She must have lost her mind when she accepted this dare. Maybe that could be her excuse when she was arrested and put on trial. Temporary insanity due to peer pressure. Totally legitimate. Did you get a court trial with a jury for breaking and entering?
That thought momentarily diverted Serena's thoughts, which had been racing in an ever more hysterical loop. She'd been standing outside the mechanic's shop for at least a half hour and if she didn't go in soon, someone was going to notice and call the police about suspicious loitering. She hadn't even stolen the keys yet and the young woman already felt like her guilt must be shining from her face like a burning brand. A scarlet letter. A… a whatever! She might have been a lit major but that didn't mean she always had the right words! She was going to throw up. Maybe. No. Probably.
The little red bird on the garage sign was a splash of blood on dingy white. The entire building had a run-down look; retreating from the road and partially into the evergreen forest that surrounded the town as though it was ashamed of its peeling paint. Or maybe it was trying to conceal a terrifying secret. Serena took a deep breath and began to walk slowly towards the open garage bay.
In theory, everything had seemed ridiculously simple. The mechanic that ran this shop was the focal point of one of the biggest urban legends at the University of New Haven. Students whispered that he lived like a hermit in the apartment over the garage and he was rarely seen in town. The shop was always locked up with the shades down before the sun set and overall the guy was just weird. What he did to be considered weird was a little vague, other than being a recluse, but no one doubted he was keeping a secret. He was a serial killer with a loft full of grisly trophies. He was secretly a pervert with a hidden dungeon. He was a vampire. The possibilities were endless and anyone who could solve the mystery would surely secure a place among her peers as someone worth noticing. Right?
Unless she ended up like one of Bluebeard's wives in that awful old fairytale. Gravel crunched under her feet like dry bones and the twisted front wheel of the bicycle she was pushing decided to let out a metallic screech that sliced into her nerves. She almost broke and ran then and there, but a voice called out from inside the garage. Serena clenched her teeth and turned around. She would finish what she started or die trying. It took a few minutes for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, but the interior of the shop was hardly worth looking at anyway.
Two old cars filled the first two bays and a motorcycle took up the third. Another motorcycle hid in the corner, peeking nervously out from under an oil spotted sheet. Along one wall was a row of appliances that had been gutted and their dismembered pieces scattered around them. A lawnmower and a trio of weed-whackers huddled together against the far wall, beside the door of what was probably a supply closet. It might be the hiding place for the bodies. Not that anyone had ever been declared officially missing, of course . The town was probably covering things up to maintain its reputation as a safe and friendly college community.
And then Bluebeard himself slammed the hood down on one of the cars and came to greet her. Except his beard wasn't blue. It was more of a brown stubble that matched his hair and the way he rubbed at it self consciously left a smear of engine grime across his cheek. If he'd realized what he had just done, Serena doubted he would have kept trying to hide the grease stains on his tank top. She got as far up as the deep bags under his eyes before deciding it would be easier to study her mary-janes than to make eye contact with a potentially dangerous human being. Yes, excellent. The left shoe had a scuff. She'd have to buy some shoe blacking later if her head didn't end up in a pickle jar.
"Can I help you?"
His voice was a low rumble, but - and maybe this was her projecting - he sounded almost as anxious as she felt. The broken bike was thrust between them like a fence. Or a sacrificial offering. There was a long pause. Long enough that she could feel in exquisite detail the winding path of a single drop of sweat rolling down her guy cleared his throat. Serena switched majors from her own shoes to the slow back and forth dance of his sneakers.
"Miss... I don't normally repair bicycles."
The universe hated her. This had been her perfect, completely foolproof excuse and she was already feeling like a fool. Had been for a while now. She found her voice long enough to whisper, "But… but your shop is listed as bike and auto repairs?"
A tanned and calloused hand held a business card a respectful distance from her nose. In sanguine letters it declared 'Red Bird Repairs - Motorcycles are our specialty!' and in case that wasn't clear enough, an image of a motorcycle below the words threatened by it's trajectory to fly off the paper. A dirty thumb print on the corner was material evidence. She tucked the card carefully into her purse. Probable cause of death, officer? Looks like she died of fatal levels of humiliation, poor thing.
"Oh no! No no… please don't cry. I'm sure I can fix it for you!"
The guy's voice rose in pitch until it was almost as shrill as any police siren. She winced, both at the volume and in embarrassment that her feelings were so transparent. Serena could see her mother's disapproving sneer behind her clenched eyelids. Always a disappointment. Always a problem. She heard faceless students snickering behind her back. Crybaby. Bet you that she'd jump a mile if you said 'boo' to her. Picking on her is so easy that it's boring.
Warm hands brushed hers, loosening the white knuckled grip she had on the handlebars and letting go just as quickly. When she opened her eyes, the mechanic was looking down at her with such a look of empathy that the lurking tears almost spilled over. Oddly enough, she thought of the worn-out stuffed dog that she kept hidden in her dorm room. The seams were coming loose and the stuffing inside was showing through the stitches. Years of soaking up tears had washed the original gloss from it's coat, leaving behind a dingy and ragged appearance. Only it's eyes were still bright.
So were the mechanic's as he knelt down to examine her bike. His jaw tightened as he traced the scratches and unwound the broken chain. There was something almost predatory in the intensity of his stare. Angry. Calculating. Goosebumps rose on her skin in instinctive fear, but she realized a second later that none of it was directed at her. His head tilted to one side as he switched his focus to her. For the first time she really met his gaze and was startled to find his eyes were a warm shade of amber. Even more surprising, they were filled with concern.
