They drove past three auto-body shops before arriving at Second Star Car Repairs. Tam trusted Jim to know a good garage when he saw one, but even so Second Star seemed like an odd choice.
From the outside the building stood out from its neighbors. Old decorations of what had once been a tropical island motif adorned the walls and roof of the garage, and the lot was packed with cars whose only common trait was that none of them looked in any condition to run.
With few other places to park, Jim pulled up near the front door and cut his bike’s engine.
“Think they’ll have the parts we need?” Tam asked, looking for any sign that they worked on motorcycles at all.
“We’ll see,” Jim said. “If not, they should know the best place to get them.”
Tam followed Jim inside the small office and cast a glance around. There were enough chairs for four people to sit crunched close together, but one of them was already occupied by a child who was leaning forward with her head cupped in left hand.
As Jim and the owner got down to business, Tam siddled over and took a set so far Jim could sit beside her while still leaving an open chair between them and the girl.
“Goddammit,” the girl whispered. Tam looked over to see if she’d done something wrong, and noticed several things.
First, the girl wasn’t talking to her. She was unhappy about something on her cellphone. Something Tam wasn’t about to eavesdrop on, magically or technologically. She hadn’t developed the skills had to invade people’s privacy unless there was good evidence they were hiding something that would hurt someone else. That rule did enough to help her sleep easily at night that she didn’t even think of breaking it casually.
Second, the girl wasn’t a child, just short. Tam wasn’t sure when 20 year olds started looking like children to her. Being only a little over 30 herself, she couldn’t lay claim to a vast wealth of experience a 20 year old would be lacking. It wasn’t all 20 year olds either. Val was only a bit over 20 and Tam had never looked at her as being a kid. On the other hand, it was rare to see Val looking as miserable as the girl beside her did.
“Things not going so great?” she asked. Rather than make guesses or wonder if she should step in, Tam took a page from Anna’s book and simply asked a question that the girl could engage with or not as she chose.
“Yeah, my card got declined and I can’t get into the account,” Dixie said. Her hand wobbled as she gripped her phone, the tremor of anger was familiar to Tam from the recent frustration of being unable to find any cell coverage when she needed it most. Like Tam though, Dixie wasn’t willing to damage her phone to release that anger.
“That sucks. Were you close to your limit?” Tam asked. A part of her mind was already dashing off to consider the security holes in the various credit organizations she could slip through to determine what had gone wrong.
“No. This card is always paid off each month,” Dixie said. She was still staring at the phone, as though the force of her displeasure might be enough to unlock the recalcitrant web page on the phone’s browser.
“What about calling the number on the back?” Tam asked. There were many illicit avenues open for fixing a simple credit card problem but, for the sake of novelty, and because it was the least risky option, Tam opted for suggesting the official and legal answer for addressing the problem.
“I can’t,” Dixie said and didn’t elaborate.
Not a good sign from what Tam could tell.
“No cell service?” she asked, checking her own phone and finding it had full bars of coverage now that they were in a city rather than the middle of nowhere.
“No,” Dixie said. She’d closed her eyes and the lack of affect in her voice made it impossible to tell what the ‘no’ referred to. Was it ‘no, there is no cell service’ or ‘no, that’s not the problem’?
Tam had to guess it was the latter since asking the repair shop to make a call on their phone would have been a simple workaround for a lack of cell coverage.
“I’ve work in computers,” Tam said. “Want me to take a look?”
The phrase ‘worked in computers’ was vague enough that it was effectively meaningless, despite being true in a variety of senses for Tam. The overwhelming majority of people whose work was related to a computer, even including programmers, had no real knowledge of how to circumvent security measures. Even among those who did know how to break into a secured system, most wouldn’t be able to do anything without time to research the target, or at the very least more resources than an old model cell phone.
Tam, of course, wasn’t most people.
It was a sign of how desperate, or lost, Dixie was that she was willing to gamble on that.
“The password’s not what I thought it was,” Dixie said, handing over the smart phone.
Tam felt a thrill tingle through her fingers. Cracking into a credit account wasn’t exciting but touching a smart device on a day she’d planned to be ‘unplugged’ felt like caressing a taboo.
Which didn’t mean it was necessarily entirely fun to work with such a restricted tool.
“Looks like someone dropped a lock on the account before you hit the password retry limit,” Tam said. The return text from the last transaction packet had a lot more information than what was displayed on the normal screen, but the debugging window offered all the details Tam needed.
“Yeah, I only tried once,” Dixie said, her voice stumbling under the weight of the resignation that was bearing down on her.
“That explains why the card was declined,” Tam said. “Fortunately that’s pretty simple to correct.”
She hated the hopelessness in Dixie’s voice and was willing to break her vow of ‘no magic’ to fix it if need be. Before she was willing to give up on it though, she knew she had to at least try some mundane approaches first.
“What if the card’s been canceled?” Dixie asked. “Or reported sto…lost.”
The card had been reported lost. Tam knew that already. Once she’d slipped inside the card company’s internal systems she’d been privy to the rather appalling amount of data they had collected on Ruth Beauchamp, the card’s primary holder.
