Murder By Flashing Amber Light: A Mack Hardigraw Car Mystery

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Whether you chose to call the ruined landscape known as Hat Trick Gorge a graveyard or junkyard really depended upon what had brought you there: Were you looking for a rusty radiator support for your ’77 Gremlin, a nearly-intact human skull, or a few yards of human-skin leather?  Of the five visitors currently sweating in the desert sun on this day, two were pulling cylinder heads off an old Volkswagen 411, one was methodically tearing out all the carpet from an Eldorado, one was filling a large suitcase full of human hair — being highly selective based on criteria no one really wants to know — and one, a lanky, haunted-looking figure, was urinating lavishly and loudly against an ornate tombstone inscribed with the name Mack Hardigraw.

[Note: Welcome to The Autopian’s somewhat-regular fiction series, Mack Hardigraw! The predecessor series (well, two of them) of car mysteries can be found here and here. Mack Hardigraw isn’t technically the same since we’d like to cover our asses a bit, but I think if you’d like some background on these characters, those links should work well. 

When it comes to automotive-based detective/crime short stories — especially ones that feature the taillight subculture — I think you’ll find this to be among the most, um, existent. Enjoy.]

[Note from the editor: I’m not sure I’m entirely okay with some of the contents of this article. But Jason is an artist, and he’s forced me to publish this story, saying things like: “David, you have to respect my artistic vision.” -DT]

Constable Bladderford, guided by the loud spattering sounds of the pencil-girthed column of urine issuing from the man, approached the gravesite. The stone, a slab of granite with a bas-relief of a 1959 Lloyd Alexander flying over a flaming bear, was adorned with a number of signs reading NO URINATING and DO NOT PEE ON THE GRAVES and PLEASE DO NOT URINATE HERE, all of which were getting liberally coated with rich, redolent urine the color of a Fiat 124’s front side marker lamps.

“Hello, Clamford,” said the Constable, once the urine stream had trickled from steady stream to slow drip.

“It’s Clamworth. And, hello, Constable Bladderworth,” Clamworth said without turning around.

“It’s Bladderford. It’s been a while. A long while. Maybe longer than I thought because I’m pretty sure I remember Mack’s name differently? Wasn’t he Max? Max Hardi–”

Clamworth whirled around and put a finger against the constable’s mouth, the uppermost phalanx firmly up his left nostril, warm and damp.

“No. He’s always been Mack. Mack Hardigraw. And I’ve always been his valet. Always, and always in this, um, world,” Clamworth stated, nervously glancing around at his surroundings, and gesturing towards the sunset gleaming in the friscalating dusklight.

“Oh…right,” Constable Bladderworth said, extracting Clamworth’s finger from his nostril with an audible pop. “It looks a little less, um, orange than I remembered. There’s more turquoise and red in the, um, sunset.”

“Not so many ads all over the place, too,” added Clamworth.

The two men grimaced at each other and then turned to look directly at you, dear reader, locking eyes just for a moment, hoping that everyone gets what’s going on here and we don’t need to make any trouble.

“Why are you here, Constable? After all this time?”

“I don’t really have a good reason, if I’m honest. I suppose habit? I’ve got a case, a real bear of a case, and it’s deeply car-related. A murder. Of a Congressperson. It’s a big deal and I’m stuck. And because it’s so steeped in car culture, all I can think to do is reach out to Mack, like I always did, as much as I hated it. But now he’s gone, laying dead here, and I have no way to–”

“Oh, he’s not exactly dead dead,” Clamworth interrupted.

“Wait. What? What are you talking about? I was at his funeral buffet/orgy two years ago!”

“Hey hey, be cool, be cool. Legally, yes, he’s dead, but only because he made some poor financial decisions, buying all those Elio reservations. So both his accountant and doctor felt his time might be better spent dead. Plus, because of Mack’s rigorous diet of expired canned meats and near-constant intake of ketamine, the definition of “alive” or “dead” has been pretty blurry for Mack for a few years now,” Clamworth replied.

“So…what does that mean?” the constable asked.

