“Boys!” Chi called out to the men surrounding the crash. All three of them turned their heads to look, but only one of them, a uniformed officer, stopped what he was doing. “This is Detective Inspector John Mellanger. Detective, these are the boys.”
The uniformed officer walked over to the two of them. He gave John a long look across the brim of his Stetson hat, then pulled his hand out of his pocket and extended it forward. They shook hands. The officer’s grip was aggressive, like his hand had something to prove.
“Nice to meet you, detective,” said the officer. “I’m Handy. Officer Handy.”
“Justin,” said Chi.
“Nice to meet you, officer,” said John. “Why don’t you take me over the scene.”
Handy nodded. Approvingly, John thought. This was a man who appreciated getting to the point.
“We’ve got a head on collision,” said Handy as John followed him over to the crash. “Two cars smacked right into each other. Like a couple of charging bulls.”
“Driver of the Buick is busted up pretty bad,” said Handy, gesturing at one of the vehicles. “Daisy Menkins. Ambulance already came and got her. She’s real shook up. Said she barely saw the car that hit her, going the wrong damn way. I tell you, some sons of bitches, they…”
“What about the driver of the other vehicle?” John interrupted. “Any passengers?”
“No passengers, near as we can tell. As for the other driver, he’s nowhere to be seen. Must have up and skedaddled before we got here. Didn’t want to get caught, I reckon. Looks like the car was stolen. The Dodge, I mean.”
“From the plates?”
“Naw, not the plates. Ran em, didn’t come up as nothing.”
John narrowed his eyes. “What about the VIN? Was that clean, too?”
“Naw,” said Handy. “It weren’t clean. When I say nothing, I don’t mean clean. I mean nothing. The plates aren’t registered with the state. Same with the VIN. Some kind of fake, although I don’t know why somebody’d go to the trouble. Maybe they were trying to register the fake and hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Figured that means the car’s got to be stolen.”
John nodded. “What about the driver? You’ve got people looking for him.”
“Yep. Got an APB, and Sergeant Drake set our boys to canvas the area. He’s leading the search himself. Looking in the woods, mostly.” He pointed to the treeline that started just off the shoulder of the road. “Reckon he headed in that way. If he’d crossed the street someone would’ve seen him.”
“We don’t have any witnesses?”
“Oh, a couple of people saw the crash. We took preliminary statements, but it doesn’t sound like anyone saw the perp. Might be we find out more from their full statements down at the station.”
“Alright,” said John. “Keep me updated.”
“Will do,” said Handy. “Let me introduce you to the team. This is Artie Stantz. He’s the CST.” John didn’t need Handy’s gesture to tell which man he referred to. Even at the scene of an accident, Stantz was wearing a lab coat, with his name and the words Crime Scene Investigator stitched in bold letters. It had probably been pristine when he put it on this morning, but now it was scuffed up by dust and engine grease. If John had to guess, he would say the man probably had a closet full of the coats at home. Stantz had very dark skin, and thick fingers that made it look like he might tear the evidence bag in his hands in half if he sneezed.
“CSI,” he said without looking up. “Not CST. And it’s Arthur.”
Handy gave Stantz a hard look and then turned to the other man, who was round and wore a baseball cap sporting a stylized fruit bat.
“And this is Mel Jaworski,” said Handy. “Best damn mechanic in Ducksburg. Helps us out in cases like these.”
Jaworski chortled. “Well, if I’m the best in Ducksburg, you’ll have to sent in for someone from the city. Because this is the damndest thing I ever did see.”
“How So?” asked John.
“Well, what you got here is a 2005 Dodge Neon. Nothing strange about that, except for why anyone’d drive anything put out by Chrysler in the last few decades. But there’s some of what you might call anomalies.”
Shit, John though. Of course there were.
“Well, this isn’t a Chrysler engine, for one,” said Jaworski. “Your ‘05 Neon’s got a 2 litre straight-four, like Detroit started to stick into everything once they decided to start trying to make everyone think they made Japanese cars.”
He paused, and John realized he was waiting for a response.
“And this?” John asked.
“This is a straight six. A little heftier, too. You can see where it’s exposed.” He pointed to where the remains of the mangled engine popped out from what was left of the crumpled hood.
“Couldn’t someone have swapped out the engine?”
“Could have,” said Jaworski, but he sounded doubtful. “But that’s not all. Looks like the transmission’s been modified, too. And the coolant system, I think, although I won’t know until I get this mess back to the shop.”
“Could they have been swapped out, too?” asked John.
“Not easily. This isn’t an Accord. Can’t just drop a TR6 engine into a Neon and then drive off into the sunset.” He chuckled. “You’d need a lot of custom pieces to pull this off. And some body work. You’d have to modify the engine compartment to fit the larger engine. Maybe the chassis, too.”
John nodded his appreciation to Jaworski, then face Handy. “We need to start tracking this down.” He turned back to the mechanic. “Can you get me a list of shops in the state that could do this kind of work.”
“No problem. Hell, I could do this kind of work if you cops would leave me alone for five minutes,” he chortled again. “But that’s not what bothers me.”
“Who on God Almighty’s lush and green Earth would put this much effort into modifying a goddamn Neon?”