Read the first chapter of , the latest novel by W. Bruce Cameron, publishing on October 28th.
A Conversation with Albert Einstein
Computers and insurance companies call me Ruddick McCann—to everyone else I’m just Ruddy. I work for a collateral recovery agency run by a guy named Milton Kramer. When people can’t make their car payments, I help them get back on their feet.
I’m a repo man. Get it? “Back on their feet.” That was repo humor, there.
Milton does some financing—mostly people from our small town of Kalkaska, Michigan, who can’t get credit anywhere else—but usually our business comes from banks and finance companies. We’ll get assignments to repossess folks who can’t pay, won’t give up their vehicles voluntarily, and who usually hang up on collectors who are calling to try to work something out. It makes collectors mad when you hang up on them, so they pay me to go out and express their displeasure in person.
I’ve been relieving people of the burdens of automobile ownership for more than six years and I still don’t understand why it is necessary. If you can’t afford to make your car payments, why not just drive it back to the dealership and hand over the keys, instead of making Ruddy McCann come after you?
Of course, a better question might be, “If you aren’t making any money, why don’t you move someplace where you can find a job?” Most of the time my customers give the impression that having their vehicles repossessed is far from the worst thing to happen that week. When they invite me into their homes to hear their complaints about life, I have to shed my coat—they always keep it hot, their wood stoves pumping out heat and carbon monoxide in equal measure. Their TVs are always on. The local economy has been stuck in a recession since the term was invented. Nine months of the year it’s cold and wet, and then it turns hot and humid. No rational person would stay here longer than the time it takes to pack up his belongings and leave.
I should know. I’ve lived here all my life.
Today I was looking for a twenty-five-year-old man named, of all things, Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein Croft was his full name, though I suspected everyone called him Einstein—how could you resist? He worked on the assembly line at a place called PlasMerc Manufacturing—something told me he wasn’t exactly living up to his parents’ expectations regarding his intelligence. Einstein didn’t feel morally or ethically bound to pay for his used pickup truck anymore and had crudely suggested to the woman from the bank that she go somewhere to have anal sex with herself.
When I met up with Albert Einstein Croft I’d ask him to explain the physics of how that was supposed to work.
The PlasMerc factory had only been open a few years and I’d never been there before. I was surprised, when I located the place, that the employee parking lot was fenced and paved, with a guard in a booth, no less. Most companies in northern Michigan were more considerate, leaving their workers’ cars out in the open where the repo man could easily get to them. I pulled up in Milt’s tow truck and nodded at the guard, hoping he’d figure I was from AAA and punch the button for the gate to swing open. Instead, he gave me a stony stare, so I sighed and rolled down my window.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked in what sounded to my ears like a falsely cheerful voice. I’m not really known for doing “cheerful.”
I had to make a quick decision on how to play it. I decided to shrug and look dumb. “Got a call, guy named Croft, an employee here? I’m supposed to pick up his truck, haul it in.”
He didn’t move to open the gate. “Yeah?”
We looked at one another. The guard was my age, around thirty, and had my build—solid and big. It was obvious we didn’t care much for each other’s attitudes.
“I know who you are,” he said finally.
It was my turn to say “Yeah?” So I did.
“You’re Ruddy McCann. Everybody used to look up to you, and then you let us down.”
“Well, sometimes that’s how these things go.”
“Now you steal cars for a living.”
I had to admit, it sounded less glamorous when he said it.
“You had everything anybody could ever want, and you pissed it away,” he continued. His eyes were cold and pitiless.
I sighed. “So could you let me in?”
“Get out of here. This is private property. You show up here again, I’ll have you arrested.”
We looked at each other for a little bit more. I thought about getting out of the truck and reaching into that booth and pulling him out by his shirt, and he could see me thinking about it and his gaze never faltered—that’s how much he hated me. So I threw the truck in reverse and backed away, my face burning.
There was nothing to do for the next couple of hours except fantasize about punching the guard in the nose. I was sort of driving aimlessly and after a few minutes I was in what passes for a downtown in East Jordan—a tiny, clean little main street with a few shops and no people, as if they were filming a zombie movie.