“It means he told me if you came by, I was to get him going again, so he could help you, because he always thought you were kind of an idiot and would need his help. Do you have jumper cables? Drive up to right here,” Clamworth pointed at a spot about 20 inches from where they were standing.

“But to drive up here I’d have to drive over all of these other tombstones,” Bladderford protested, gesturing back at the other ramshackle graves in the sandy, rocky cemetery yard.

Clamworth made the jerk-off motion with his hand.

The constable’s AMC Matador slowly lumbered up, knocking over gravestones left and right (most of which were for children and pets, it seemed) and eventually slid to a stop in front of Hardigraw’s headstone. Clamworth opened the tiny carved hood of the Lloyd on the tombstone, revealing a pair of small metal terminals.

Bladderford took out his jumper cables, connected them to his battery, and handed the other ends to Clamworth, who carefully clamped them on. He nodded to the Constable, who got back into the Matador, turned the key, and revved the engine.

There was a loud, dull klonk beneath the ground. “Son of a bitch,” they could hear yelled, muffled by several feet of sandy soil. “Motherfuck!”

Clamworth handed the constable a well-worn frisbee. “Better start digging,” he said, and began pawing at the ground with a pair of ice-cream scoops.

Four hours later the pair was heaving a sweaty and haggard Mack Hardigraw out of the old fiberglass Citicar body that served as his coffin/underground dwelling while he was “dead.” Upon opening the door, Mack gestured to his prominent erection and said “first things first” and, after being handed a Talbot’s catalog and a Polaroid of a Henry Moore sculpture from the Guggenheim, proceeded to retreat behind the Porta-potty.

Mack returned and chugged a large bottle of Yoo-Hoo that Clamworth had handed him from a red duffel bag. Mack shook his head violently, coughed, vomited a little, and then turned to Bladderford.

“Constable! I knew you’d be by soon. What’s this about?”

Honestly, even all this was really only somewhere in the middle of the pack of weird shit the constable had seen Hardigraw do, so he just sighed and got to the point.

“There’s been a murder, Mack. A congressperson, the representative from the state of New Franklin. Young, well-liked, a great future ahead of her. Her name was Mitzi Bakshi, daughter of Indian immigrants, bright kid, has been the representative for three terms now. She was only 33, and was the main proponent of a bill to make amber rear turn indicators required in America.”

Mack’s head lifted up, and his eyes opened wide. “Oh, yeah, Bakshi! I know her! Shit. I really liked her, too. She’s smart, knows her cars. Drives a fantastic old ’68 Lancia Fulvia. I even saved one of her speeches on my phone, the one where she introduced the amber indicator bill.”

Bladderworth — sorry, Bladderford — was more surprised to hear this than he’d been seeing Mack re-emerge from the dead. Hardigraw liked almost nobody. The nicest thing he’d ever said about Clamworth, his valet and closest companion for over 35 years, was that he enjoyed the sound his face made when smacked with a wad of ham. The idea that Hardigraw would have anything favorable to say about anyone, especially a politician, was shocking.

“Here, just listen to this speech — she actually gets it.” Mack handed his phone to the Constable, whose arm strained to lift the contraption made from an old Apple Newton MessagePad wired to a small CRT television, a piping hot box of electronics, and a cocktail umbrella covered in tinfoil that acted as a parabolic antenna. Mack adjusted the cocktail umbrella antenna until the CRT lit up with a video of representative Bakshi’s speech.

The constable squinted at the blurry screen to see the young representative addressing the house, next to a chart showing statistics about the improved safety of amber rear turn indicators. Mack turned the knob up on the tinny speaker so they could hear her:

“The indication of turns–it seems like a trivial thing, but the truth is that it remains the most frequent and common purely selfless act that we humans undertake, on a near daily basis. When we move our hand to that lever, pushing it down or pulling it up, announcing to the world our bold plans for the immediate future, to turn left or right, what we are really doing is gloriously signaling an act of hope, and a re-affirmation of our agreement to participate in this elaborate dance we call society. We show this willingness via a pulsing heartbeat of amber light.

