A flatbed tow truck pulled into Dishonest Used Car Dealership early on a drizzling grey Wednesday morning. On the back was an orange Volvo C70 cabrio, or more accurately, what remained of one. From the firewall forward the paint was charred an ashy grey and what was once the front bumper now oozed downwards toward the ground. I intercepted the truck driver.
Me: “Whoa whoa whoa, this isn’t a junkyard. You can’t just dump this sh*t here.”
Driver: “Dunno, man. The order says to drop it here.”
Colossal Redneck waddled out of the service bay, beer can in hand, and motioned to the driver to go ahead and drop the car. He hollered over at me.
CR: “I know ‘bout this’un. Customer says somethin’ went wrong an’ smoke started comin’ out. Probably jes’ overheated.”
Me: “Overheated? Are we looking at the same car? Do you not see that it caught fire?”
CR: “Oh. Well sh!t, so it did.”
With that, he walked back over toward the service bay.
Me: “What are we supposed to do with it?”
Colossal Redneck turned around and shrugged.
He walked back to the service bay, presumably to exchange his now-empty beer for another one, and I looked over the car. On inspection, I vaguely remembered it. We had gotten it on trade about six months previous and it had just sat on the lot. Convertibles aren’t particularly popular in my part of the world, much less Volvo convertibles that have so little chassis rigidity that they feel like they’re going to shake apart every time you go over a set of railroad tracks. About a month ago, it apparently sold to some lady who lived on the other side of the mountains, and now it was back, burnt to a crisp.
I popped what remained of the hood and was greeted by the smell of char. Everything plastic or rubber in the engine bay was just completely melted. The residue from a fire extinguisher coated every surface, which meant that anything copper or aluminum in the engine bay was probably done as well, as ABC extinguishers are extremely corrosive. I peered into the interior. The heat from the fire had made its way inside, and the dashboard showed signs of bubbling and cracking. Tucked into the corner of the gauge cluster was a photograph of a man in his late fifties, the color yellowed and edges curled from heat. This car was finished. If it had been a good car, maybe it would go on to Nirvana, but being that it was an early 2000s Volvo, it more than likely was not. What on earth it was doing taking up space on my lot was beyond me.
”Oh, that’s real f#ckin’ funny, asshole.”
Mr. Sarcastic, one of my technicians, was in my office grabbing his morning paperwork when he spotted the C70 in his pile of work for the day.
Me: “No joke. Colossal Redneck wants you to go over it and make a list of what needs to be replaced.”
MS: “The f#ckin’ car needs to be replaced.”
Me: “I know, I know. Here, I tell you what, that’s going to take a while to do. I’ll drop you another hour labor if you’re real comprehensive, and maybe I can use all you find to dissuade these assholes from whatever crazy scheme they have going on here.”
I followed Mr. Sarcastic out to the parking lot and together we pushed the C70 into his bay. He popped the hood and surveyed. A look of realization and horror washed over his face. He turned around quick and punched up the car’s service history on his laptop.
MS: “Well f*ck.”
Me: “What’s up?”
MS: “Lookie here. We did a steering overhaul on this thing. Looks like the pump was whining and we replaced it and some of the lines.”
MS: “Where’s the steering reservoir on this thing?”
I pointed to a black container to the passenger’s side of the exhaust manifold.
Me: “Right there right on… top of… the turbo. F*ck.”
MS: “100 to 1 says whoever worked on it forgot to tighten a clamp, and a line worked loose and sprayed hydraulic fluid all over the turbine.”
Me: “That’d do it.”
MS: “Yep. That’d do it. And look, all the bullsh!t in the front of the engine bay is the most melted. It don’t take no detective to figure out what’s going on there.”
Me: “Looks like we just bought this lady a car.”
I was in my office, IMing Rom to try and relay what was going on with the burn victim.
Rom: ”wat c70”
Me: ”The orange Volvo C70 that caught fire. The one that came in this morning.”
There was an extremely long pause.