My idle thoughts eventually drifted around to the nightmare I’d had a couple of nights ago, my sleep disturbed by the violent windstorm that wound up knocking out power all across the county. The memory of it was more like something real, as if it had really happened. I clearly remembered the two men, the guy swinging the shovel, and running down the road, thinking I was going to get away.
No, I’m not.
The dream seemed like it happened in the fall, but right now it was April in northern Michigan, a balmy forty degrees with a light drizzle starting to film my window. I flipped on the wipers and with the first sweep my vision cleared and there she was.
Attractive, midtwenties, curly red-brown hair falling to her shoulders, wearing a bulky all-weather parka and slacks, smiling. And waving. At me.
This was not the sort of thing I expected to happen to me, either in East Jordan or in my lifetime, but despite my disbelief, I stopped. She trotted over to my window, which I hastily rolled down.
“My car won’t start,” she told me. “Could you help me?”
“Why won’t it start?” I asked, as if reading from a book of Stupid Responses for Men.
She shook her head, wiping her wet bangs out of her blue eyes. “I don’t know.”
I swallowed down my disappointment over how I’d been conducting my end of the conversation and finally came up with the right thing to say. “I’ll see if I can jump it.”
I swung the tow truck into the parking space next to her little Ford and in short order determined her battery was dead. She stood in a doorway and blew on her hands while I pulled out my jumper cables. “Your battery looks pretty old and the posts are corroded,” I advised, wanting to talk about anything else but her car. “I can probably get you started, but you’ll want to get a new battery.”
“Oh, great. How much does something like that cost?”
“Maybe fifty, sixty bucks. I don’t know.”
She nodded in resignation. Her car roared to life with one crank, and I disconnected the cables. “I’m so glad you came along,” she told me.
There had to be something witty I could say to that. I stood there, staring at her, trying to think what that might be.
“How much do I owe you?”
She reached into her purse, digging out a wallet. “Oh no, no,” I protested. “No, I’m not a tow-truck driver.”
I could see the skepticism in her eyes: I was, after all, driving a tow truck.
“I mean yes, this is a tow truck, but I’m not from a towing company. It’s … it’s hard to explain.” Particularly if you want to impress someone and thus don’t want to use the term repo man. Her skin was blemish free, perfect, and her teeth were white and perfect. Probably I would think her elbows were perfect, too.
“So you just drive around looking for what, women in distress?” Her clear eyes sparkled in merriment.
“Wet women,” I affirmed. Then I realized how that might sound and wanted to throw myself on the tow hook. “I mean, from the rain. Not, uh, you know.” Oh, God.
We stood and looked at each other for a minute. “Well, thanks very much, then.”
“Ruddy. My name is Ruddy McCann.”
“Ruddy. You mean, like the complexion?” Her smile lit up her face.
“It’s short for Ruddick; it was my mother’s maiden name.” I bit my lip, remembering the reaction from the guard. Everybody used to look up to you, and then you let us down. I desperately didn’t want this woman to already know anything about me.
My name didn’t seem to register. “I’m Katie.” Her hand was cold and wet from the weather, but it warmed me when I took it.
She hesitated, perhaps sensing that I wanted to say more, and then gave me another smile. She opened her car door and slid inside. “Well thanks again, Ruddy.”
“Sure. Uh, wait!” My heart was pounding. Katie beamed her beautiful blue eyes up at me and did as I asked: she waited. My brain flailed around, groping for words. “Uh, I was wondering if maybe I could buy you a cup of coffee?” There.
“That’s sweet, but I need to get back.” Her expression seemed to indicate she really did think it was sweet, so I plunged ahead.
“Maybe some other time? Tomorrow?” Could I sound more desperate?
“Well, I’m dating somebody right now, Ruddy. So, you know…”
Yes, I knew. Pretty, intelligent women with humor in their blue eyes didn’t wander around in the gray drizzle of East Jordan, Michigan, without a man lurking somewhere in their lives. “Okay,” I told her.