We don’t indicate turns for ourselves; in fact, it even costs us a bit to do so, in bulb life, in fuel used to provide increased alternator demand, and so on. Yet we do it because we know it makes driving better and safer for everyone. Clicking that blinker seems like nothing, but it’s really an act of openness, of communication, and, yes, an act of love.

By mandating that turn signals be consistently amber at both ends of our cars we are eliminating the last vestiges of confusion from our blinking beacons of love, and I cannot think of a more worthy goal than that.”

The constable saw Mack wipe away a tear, though Mack took pains to hide it by making himself sneeze-take Yoo-Hoo out of his nose. But the constable knew what he saw.

“How did she die?” Mack asked Bladderford.

“Ground garnet in her drink. They found traces of the red powder in her glass. Tore her up from the inside. She was dead about an hour after she left the bar where she was doing a fundraiser with other amber rear indicator supporters.”

“Then we need to get over to the Lumière Rouge, stat,” said Mack.

“How the hell did you know that’s where she did her fundraiser?”

“The Lumière Rouge is the only hardcore taillight bar worth a damn for 200 miles around here. If she died anywhere in your jurisdiction, that’s where the action happened. Now, Clamworth, hand me those hot pants from the revival bag and let’s get moving.”

As the constable’s Matador pulled into the gravel lot of the Lumière Rouge, Mack seized Bladderford’s arm in his desperate, bony grip and demanded he bring the car to a halt. Mack rolled down the window and scanned the parking lot, eyes wide and head swiveling.

“Shit. We’re in for a mess, fellas.” Mack gestured out at the cars filling the parking lot.

“Look at this; what do you see? The taillights, look at the taillights. We have Altezzas with their chrome and showy clear lenses in a big pack over here, a bunch of Smokies over here, a fuckload of All-Reds jammed in over by the front here, amber rear indicators in this big mass over here — we have a mix of almost every major taillight community in one place. This is a fucking powder keg, dummies, don’t you see? They’re in groups, and there’s a lot of all of them. This isn’t going to be pretty.”

The constable’s face may as well have just had the letters “WTF” Sharpie’d on his forehead. “Mack, what the hell are you talking about? It’s just a parking lot.”

Mack rolled his eyes. “How do you get anything done being this stupid? This is taillight culture, man, the most important subculture in America today! Wake the fuck up! Clamworth, show him the thing.”

Clamworth flinched, clearly expecting a slap that never arrived, and began to unroll a large sheet of laminated butcher’s paper, on which was written the title TAILLIGHT CULTURE SUBGROUPS: A PRIMER. Clamworth unfurled the large document and held it in front of the Constable’s face, while Mack steadied his head with his hands. “Read. Learn.” said Mack.

Here’s what the document contained:

• Trad Reds: Advocates of red-only taillights, though most accept the need for clear reverse lamps. There are some sects that even feel this is a debasement, and reverse lamps were the first slide into weak decadence. The Trad Reds are almost exclusively American and generally pretty xenophobic, though they do have many adherents who are auto designers. These designers are minimalist aesthetes who find tricolor taillights gauche, saying they ruin their designs; some of these members may be non-American, and wish to push Trad Red ideas to Europe and Asia.

Trad Reds are a generally-hostile group. They exude a general sense of victimization, as the legality of red rear indicators pretty much only exists in North America.

• Ambears: A sort-of contraction of “amber rears,” the Ambears are advocates of amber rear turn indicators. Globally, the group is quite large and generally accepted as mainstream taillight culture, but in America Ambears are actually slightly outnumbered by Trad Reds. Ambears are a fairly diverse group, though American Ambears tend to be a bit strident and annoying, always quoting safety studies and having an attitude of the only smart person surrounded by idiots.

Old Fours: The name is derived from “semaphore,” as these are the remaining holdouts of pro-semaphore/trafficator culture (semaphores are physical “flags” that protrude from the side of a car when the driver wants to turn that direction). The median age of this group is quite high, as semaphores have long been out of style, but there is a certain young hipster component of this group. No one thinks they’re influential anymore at all, but they do serve a valuable peacekeeping/intermediary role especially between Trad Reds and Ambears.