Rom: ”wat c70”
For f*ck’s sake. I alt-F4ed out of my IM client and walked over to Colossal Redneck’s office. I had earlier explained to him what seemed to have happened to the C70, and he was as concerned about our liability in this situation as I was. He and I walked across the parking lot to the sales office. Rom was sitting at his desk leafing through a catalogue for one of those places that sells cheap plastic nose hair trimmers that are also iPod docks that are also self-watering plant pots.
Me: ”Yo. The orange fireball Volvo. I had Mr. Sarcastic have a look. Uh, I don’t know how to put this, but there’s pretty good evidence that we may be at fault for the fire.”
Rom peered up from his catalogue. His tone of voice was surprisingly calm.
Rom: “What makes you think that?”
Me: “I’ve got a report from the tech here, but long story short, we did a PS pump replacement on it, and it looks like a line might not have gotten tightened. At the very least, that’s what the lawyers are going to say, you know?”
Rom: “Have you got a list of what needs to be repaired on it?”
CR: “She’s a total, boss. Engine, body panels, wiring, the whole shebang. The dash and a whole mess’a the interior trim’s melted and she’s needin’ some time in the body shop. It’s d-u-n done.”
Me: “Exactly. But, there’s a bigger issue here. Metal does goofy things when it gets hot, and we’ve got no way to know whether the forward half of the unibody has lost its temper from the heat. That’s a major safety issue. The best course of action would be to let insurance take care of it and pray we don’t get sued.”
Colossal Redneck nodded his agreement.
Rom: “Alright, here’s the deal. We obviously can’t admit liability on this, and we can’t give the customer any indication that we were at fault for the fire. That means that under no circumstances can the car go to her insurance nor ours.”
Me: “You’re just going to pay her out of pocket for the car?”
Rom: “Are you not listening? You’re going to submit it to warranty and we’re going to repair it.”
CR: “Wait jes’ a minute. One, I don’t think she kin even be fix’t, and B. as soon as that there warranty company has a $30,000 claim on their hands, they’re just gonna up and total ‘er out themselves, and y’all kin be damn sure they’ll figure out it was us that done caused the fire.”
Rom: “That’s why you’re going to submit it as multiple claims, one a month or so until the car is finished, so warranty doesn’t catch on. Just make some sh!t up, just enough that they don’t get wise, until you’ve got it fixed.”
If this is all sounding familiar, it should. Fixing cars that were long past the point of no return was a constant battle at Dishonest Used Car Dealership, but previously they had always either been cars that belonged to us or cars that belonged to delusional customers. This was the first time we were being asked to do this level of work on a customer’s car under warranty. By breaking the repairs up into smaller lumps, Rom was trying to keep the company we bought all our warranties through from noticing the insane amount of money we were charging them.
Ordinarily, they had the option to buy out a car if the sum of repairs in any month-long period equalled half the value of the car, not unlike how your insurance company can total out your car if you get in a big enough wreck. What Rom was asking us to do was clearly fraud. This wasn’t the normal grey-area kind of dishonesty that we got up to on a daily basis - this was a clear-cut violation of our contract with them.
Were we to be caught, at a minimum they would stop selling warranties to us, and if rumor was to be believed, Rom and The Amazon had burnt so many bridges that this warranty company was basically the last one that would deal with us. At worst, there was the possibility of legal action, both for committing fraud and for attempting to cover up the repairs to this customer’s car - not to mention certifying as safe a car that had irreparable damage.
Colossal Redneck and I stared at Rom mouths agape for what seemed like a minute or more. Both of us tried to come up with words of protest or at least syllables, but neither of us could divorce ourselves from our astonishment long enough to argue back. Finally, Rom broke the silence.
Rom: “Well? Go and do it.”
The two of us gingerly retreated backwards to the door the way you do when there is someone pointing a firearm at you and stepped outside the office, closing the door behind. Absent Rom’s glare, I finally discovered some words.
Me: “This is f*cking insane.”
Colossal Redneck nodded.
Me: “This is not normal insane. This is not garden-variety insane. This is bat-shit crazy, pants-crapping insane.”
There was a long pause while Colossal Redneck pondered.
