Excerpt: Gremlins Are Malfunctioning

“The gremlin in my car isn’t working properly.”

Eliot Tate suppressed a sigh. All cars had quite literal gremlins in their gas tanks. What was so special about this particular gremlin-and-vehicle combo? Also, was it possible for the customer to have given him any less information? Eliot plastered on his winning customer service smile. “Are you a returning customer, sir?”

“Yes. Here’s my CEPA card. It’s currently valid, I assure you.” The man was in his twenties and sounded obnoxious, judging by the smartass tone of his voice. He handed Eliot a card showing his membership in the Civilian and Environmental Protection Agency (CEPA), which was required of every man, woman, and child over the age of fifteen these days.

Eliot swiped his blond hair behind his ear and tapped on his keyboard, typing in Mr. Paul Smith’s client number. Information popped up in several columns but thus far none involving his vehicle. “Make and model, please.”

Clearing his throat, the man appeared both apprehensive and annoyed at once. “I…Yes, of course. Toyota Dash 2018. It’s a bright red SUV. Just bought it earlier this year.”

“Energy source?” Eliot asked on autopilot.

Mr. Smith harrumphed in obvious vexation. “Petrol, naturally.”

Eliot quirked an eyebrow. The customer paled and gulped, his gaze darting away. Exactly right. No one challenged Eliot in his own workplace. He returned to his original issue regarding the information Mr. Smith had given him. “There’s a problem with your gas gremlin? Please describe the issue to me in detail.”

“Well, uh…” Mr. Smith frowned, scratching behind his ear, as if buying time to search for the right words. “It’s growling a lot.”

“Gremlins always growl, sir,” Eliot noted, his light-green eyes narrowing.

“Yes, yes.” The man waved in frustration. “But, like, are they supposed to do that all the freaking time? Even when I’m driving perfectly normal, not speeding or anything?”

That was unusual, Eliot had to admit. “Is growling the only complication?”

Mr. Smith shook his head immediately. “No. God, no. When I’m on the freeway, the car starts to stall. I have to pull over. But the second I do, the car starts to work again.” He leaned over the desk, anger in his expression. “I think that damn gremlin’s messing with me. I demand to have it replaced.”

Eliot pursed his lips. “You are aware, sir, that CEPA does not do vehicle maintenance? I advise you to take the car to a registered Toyota brand repair shop.”

Smith snarled. “Yes, I fucking know that, goddammit. But I want to file a grievance.”

Eliot frowned. “Against whom, sir?”

The man blinked, his ire temporarily forgotten. “What do you mean? Toyota, of course. I need a car that works. They paired me with a faulty, vicious gremlin.”

“You claim that they did this to you on purpose?”

“Yeah, sure.” He hesitated, biting his bottom lip. “How much do you think I could get?”

“I suggest you submit that question to a lawyer, not a mechanic, sir.”

Mr. Smith banged his fists on the desk. “Why the hell do you think I’m here? CEPA has, like, legal counsel on staff, right? Ones specializing in prosecuting corporations, right?”

Eliot stood. Even before he glared down at him, the client backed up a step. Only then did Eliot speak. “Please don’t hit the counter, sir.” His voice was cool and collected. He’d dealt with belligerent customers before. Like kids, they needed a firm hand to rein them in.

The two security guards by the door were a secondary asset.

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Smith murmured, his apologetic tone only half-genuine. “Emotions are running high, I’m sure you understand.”

Eliot sat back down. Instead of engaging with Mr. Smith’s words, he told the man, “I can give you three numbers for local law firms on retainer with us. Any one of them can help you, if you wish to pursue legal action against Toyota.”

In his head Eliot wondered why Smith bothered. Most big corporations were finished, gone down after the introduction of the mythkin into the world. Many of the world’s largest companies had been based around energy and its production or creating items that had become obsolete and futile. For example, who needed experimental hoverboards or futuristic urban transport pods when one barely had enough energy for a basic car? In some areas, technological progress had ground down to a halt.

Mr. Smith sagged in relief after receiving validation for his concerns. “Thank you.”

Eliot gave the man three calling cards. “Here you go, sir.” Then he refocused on the data collected. Maybe it would be easier to talk with him now that he had the information he’d come for “Is this the vehicle’s original gremlin?”

“Yes.” Mr. Smith did seem calmer now.

Eliot typed the information in and asked, “Is the gas gremlin digesting exhaust fumes and excreting petroleum in normal fashion and up to regular, acceptable levels?”

Mr. Smith hesitated, frowning, but finally nodded. “I think so. I mean, the instrumentation hasn’t shown any red flags. Should be okay then…right?”

Eliot held back a smartass retort. Car control panels weren’t a forte for every driver. Mr. Smith seemed quite unaware of the operations of his own vehicle. Then again, too many people he came across in this job were the same.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine, sir.” Eliot added to the files that the dashboard hadn’t indicated any problems to the user. The control panel wasn’t wired to the gas gremlin, per se, but it detected aberrations in petroleum and exhaust levels. “When you take the car to a repair shop, Mr. Smith, will you see to it that CEPA gets copies of the issues list and the repair logs? That way we can conduct our own investigation and hopefully solve the problem before it reoccurs with other clients.”

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