Siders: These are side marker enthusiasts/fetishists, and are one of the non-strictly taillight-focused groups to comfortably hang out in a taillight bar/club/bathhouse, because side marker lamps are often integrated into taillight units.

Blinkies: This one of the turn-signal subculture’s nicknames, along with Indys or Cators (both from “indicator” ) are generally welcome in taillight establishments, as the turn indicator is a key part of a taillight.

Headies or Brights: These are names for headlight-focused subcultures, generally not welcome in taillight establishments. Relationships between Headies and Tailies of any sort are commonly referred to as “going full car” or “doing both ends” and are still highly controversial to this day.

• Versies/Retrograders: Back-up/reverse lamp enthusiasts. A pretty small group, and within the group a number feel they should be more allied with Headies, as many consider reverse lamps “the headlights of the rear.” Generally, Headies are very dismissive of Versies.

Darkers: These are radical anti-taillight and signal light fanatics, who believe that every signal lamp represents an unwilling privacy violation. They feel that which direction a driver chooses to turn, when they apply brakes, if they go into reverse, or even simply displaying their position from the rear or sides represents a severe privacy violation, as those actions should be their business alone. This is a small group, but they’re highly antagonistic and occasionally dangerous. They have that annoying Sovereign Citizen kind of vibe about them.

Darkers are often part of the Smokies community, who champion smoked-lens taillights, often beyond legal limits. Some do it for style, but many are Darkers and enjoy the limited output these lights provide.

CHMSL Chippies: Third brake lamp (Center High-Mount Stop Lamp — CHMSL) fetishists, a small and generally fun group; tend to be younger libertines, more in it for the intense partying, drugs, and sex that’s at the core of so much taillight culture, at least according to them. They’re known for pushing boundaries and norms with glee.

“Get it now?” asked Mack, releasing the Constable’s head from his sweaty grip.

“I mean, I guess so? Is all this shit serious? About fucking taillights?””

“Oh yeah. It’s serious. Like a motherfucking aneurism. That’s why you need to take this when we go inside.” Mack handed the Constable the thin, saber-like 2015 Cadillac Escalade taillight whose edge had been sanded down into a cruel blade. Mack himself pulled on a boxing glove with a ’74 Beetle “elephant’s foot” taillight mounted on it, and Clamworth strapped a pair of ’80s ribbed Mercedes-Benz taillights to his forearms.

“Everyone suited up? Let’s go in,” Mack said, and led the way across the noisy gravel to the dangling red lantern that marked the bar’s door.

The door swung open to reveal a chaos of red, orange, and white light. The trio found themselves in the middle of a brutal bar fight, which looked to be primarily between Ambears and Trad Reds, with some Altezzas, Darkers and others antagonizing from the periphery. Mack used his heavy glove to dispatch an approaching, screaming Trad Red, swinging a trio of Jeep Box Taillights by their wires like a flail, while the constable hacked away at a shrieking Ambear, and Clamworth beat a path through the crowd with the heavy Benz lamps.

The three pushed and fought their way through the melée until they got to the far wall, where a bouncer let them into another room — a room for drinking and other debauchery, but no fighting. Fights had become so common at the Rouge that management eventually just gave up the front room for just fighting; it was easier to let the battles just play out for 30 minutes a night instead of trying to stop it.

Sweaty and bleeding, the three plopped down into a booth, exhausted. Mack shook Clamworth until he got up and went to the bar to bring back three Riviera High Brake Lights, a potent cocktail made from grenadine, rubbing alcohol, and vermouth. Mack drained his in one sloppy gulp.

“We need to find Shoshana Mangoes. She’s the current Ambear leader, and can tell us what was going on at that fundraiser night, and who was there.” As Mack swiveled his head around, looking, he locked eyes with a drink-spittingly sexy androgyne at the CHMSL corner, which seemed to be packed full of young, lithe people wearing center-high mount stop lamps and little else. The CHMSL sylph glided up to Mack, hopped onto his lap, and kissed him with a lurid intensity that made the constable involuntarily pee himself in discomfort, just a little.