CR: “I kin’t even be countin’ all the kinds’a illegal this is.”
Me: “What are we going to do about this?”
He pondered a moment longer.
CR: “We ain’t gonna do sh!t. I don’ like this any more than you do, but I got a wife and kids’ta feed. Y’all go an’ do whatever the hell you want. I’m washin’ my hands’a the whole dern thing.”
Colossal Redneck turned and walked out the door, leaving me standing in the sales office alone. This apparently was now my mess to deal with.
”Man, we already did that once. I dunno if I want to risk it again.”
The Raver, The Diplomat, and I were over at the sandwich shop eating a late lunch. We were spitballing solutions to the C70 issue. I had suggested just cutting the damn thing in half and pretending it was stolen, but as The Raver said, we had already done that once before, and only just managed to not get caught.
Me: “Alright, alright. Just a thought.”
TD: “So… explain this to me again. You’re going to break down the repairs into chunks so the warranty company doesn’t catch on, and then just submit them month after month?”
Me: “That’s what I’ve been told to do, yeah. I was thinking about it, and I could break the warranty charges across different cars to get it all paid out faster, but we’re talking about easily three months worth of time the customer’s out her car.”
TD: “How’s that look in the paperwork?”
Me: “One real repair order that stays internal and a bunch of fake ones for the warranty company. I’d have to fake probably fifteen or twenty $1000-$2000 repairs split across our inventory, just to keep the warranty guys from looking too side-eyed at it.”
TD: “So it’s fraud.”
TR: “And three months to fix it?”
Me: “At least. The body shop is glacial, not to mention it’s got to go into the upholstery place for a couple of weeks, then inspection, ‘cause it needs a new VIN tag… Three months if we’re lucky.”
TR: “F######ck. You gonna give the customer a rental for three months?”
Me: “I know, that’s $3500–$5000 in rental fees, even for a sh!tbox. No can do. I don’t have that in my discretionary budget, Rom and The Amazon won’t pay for customer rentals, and neither will the warranty company. I could fake the cost of the rental into the price of repairs, but then I’d have to do another four or five fake repair orders, which just increases the chances of getting caught.”
TR: “What about, like, a loaner?”
TD: “Remember what happened the last time we gave out a loaner?”
TR: “Oh yeah. The customer wrecked it.”
TR: “And neither did we.”
Me: “Right, so a loaner isn’t going to happen either.”
The Raver picked up a slice of pickle off his tray. He examined it briefly, and then jokingly flicked it at my face, bouncing it off my forehead.
TR: “Welp, my friend, it appears you are f*cked. Have fun in jail.”
The Raver got up from the table, tossed his tray atop the trash can, and sauntered back to the office to have a nap in his recliner. The Diplomat leaned over the table at me.
TD: “You’re not actually going to do this, are you?”
Me: “Of course not. I just haven’t decided how I want to go about this. Option one is to alert the warranty company to the scam. Rom and The Amazon will figure out real f*ckin’ quick who let them know what was going on, and I’m out a job. This isn’t the most awesome job in the world, but I’d rather not have to find another one, you know?”
TD: “Of course.”
Me: “Option two is to go to the media who may or may not give a sh!t. If they do report on this, Rom and The Amazon will again know exactly who let them know, and again, I’m job shopping. Option three is to quit, in which case, the fraud still happens, because like hell are the techs going to turn down a hundred million hours of labor on principle. I still wouldn’t have a job, but at least my hands wouldn’t have blood on them.”
TD: “Have you thought about involving the police?”
Me: “I gave it a thought, but we haven’t done anything yet, and c’mon, they’re too busy mopping up dead gang members on the south side of town. We’ve got four million people in this city and like three overworked cops. Hell, when my old station wagon got stolen, they didn’t even bother to show up to take a report.”
The Diplomat tented her fingers and pondered for a while.
TD: “I don’t love any of those options.”
Me: “Me neither.”
TD: “I’ll let you know if I think of anything.”
Lunch finished, we returned to our respective offices.
