The middle-aged black man behind the desk looked up from his papers and pushed the silver frame glasses higher up on his nose to study the visitor who’d knocked on his door. “It’s … Vince, right?” he said, squinting despite the corrective lenses.
Vince nodded. He was amazed his Mechanical Engineering professor knew his name; there had to be close to a hundred students in his class.
His face must have revealed his surprise because Henry Highsmith said, “I only commit to memory the names of pupils in the top ten-percent of my class, and the bottom.”
Vince, not having yet seen the results of his recent exam, worried he might be among the latter and broke out in a sweat.
Dr. Highsmith retrieved a folder from a metal organizer and flipped through the contents, pulling out a familiar, light blue test booklet.
“Congratulations. You’re a member of the former,” he announced, and then, handing the booklet to Vince, added, “Nice job.”
Vince glanced at the front and found he’d scored a 92. Relief melted over him like butter on a hot potato.
“Is that all I can I do for you, Mr. Walker?”
“Thank you,” Vince said, holding up his test, “but that’s not actually why I’m here. Do you have a minute? I thought you might be able to help me out.”
“Uh-oh.” Vince’s teacher frowned. “The last person who said that to me was my brother-in-law, and he wanted to borrow money.”
Vince grinned. In class, perpetually dressed in a formal collared shirt and tie, Dr. Highsmith had always come across as stiff and uptight, serious to the point of intimidating. He was proving to be much more personable one-on-one, and Vince relaxed. “I promise,” he pledged. “It’s nothing like that.”
“Then come on in,” said the instructor, who pointed to a chair opposite him.
Vince entered the modest office, tastefully furnished with a cherry wood desk and matching credenza (upon which sat a collection of framed photographs, presumably of his family), burgundy leather chairs, an Oriental rug, black metal filing cabinets and an antique oak bookshelf – east coast traditional versus California casual. The décor seemed fitting, given Henry Highsmith was originally from Massachusetts and had earned his professional degrees from MIT in Boston, a fact Vince was aware of since they were using a book he had authored on the fundamentals of mechanics in class, and his bio was printed on the inside front cover. Dr. Highsmith was a worldwide authority on how things worked. At least Vince hoped so, with what he was about to ask.
“I have a question about car engines,” Vince started once he’d sat down.
Dr. Highsmith consulted his gold wristwatch and replied dryly, “I’m afraid the garage doesn’t open until noon.”
“I’m not trying to fix my car or anything like that,” Vince attested earnestly.
“I was joking,” the teacher assured him, then leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his stomach. “What’s on your mind?”
Vince considered his words carefully before proceeding. Not wishing to involve his teacher in his plan anymore than was necessary, he wasn’t sure how much to put on the table. “What causes a car engine to backfire?” he asked eventually.
Dr. Highsmith stared into space and flapped his heavy bottom lip with his index finger while he formulated his answer. “Two factors are responsible: fuel and air,” he said finally, bringing his attention back to his pupil. “A backfire occurs when a buildup of gases within the engine of a running vehicle ignites and pushes through the exhaust system, emitting a loud, hollow ‘boom.’”
Just like the noise Vince had heard.
“There could be several causes for the condition, but the most common has to do with the adjustment of the carburetor,” the teacher continued. “The carburetor helps to maintain the proper mixture of gas and air. Any defect could throw off the balance, resulting in not enough fuel in proportion to the amount of air. This leads to the collection of gas fumes, which, when ignited, explode. Are you following me?” he checked in with Vince.
“Yes,” Vince replied, somewhat disheartened, since everything the professor had described was happening under the hood, which didn’t leave him much to go on. He knew he’d be taking a chance with his next question, but he asked nonetheless, “Would there be any telltale signs on the outside of the car I could look for?”
Dr. Highsmith cocked an eyebrow, curious.
“I’m trying to locate a particular car,” Vince explained. “One I heard, but didn’t see.”
The professor broke into a smile. “What’s her name?”
“This is about a girl, right? Let me guess: She drove off before you get could her name,” Dr. Highsmith concluded on his own, sparing Vince the trouble of lying. “And left you in a cloud of smoke, no doubt.”
“The bang of a backfire is usually followed by a bellow of smoke out the tailpipe.”
Vince made a mental note of the occurrence since it could help him spot the car in-question.
“And now you’re trying to find her.” The teacher shook his head in bemusement. “Lucky for you I’m a sucker for matters of the heart. Okay, what the heck, I was young once, too. The car you’re looking for is at least fifteen years old. Backfire is rare in modern cars with fuel-injection and computer-controlled fuel mixtures.”
“Great. Anything else?”
Dr. Highsmith chuckled. “She must be really special. Well, there’s one other possibility. Nowadays, a car with a malfunctioning carburetor most likely wouldn’t pass inspection. California enforces tough standards.”
Vince understood where he was going. “So whoever it is could be riding around with an expired registration sticker.”
“That or a forged one. Careful, you could be chasing after a criminal,” the professor teased.
Possibly a murderer, Vince was tempted to say, but didn’t.
The professor threw up his hands and admitted, “I’m afraid I’m clean out of clues.”
Vince stood to go. “Thanks a lot. I won’t take anymore of your time.”
Dr. Highsmith walked him to the door. “Now you be sure to invite me to the wedding.”
Vince smiled sheepishly. Would he settle for an invitation to a hunting party? Armed with the new information, he strode with purpose to the elevator. There was work to do.
Fifteen minutes later, he was inside the police station.
Because auto thefts and vandalism were a common occurrence on campus, the UPD routinely assigned C.S.O.s to patrol the many parking lots. Vince ran his finger down the posted roster and discovered five had been tapped for duty the coming weekend: Owen, Conner, Brett, Tyler and Zach. Vince made a note of the names. He planned to contact each one and tell him to be on the lookout for an old car, possibly with an expired inspection sticker, that backfired. They’d become his eyes and ears.
Vince knew the task was a long shot, but it was his only hope of helping Hannah. He couldn’t shake the feeling her troubles were far from over.