"No. No, this - this doesn't look like an accident to me," the mechanic mumbled, chewing on the words and his lip. His eyebrows were nearly touching, furrowing his forehead with worry lines. The mechanic darted another glance in her direction and crouched lower. He swept his hand dramatically down one side of the bike and away, gesturing in place of the words he seemed to be struggling with. "It was dragged. Yeah… yeah, when you hit something by mistake, you stop. This car… it didn't. There's no paint left on this side. Deep scratches. Not an accident."
It wasn't a question, but Serena tried to laugh. The sound came up in watery bubbles and she thought for the second time in the last hour that she was going to be sick. Deprived of the bike to hang onto, her hands fisted in the hem of her blouse and stretched the sparkly fabric thin. In an attempt to sound cheerful, her voice was unnaturally loud in the silence of the garage as she said, "It was… a joke. Someone was just playing a prank on me is all."
"Some joke," the mechanic grumbled back. She expected him to ask if she had reported it or if she knew who it was. Serena anticipated the struggle of trying to explain she couldn't, because her parents were looking for any excuse to say that she was hopeless on her own and would have to give up her silly plan to go to college in a little nowhere town. She couldn't tell him that if they called her home now, she might never escape from them again. How do you tell a stranger that you're legally an adult, but your parents still control your life?
But the mechanic said none of those things.
"Special deal," he said, a shy but earnest smile stretching his lips and making the skin crinkle around his eyes. Ruddy cheeks grew even more red and he ducked his head. "Free paint and scratches fixed for… for anyone who comes in on foot. First time customers only. Do you like… glitter?"
Serena had been mentally preparing herself to be carved up for her foolishness in coming here, but the sudden pain in her heart was stunning. This unfortunate mechanic, who was stammering badly and trying hard to be kind, was having his reputation dragged through the mud far worse than her bicycle had been. If she had to guess, she'd say his social anxiety was even worse than her own. This entire time, she had been worrying about the law and her life. Had she given a single thought to how she might be misjudging an innocent person based on malicious rumors?
She choked out a few words of gratitude around the guilt strangling her like vengeful hands. The worst thing of all was that she was going to finish what she started, despite now feeling a deep conviction that the mechanic was nothing more remarkable than someone who was shy and probably uncomfortable with college crowds. Ruddy brown curls flopped into his eyes as he ran his hand through them nervously, ruffling them up into exclamation points and leaving another smear across his forehead. The lopsided smile, one corner hesitantly turning up as if he wasn't sure she'd appreciate being smiled at, made her wonder at his age. She doubted he was even thirty, but the rumors made it sound like he was middle aged. Serena had read that the most dangerous weirdos were great at convincing people they were normal and harmless. She wanted to be sure… and then maybe she could try to stop the rumors. Somehow.
"I… I do like glitter," she answered, needing to break the silence more than the mechanic needed a response. The opalescent nail polish, the sparkly blouse, and the little rhinestone flowers on her jeans spoke loudly. She hadn't been allowed to pick her own clothes at home, so maybe she was overdoing it just a tiny bit now. "I like them a lot."
"Yes? Good. Great! Um… um… hang on, I'll check in the back," he said, already diving for the safety of the storage room she'd noticed earlier. A deafening crash of falling boxes and metal hitting the floor welcomed him. A stray bolt rolled across the floor. "Need some parts!"
Between the two of them, they could sweep the debate circles. So articulate. She'd won a spelling bee with that word back in grade school, despite visibly shaking in her shoes. Her parents had focused on her obvious fear instead of how she'd won. It was the first and last award she'd ever received. But now she was looking for another prize. With the mechanic wading through the junk, hidden from sight and making enough racket to cover the advent of the apocalypse, she had the best chance to find a key.
The first thing she did was check the side entrance, taking note of the color and brand of the lock before looking around. A staircase to the loft apartment divided the back wall in half, with the storage room on one side and another door on the other. A quick peek inside revealed a small office. There were no bodies. No jars of pickled hearts. Unlike the dusty and oil splattered garage, this room was spotlessly tidy and organized. An old fashioned roll-top desk, well varnished in a warm shade of oak, was against the back wall. The mechanic had put in wire shelves on all the other walls and filled them with neatly labeled banker's boxes and model motorcycles of every size and color. Serena was briefly distracted by a group of tiny matchbox motorcycles balanced on a little track suspended from the ceiling, but another crash from outside reminded her she was on borrowed time.
A few minutes of rifling through the desk drawers and pigeonholes failed to turn up a key. Her heart was pounding out the seconds against her ribs and she smacked her hand against the blotter in frustration. Something underneath scraped against the wood as it moved. Between heartbeat and the next, she'd lifted the leather blotter and pulled out a key. Antiqued brass manufactured by Kwikset. A match. It went into her purse with the smudged business card and she ran back outside in time to pretend to be interested in… in… Serena thought the tools arranged carefully on the wall in front of her were wrenches. They were the most fascinating things in the world until the mechanic came out of the closet.
"Need to get some parts," he said, shaking his head and motioning her away from the tool racks. Just like her old stuffed dog, he watched her with woebegone eyes set in a scruffy face and Serena couldn't find it in her heart to believe he was lying to make her come back. "Give me two days? Will you come back?"
"Yes," she whispered. Serena's hand was in her purse and the spare key was burning a hole in her palm. She would be back, but not during business hours. The mechanic pulled out a folding chair and even offered her a choice of canned sodas from a mini-fridge, rightfully pointing out that it was a long walk from her campus and she must be tired. She was, but Serena's conscience wouldn't let her rest or accept any more misplaced kindness. The last thing she did was wave and try to smile, because the mechanic deserved that a least.
"I'll come back."