I stalled for the remainder of the day while I tried to find an out, giving alternate explanations to Rom and The Amazon that the service bay was too booked to start work on the C70 any time soon or that parts for it were on intergalactic backorder. I could see in their eyes that they were suspicious of the delay. This was going to come to a head, and soon.
It was Thursday, around noon, and I was sitting on a cheap folding chair next to the biodiesel pump watching the rain fall out the big bay door and eating my lunch. A cab pulled into the parking lot, and a woman stepped out and walked over to me. She was greying blonde, mid-to-late fifties, still quite pretty. I remember thinking that something about her reminded me of my mother - this muted sadness they both shared, green eyes so tired of seeing the bleakness of the world, shoulders drooped under the weight of accumulated sorrow. She introduced herself.
Her: “Hi, I’m the customer with the convertible that caught fire.”
I introduced myself and showed her to my office. I sat her down in the chair across from me.
Her: “So it’s totaled. That’s alright, I figured as much. I’m not sure I’d want it repaired even if it could be. The firefighters said I barely got out in time, and I’m not about to keep driving a car that nearly killed me.”
Me: “Well, see, therein lies the problem. I personally agree with you, but the decision on your car is no longer in my hands.”
Her: “What does that mean?”
Me: “The owners of this shop, who have final say in such things, want to repair your Volvo.”
Her: “And what if I don’t want them to?”
I leaned closer to her and whispered lest I be overheard in the hallway.
Me: “I’m not supposed to say this, but you could turn it over to your own insurance company. We can’t technically force you to keep the car here.”
Her: “Will they cover it if I have liability only?”
Me: “Oh. No, probably not.”
She was understandably beginning to become upset.
Her: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but this is not really what I want to hear.”
Me: “I know, I… I really know. Look, can I level with you? I don’t want the car to be repaired either, and I’m doing everything in my power to keep it from being put back together. So far, I’ve managed to stall for a day, but I’m running out of options. I’ve been racking my brain for a solution, any kind of solution here that will keep us from putting that car back on the road.”
She sighed and looked down at her hands.
Me: “Look, I know you don’t owe me anything, but please be patient with me while I try to get this sorted out. I want to do the right thing here, and I am really, really trying, but I have very limited power in this situation. Just please give me a chance to do the right thing.”
She looked back up at me and I watched as tears began to stream down her face. She broke and started sobbing. I grabbed a tissue from the box in my desk drawer and walked around the desk and sat next to her as she cried. Between her sobs, she told me her story.
Her: “I just… My husband and I, we both grew up so poor, and we always said that someday we’d buy a little convertible and we’d drive around the country with our daughter and we’d see all the things we didn’t get to see when we were little. And then he worked so hard and we saved our money, but something always happened. Our daughter would get sick or the plant would close and we’d have to move and the money was always gone just as soon as we had it. And then she got older, and we started helping her with college and things, and he’d always say, “one day, we’ll have enough money and we’ll get that convertible, and we’ll drive all over the country and see it all. You and me.” And then he started getting sick, and he couldn’t work anymore, and he was in the hospital. And then last year… he had been sick so long… and… and God, God finally took him. And he had this little life insurance account he never told me about, our whole marriage he never told me about it. So, I took that money and I went and finally bought that convertible, just to remember him by, you know? Finally go on that trip and remember him. He was such a good man, he worked so hard, and he always took care of us, and now my daughter is grown, and she’s out of the house, and she’s got a family of her own and she doesn’t call anymore. And he’s gone, and I just don’t have anything left anymore. And then I bought this stupid car… and then I was over here visiting my sister and it caught fire and… It was supposed to be for me to remember him, and now all I can remember is the fire and I don’t want it anymore… I don’t want that to be what I remember. I don’t want it back.”
She dabbed the tears out of her eyes.
Her: “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to unload on you like that.”
Me: “No, no. It’s okay. I’m so sorry. Look, give me a chance to make this right. You have my word, I’ll make this right, I promise.”
She sighed, and nodded.
Her: "Alright. I trust you to make this right."
She got up, walking back out into the rain to her cab and disappeared into the grey. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to live up to my promise.
To be continued…