“You’re back,” they said, arms draped over Mack’s shoulders.

“Yeah, but I’m working,” Mack replied. “Where’s Mangoes?”

CHMSL rolled their eyes and cocked their head towards a back corner of the bar. “She’s holding court over there. But it’s been a mess since their thing with that whoever from DC.”

Mack got up, and CHMSL flowed off him like water. Mack gave a wink, made a gesture with his hand that looked like a pair of weasels operating a printing press, and turned to march toward a woman sporting a vibrant orange mohawk and talking at a table with two men with similar hair.

Clamworth and Bladderford hurried after Mack as he approached the trio, but Shoshana clocked him approaching first.

“Fucking A. Hardigraw. Just what I fucking need,” she said in an exasperated deadpan, then motioned for him to sit down, though the gesture felt more like the sort of one you’d make if you were showing someone where to set down a wedding cake that seagulls had just shat on.

“You remember Lefty and Righteous,” she said, gesturing at the two high-ranking Ambears already seated.

“Jezzus, Shoshana, how could you let this happen? Mitzi Bakshi was probably the only chance you morons ever had for guaranteeing amber rears and putting the fucking Trad Reds in their place once and for all. The fuck went wrong?”

“You think we haven’t been asking ourselves this for the past two days? We don’t fucking know. She drank a couple beers, I saw her open the bottles. Then, about an hour later she was on her knees, vomiting blood. We even got the whole Rouge rented for the night, it was an all-Ambear crowd. We even had guards patrolling the lot to make sure no Trad Reds tried to show up and start shit. They saw nothing. Every car in that lot had orange in its tail.”

Mack could almost hear the constable’s brow furrow at this, and turned to him in time to see his mouth open as words of confusion and disbelief began to form in his larynx. Before he could speak, however, Mack grabbed Clamworth’s hand and jammed it in the Constable’s mouth.

“I know what you’re going to say, Bladderford. But, believe me, the Ambear’s method is sound. Trad Reds take a blood oath never to drive or even ride in a car with amber rear indicators, ever. I once saw a Trad Red miss his own son’s birth because the ambulance that was about to take him and his wife to the hospital was a 1993 Ford Econoline–which, as you know, had amber rear indicators. He pitched a fit and punched an EMT and demanded a 1995 or newer Econoline, which used red rear indicators, but no dice. So, believe me, if these guys had a lot full of amber rears, no Trad Reds were here, at least not by car.”

Bladderford was curious enough that he left Clamworth’s hand in his mouth, and Clamworth didn’t seem too eager to remove it, either. As Mack finished explaining, the constable finally yanked the valet’s saliva-soaked hand out and noticed Mack’s furrowed brow.

“What? What are you thinking, Mack?” asked Bladderford.

“Does the Rouge have a camera on the parking lot?” Mack asked the Ambears.

“Yeah,” piped up Lefty, “but it faces out from the building. You can’t see the taillights of any car in the lot. It’s useless.”

“Oh shit, you know where you can see the back of the cars in the lot? Across the street, there’s that apartment where that CHMSL shoots all her OnlyFans videos, and there’s a huge window always behind her, and you can see the whole lot from there,” said Righteous, a little too loudly.

“Oh, yeah! Is that Ruby Halt’s OnlyFans? Or Scarlet Stopps?” Lefty asked, already scrolling through his phone.

“Both. And there are a couple others, too. I think like half the CHMSL hotties use that place. Oh, and one of the Old Fours does their semaphore podcast there, too. Here, I got one up from the night it happened.” Righteous passed his phone to Mack.

Mack tracked through the video and paused at a point when the woman, clad in a CHMSL hat and three strategically-placed retroreflectors, bent down below the window to do something graphic with a handful of 1157 dual-filament bulbs. He took a screenshot and zoomed in on the parking lot, as seen through the large plate-glass window.

