "Coincidence abounds."
She lowers the flashlight and comes closer to the tall detective in the long overcoat. "There's no 'sergeant-major' about it anymore. Call me constable. They busted my balls after that business last year, washed me right out. I'm just a traffic cop now."
"Seems like I was the only one dumb enough to support your version of events," says Constable Wainwright. "Everyone else toed the line, so when the commissioner cut your contract he cut me loose, too."
"You told the truth."
She shrugs. "Sometimes the truth isn't good enough, Mr. Miss. My reward for sticking to the truth was to go from defending national security to ticketing broken turn signals."
"I'm sorry to hear that. I never meant --"
"Thanks. But I don't blame you, you legless old freak. Nobody compelled me to be stupid." She pauses, and takes another look at the youths and cars arrayed around the construction site. "So, Mr. Miss...what exactly is the situation here?"
Mr. Mississauga coughs. "My friends and I are conducting a science experiment."
"In a construction site?"
"My vehicle experienced some difficulties. We were forced to pull aside."
"Your vehicle?" she says, angling her beam over to the micro-schoolbus with its pulsing four-way flashers. "You're driving a bus?"
"Yes," says Mr. Mississauga. "I live in it, too."
"What happened to your apartment?"
"I experienced some difficulties with the landlord," he replies. "Noise complaints."
"That's too bad."
"No," he says. "In fact, being mobile has turned out to be useful for the purposes of this case."
"What case? I thought you said it was an experiment."
"All in the line of duty, Constable."
Constable Wainwright purses her lips, turning slowly in place and peering into the faces of Becca, Phat-so and Sun. They smile back hopefully but say nothing. The constable takes off her cap and scratches at her red hair, then adjusts her bun and replaces the cap. "You know, in any other circumstance I'd require a better answer than that. But, with you, Mr. Miss -- honestly, I'm afraid to ask."
Mr. Mississauga says nothing, his eyes on hers.
"Well," she sighs after a moment, "can I count on you to get these vehicles out of here? This is technically trespassing."
"Yes," says Mr. Mississauga. "We were just about to leave."
The constable rocks on her heels, hesitating. She says, "This is the part where I start to walk away, and then you make me stop so you can ask a bizarre favour."
Mr. Mississauga's lips curl subtly at the corners. "Oh?"
"Don't dick with me, Mississauga. I've known you too long."
He nods curtly. "Mr. Kim, may I have another look at your catalogue?"
Phat-so wordlessly passes over his log book. Mr. Mississauga's hand whirs faintly as his gloved fingers close to grip the binding. He flips the cover and scans down the columns.
"What do you have there?" asks Constable Wainwright.
"I need you to run a plate for me," says Mr. Mississauga. He inclines the book toward Phat-so. "How about this one?"
Phat-so nods. "The red Camaro."
"Constable, we would be in your debt if you could supply us with the street address associated with this vehicle, as well as the name and particulars of the registered owner."
Constable Wainwright takes the log book and glances at it. "That's it?"
Phat-so looks back and forth between the impassive detective and the frowning officer. "Please," he contributes.
She sighs. "Come on."
Phat-so and Mr. Mississauga follow her back to the cruiser. She drops into the seat and turns the dashboard computer toward her, amber type glowing on a smudged black screen. She looks up and traces their gazes, then gestures dismissively at the baby-faced officer snoring loudly in the passenger seat. "Don't worry about Benny," she says. "He's down for the count."
She stabs at the keyboard and then sits back to wait. A moment later a driving record scrolls into view. She tilts the screen. Phat-so takes out a mechanical pencil and copies the information into his log book.
Benny mutters something in his sleep and rolls over.
Constable Wainwright pulls on the edge of the book and then clicks a pen with her thumb. She jots down a telephone number and then looks up at Mr. Mississauga seriously. "Emergencies only. Got that, Mr. Miss?"
"I don't foresee any emergencies."
"When you're in town, there's always something," she says. "At least this'll keep you from calling the station and besmirching my bad name even more by association, you red-skinned devil."
Mr. Mississauga makes a small, tight smile. "Constable, I believe you're flirting with me."
She swings the car door. It bangs shut, startling Benny. "No," says Constable Wainwright crisply. Then she knocks the cruiser into reverse and pulls back out of the construction zone. The bubble lights spin down and dim, and the cruiser drives away.
Sun and Becca wander closer. "So?" prompts Becca.
"We've got an address," says Phat-so. "We've got the red Camaro's address."
"Jesus Crap!" says Sun. "So what do we do now?"
Mr. Mississauga limps forward. The others instinctively shy back from him a step. He reaches into his coat and withdraws a hand-rolled cigarette, then lights it by way of a series of practiced, discrete steps. He draws on it, causing the ember to illuminate his sombre face with a macabre, ruddy glow. The tobacco crackles quietly as it burns.
"Stakeout," he says simply, turning to meet the eyes of each of them. He exhales a plume of smoke. "Who's in?"