From Ruth’s picture, Tam was hard pressed to imagine she was anyone except Dixie’s mother. Or older clone. Sometimes family resemblances are frightening like that.
The rest of Ruth’s information laid out a trail of clues that sketched the outline of an oddly shaped problem. One that Tam puzzled over for a few moments too long.
“Can’t get it to work?” Dixie asked, gesturing for her phone back.
Tam was saved from making an immediate reply by Jim’s return.
“They can do the work we need here and Jen, the owner, has got a trailer we can use to pick up your bike,” he said, sitting down beside Tam and looking to see what she was working on.
“Fantastic, will we be able to get back on time?” she asked, omitting the ‘without using magic’ addendum that she would have normally offered.
“We? No. You? Sure. You can take my bike,” Jim said.
“And leave you here?” Tam asked with a raised eyebrow.
“You’ve got a date tonight don’t you?”
“I have a date every night,” Tam said. “Cynthia’s not going to be upset if I miss this one.”
“Yeah, but this is my fault. I just maintained that engine. It should not have blown like that.”
“Can I have my phone?” Dixie asked.
“What? Oh, sure. Just one sec,” Tam said and lifted the flags on the account, erasing the record of the loss report and the order for the replacement card. “There. You should have full access to the account now.”
“You got in? Wait, how did you guess the password?” Dixie asked.
“I didn’t,” Tam said, technically being honest, and then added, “I’ve had to work with credit systems a bunch of times in the past. They’re a pain and they mess up often enough that I’ve had to find work arounds for a bunch of problems. Yours was pretty typical. It just needed a few flags cleared.”
“Wait, this has my name on it now?” Dixie asked, looking at the unlocked account summary screen.
“Yeah. I think that was part of the problem,” Tam said. “It had glitched and put someone else as the primary on the account.”
“How did you know my name though?” Dixie asked.
“It was on the account record,” Tam said, still being technically truthful. Dixie hadn’t been listed on the account itself, but she was referenced in some of Ruth’s biographic data along with an 18 year old son, a deceased husband, and a series of boyfriends (classified as ‘associates’) which the credit card company had no business being aware of or keeping tabs on. “You are Dixie Beauchamp right? I’m Tam Le Li.”
It seemed only polite to offer her name after discovering Dixie’s.
“Tam Le Li? Like the magician?” Dixie asked, her eyes going wide. “Oh I loved your show! I went to one in Vegas. You know computers though?”
“Yeah, that’s what I studied in school,” Tam said. “The magic thing came later. Or as a professional thing it did anyways. I started messing around with it when I was little kid.”
“Wow. Thank you,” Dixie said. “How can I pay you back?”
“Just answer one question for me, honestly,” Tam said.
“Ok?” Dixie said, drawing back a few inches.
“Do you need a hand?” Tam asked.
“With what?” Dixie asked.
“With anything,” Tam said. “But probably with whatever you’re running away from.”
“I’m not running away,” Dixie said, her eyes fixed on her shoes.
“I know. You’re twenty. You don’t have to stay at home any more if there’s trouble there, but I don’t think this is a trip you’d been planning to make, is it?”
“It’s not,” Dixie said. “I need to help my sister out.”
Sister? Tam thought. Ruth’s records hadn’t mentioned her having another daughter.
“What’s up with your sister?” Tam asked, rolling with the new information.
“She’s living on her own now, and rent is eating up most of the money she makes,” Dixie said. “Since she can’t live with our mother anymore, I’m going out to live with her and share the expenses.”
“What happened with your mother?” Tam asked, her curiosity outmaneuvering her politeness. Dixie seemed more than willing to talk about it with a sympathetic audience though which made Tam feel like she was intruding a little less.
“My sister is trans,” Dixie said. “Mom said she was okay with that, but she wouldn’t use Laura’s correct name. She kept calling her Derrick, and getting upset the more steps Laura took to transition. It got kind of bad when Mom’s new boyfriend moved in because he’s…I don’t blame Laura for leaving as soon as she turned 18.”
“Sounds like Laura has some great support with you in her corner, at least. That can count for a lot,” Tam said. “Does she have a job where she’s living now?” It was a small issue in the grand scheme of things, but Tam had no problem with using the club’s resources to make sure an 18 year old trans girl got the second chance she needed to make a real life for herself.
“Yeah,” Dixie said. “She was doing really well for a few months. She’d set everything up before she left and had a whole plan worked out.”
“It went off the rails though I’m guessing?” Tam asked.
“Yeah. She lost her bank card about a week ago and the bank’s saying it won’t issue her another one because her account was overdrawn by too much.”
“But, that’s not how bank cards work?” Tam said, confusion parting only to allow a variety of distasteful possibilities to suggest themselves.
“Well, she needs some help then, because no one’s willing to talk to her, or help her out and her rent’s due tomorrow.”
“Jim,” Tam said. “I think I’ll take you up on that offer to use your bike. I suddenly feel the need to pay a visit to a bank and have some words with them about a girl named Laura.”
“Ok, but please don’t make JB put together bail for you. You know I’m not going to live it down if I’m the one who took you out and got you arrested.”
“I make no promises,” Tam said.