Mack scanned through the cars in the lot — some Miatas, a few BMW E30s, an old Scirocco, a Mustang II, a Cadillac Cimarron, and a bunch of other amber-rear-indicator cars. His eyes traced the rows of cars, keyed to pick up any absence of that distinctive citrusy hue. Every car checked out. But then Mack did a double-take.

A Vega.

“Hey, whose car was this?” Mack jabbed his finger on the surprisingly well-restored 1976 Chevy Vega.

Shoshana took off her glasses and peered closely at the car. “Oh, that’s Big Carl. He owns the microbrewery behind the statue of Nathan Lane in the Hamcramming District. It’s good stuff. They make a hard Mello Yello that’ll knock you on your ass. He provided a bunch of drinks for the night. Wait — ”

“This year Vega,” Mack interrupted, “only looks like it has amber rear indicators. The GM cheapskates never put in bulbs or wiring for the amber section. The blinkers are actually red.”

Everyone in the room was stunned, their eyes opened widely and bodies began to tremble in fear.

“What? Could a hardcore Trad Red drive one of these? But Carl wasn’t a Trad!” Shoshana was shaken, and sounded like she was trying to convince herself.

“Actually, he was, once.” Said Lefty, pacing back and forth nervously. “I don’t know the whole story, but he broke off from the Reds about a year ago. It wasn’t a happy split, but that’s all I know.”

“But we all drank the beers he brought. I think I even handed Mitzi hers, when she was sitting up at the front table with me and Mr. Vasdeferens, right after she spoke. Remember? Mr.Vasdeferens even opened her bottle himself. There’s no way Carl could have known what beer to poison! He would have killed me or you, or anyone who got the wrong bottle. We’d all be dead!” Shoshana was on the verge of hyperventilating.

“Let’s all just calm down, okay? We don’t know anything yet. Also, who the hell is Mr.Vasdeferens?” asked Mack.

“He’s the guy from that huge company that makes lights for all the cars — what are they called — Hekka! He flew in from Europe to meet with Rep.Bakshi because Hekka wanted to give her some kind of award or endorsement or something? I saw him here tonight; he wanted to watch the Ambear-Trad Red brawl in the big room,” Shoshana explained.

The constable left to arrest Big Carl and take him in for questioning. Things didn’t look good for Carl at all — that particular Vega was one of the very few cars a Trad Red could drive and could also blend in at an Ambear event — as long as it never signaled. That, plus the history of Trad Red allegiance, plus bringing the beers that were the most likely source of the poison; it was all there.

The Trad Reds had been getting more extreme lately, with some big-name car designers getting prominent roles in the group and granting them some mainstream legitimacy as their rhetoric was getting more and more victimized and desperate, with a lot of talk about the need to preserve the Americas as the last Trad Red holdout. Maybe Carl was a secret Trad Red zealot, ready to do whatever it took to preserve his taillight way of life?

Mack just wasn’t sure. It all felt just too damn easy. That Vega was notorious to real taillight fetishists — at least the ones not so blinded by their own preferences, the few able to see the taillight community as a whole, like Mack. Picking a ’76 Vega felt like someone was trying to be caught — a Trad Red could have driven, say, a 2013 Volkswagen Tiguan, which also had some dummy amber sections in its taillights, and nobody would have given that car a second look, especially if it was silver or black.

So why would someone looking to pull off an assassination drive a car that, to the right set of eyes and brains, would have shouted its deception? Something didn’t smell right.

Mack gestured to Clamworth to heave him up on his back and carry him out of the bar; he needed some of the fresh exhaust-saturated air of the parking lot to really clear his head and think this through. As Mack rhythmically bounced on Clamworth’s back as he made his way into the main bar/fight room, now littered with shattered taillights and moaning, writhing bodies, Mack noticed a figure standing on the observation balcony overlooking the main bar/battleground area.

It was Vasfeferens, the Hekka executive. He motioned for Mack to join him.

Clamworth stepped his way through the injured brawlers, picking bits of red and orange plastic out of their wounds, and heaved Mack over the balcony railing, where he landed by Mr.Vasdeferens’ feet, heavily. Mack grabbed at Mr.Vasdeferens’ legs and belt and heaved himself up off the ground.