She cocked her head as if to look at me from a different angle. Then she turned and dug into her purse, possibly to hand me a gun so I could put myself out of my misery. “Look.” She wrote her phone number on a piece of paper—I even found her handwriting attractive. “Coffee would be fun. Yes, I’d love to. Here.” She handed me the paper and our fingers brushed against each other. “Call me, okay?”
I spent the rest of the afternoon rewriting my conversation with Katie, talking to myself and being almost excruciatingly witty. I gave Albert Einstein Croft enough time to get home from work, then swung the tow truck up his steep driveway, hoping to find his Chevy pickup out in the open at the top.
It was there, but a severe bend at the top of the drive made it virtually impossible for me to back my tow truck up to his bumper. He’d parked his vehicle with a brick wall at one end and some cement stairs at the other, a tight parallel parking job that must have taken him some time. I couldn’t haul the thing out of there with anything less than a crane. I’d have to appeal to Mr. Croft’s sense of fairness.
I stepped out of my truck and a large white goose peeked at me from a small shed. We looked at each other with baleful expressions.
Einstein came to the door wearing an open plaid shirt and a scowl, holding a beer in his hand. He was lean, but with a soft belly spilling out over his belt. Another five years he’d be thirty and people would describe him as having a “gut.” His hair was black, long, and stringy; eyes dark and cold. He regarded me through his storm door, a “who the hell are you?” expression on his face.
“Mr. Croft? I’m McCann, from Kramer Recovery.”
“So you want to talk through the glass, or do you want to open the door?” I asked, considerably less friendly.
He cracked open the door and a sour odor drifted out on a blast of warm air. Over his shoulder I saw pizza boxes and dirty clothes sharing the same space on the couch. “It’s about the Chevy, Mr. Croft. You’re three payments behind again and the bank sent me out to pick it up. I need you to collect your personal property out of the vehicle.”
Croft looked contemptuous. “I told them I’d pay next Thursday.”
“It’s not up to me. They said you’ve broken promises before. So unless you have those three payments, I need you to surrender the keys.”
“Get off my land.”
I put a fatherly expression on my face: time to roll out my best material. “Look, I know times are probably tough right now. But sometimes all a man’s got in life is his signature on a piece of paper, and I’ve got your signature on a contract saying if you can’t pay, you’ll surrender the vehicle. You have to stand up for your good name, Mr. Croft.”
This little speech had succeeded for me a lot of times in the backwoods of Michigan, where people often really don’t have anything left in life but their honor. Einstein’s expression was derisive.
“Kinda crap is that? You guys knew I paid late when you financed it.”
“It was financed because your dad cosigned for it. You really want us to contact your old man, tell him his son isn’t living up to his word?”
“Hell if I care.”
Milt had told me the cosigner had lost his job and couldn’t pay. I blew out a breath, exasperated. “Come on, Croft, make it easy on yourself. You really want to go around through life parking your car between brick walls so I can’t get at it? Never knowing when you’re going to come out of the bar, finally talked some babe into going home with you, and it’s gone from the parking lot? Let’s get this over with now.”
“You come on my property again, I can shoot you legal,” he responded.
“Actually, that’s not true, it has to be hunting season,” I advised.
He blinked, then twisted his expression into sour disgust and slammed the door in my face. I stood in the rain for a minute, then turned and trudged back to the tow truck. The goose observed me with an unblinking eye.
The truck was sold used, so I didn’t have the original invoice in the file. No invoice, no key numbers to access to cut myself a set of keys to his truck. Normally with used cars I just tow them away, but that wasn’t an option with the way his driveway turned and how he liked to park it. But this truck was built with one of the old-style, steering wheel-column ignitions. What I could do was slim jim the lock on his door and use a dent puller on the key collar, disabling the security lock on his steering wheel and ripping out the starter contacts before Einstein could recite the theory of relativity. Once I started the truck, though, I’d have to rock back and forth a few times before I got a good enough angle to back the thing down the driveway. He’d obviously gone through the same rocking process to park it there. If he really did have a gun in his house, I’d be a pretty easy target.
I’d have to come back later.
Midnight. I did my best work at midnight.
Copyright © 2014 Cameron Productions, Inc.
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