“So you’re the bigshot taillight executive,” Mack said, breathing heavily.

“And you’re Max–”

Mack glared at him and gestured around with his eyes.

“Sorry, Mack Hardigraw.  The legendary automotive sleuth. You’re here because you’ve pieced everything together, no doubt. That’s fine. I expected that. I also see you’re a man who appreciates a quality taillight,” Vasdeferens said, gesturing to Mack’s Beetle taillight boxing glove hanging from his belt.

“Of course I do. I’m human, aren’t I?”

“Close enough, friend. Let’s have a drink, to celebrate our mutual respect for that rearmost of lights, shall we?” Vasdeferens took a bottle of alcoholic Nesquick out of a cooler by his feet, and reached into his pocket where he produced an elaborate Hekka-branded pewter bottle opener. He opened the bottle and handed it to Mack, then raised his own glass of sparkling muscatel (an Idaho varietal). The two men drank.

“I think I know why you’re here, Mack,” said Vasdeferens. “I suppose maybe getting that patsy in the Vega to show up was a bit too obvious. But you can’t blame me; I have a fondness for the oddballs, you see. And, once I realized you do too, I knew we needed to have this private chat.”

Mack tasted something funny, something gritty in his mouth. He gestured for Clamworth to climb up and swab out his mouth with a finger, which was then presented to him for inspection. It was covered with sharp red powder. An abrasive grit, certainly deadly as it cascaded down one’s esophagus. It was ground garnet.

“Something in your drink, Mack? How unfortunate. Seems to be some of that going around, doesn’t it? Vasdeferens made a show of putting his pewter bottle opener back in his pocket, which Mack now noticed had a long rubber hose attached to it, the other end leading to a large canister by Vasdeferens’ feet labeled in clear, large letters, DANGER GROUND GARNET STONES (POISON: FOR CLANDESTINE MURDER PURPOSES ONLY).

Mack blinked at the bottle opener and associated hardware. “Ohhhhhhhhh, I get it now!” he shouted, with some delight.

“Good work, Mack. Amazing what you can find on Wish.com, right? But it hardly matters now, really, since you’re minutes away from vomiting blood and then, you know, dying, here, on this horrible carpet. Looks like casino reject carpet. Ugh.”

“But, why? Why kill Rep. Bakshi? I thought Hekka supported the amber rear indicator cause?”

“Mack, you fool, you naive fool. Of course on paper Hekka supports amber rears. We’ve all seen the studies; we know it’s the rational thing to do,” Vasdeferens droned on, smugly.

“But cars aren’t really rational,” Mack added the next expected part of the sentence.

“Exactly. They’re not. And I know you love that about cars. And I do too! And, so does Hekka, and really, all the major taillight conglomerates. We all love it. Because irrationality means that America, the second-largest car market in the world, irrationally allows for an entirely different taillight standard than everyone else! Which means that carmakers, for no good reasons, will design completely different taillights for America, which means we get double the kinds of taillights to design, engineer, test, and build! It’s a guaranteed cash cow, more taillights, more rear-end collisions, more replacement parts, more of everything, and, yes, more money! More power!

This, this is how the Taillight Elite controls the world! America’s obsession with red rear indicators funnels cash to us, and from there we feed our brain-control programs, our child trafficking and cannibalism programs, and fund our projects to arise the Old Ones from their slumber at the bottom of the seas! Don’t you see, Mack, we can’t allow anything to get in the way of our goals, and anyone who tries to mandate amber rear indicators will feel the sting of our lash! Oooh ha ha ha ha ha ha cough ha ha ha…ha…ha…hey. Hey, why aren’t you vomiting up blood yet?”

“Because I had my esophagus replaced years ago with a fresh air intake hose from a Karmann Ghia, and my stomach is a plastic washer system fluid storage bag. Years of bathtub ketamine destroyed the originals. As a result I can only really eat a mixture of fish food and ground tapeworms, and I’m also impervious to most poisons. Also, if you had been introduced at the beginning of this story, you’d have seen that, technically, I’m already sort of dead.”

Vasdeferens blinked at Mack with some confusion and a lot more worry. “So, wait, how much of what I just said did you figure out already?”

“Honestly? Almost none. I just thought framing Carl with the Vega seemed kinda obvious.” replied Mack.

“Fuck.”

“Yeah.”

Vasdeferens, having done a swift burst of mental calculus, decided to make a run for it. He shoved Mack off the balcony, where he luckily landed on a paramedic tending to one of the taillight brawl victims. A syringe of morphine from the paramedic’s kit punctured Mack’s thigh.

“Fuuuuuck, that’s the stuff,” Mack purred as he watched Vasdeferens run to the exit. Mack pulled his clunky phone from his waist-satchel and hit one of those switches with a flip-up red plastic shield.

“Clamworth! Jack Parsons protocol!”

“Oh god. Please, no. No.” Clamworth pleaded, but it was far too late. The switch had been flipped, which meant that the solid-fuel rocket Mack had surgically implanted in Clamworth’s colon ignited, shooting a jet of vivid red flame from Clamworth’s ass, launching him at incredible speed toward the fleeing Vasdeferens.

Mack clumsily attempted to steer Clamworth via remote control, but it really didn’t matter, as Clamworth’s flailing arms soon found Vasdeferens, who was gripped painfully with Clamworth’s shrieking face inches from his own.

A few moments later, the scant fuel was spent, and a sobbing Clamworth was on the ground, clutching Vasdeferens in a death grip as EMTs there to deal with the taillight brawl took care of the (all things considered, relatively mild, thanks to asbestos underwear) burn damage from the rocket exhaust.

At that moment Constable Bladderford pulled up in his Matador, the blue dome cop light urgently flashing on the roof.

“I got the alert that the Jack Parsons Protocol was invoked! What happened?” the Constable screamed, bursting into the main room of the Rouge and then looking around at the chaos. “Oh. Uh. Okay,” he said, looking a little defeated, as he remembered, oh yeah, this is what dealing with Mack is like.

“Constable! Arrest that man!” Mack screamed pointing at Vasdeferens, still pinned under Clamworth.

“I need more than that, Mack. This man is a foreign national. He’s here under International Taillight Business. I can’t touch him.”

“That’s right,” Vasdeferens added, voice strained under Clamworth’s weight. “You can’t.”

At that moment Vasdeferens bit down hard on a vivid red bicuspid, which emitted an electrical kzzzt sound. Immediately afterwards, Vasdeferens glowed with a brilliant intensity and then disappeared, with an audible whoosh of air, followed by Clamworth dropping to the ground, hard.

“Ow. Fuck,” said Clamworth. “I fell on my keys.”

Mack walked over to Clamworth and sat heavily on his back. He explained to the Constable everything Vasdeferens revealed to him in the observation balcony.

“So that’s it? They just get away with it?” Mack asked the Constable, frustrated.

“I’m afraid so,” Constable Bladderford replied. “These bigshot taillight guys, there’s just nothing we can do. They’re so far above all our little concerns. They killed a sitting U.S. Representative, and there’s going to be zero accountability. Well, real accountability. I just got word my boss wants me to pin this on Big Carl. But I’m not going to do it. I’m sick of covering for these fuckers. I’m letting him go home, dropping all charges. I don’t care if they come after me.”

“Neither do I, Constable. Neither do I.” Mack said, and walked out of the Rouge, into the parking lot, bathed in the warm, ruddy glow of a sea of taillights.

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24 Responses

  1. I opened every headline posted to the front page today and one thing has become abundantly clear, exemplified by this story: The Autopian is not going to be one of my ‘scan the headlines’ morning dailys. This site is going to require commitment. I’m going to have to have a big chunk of time to sit and read these posts. And even as I write this I’m suddenly realizing now what I’m doing with my phone when I’m in the can instead of playing backgammon. I wonder how this affects ad dollars, knowing that the length of these articles/stories/posts is going to drive people to two groups: hit and run click-throughs and high time/low click campers.

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