Willis Williams leaned back in his time-worn oak desk chair and relit his half-chewed cigar. His white shirt stretched tightly across his ample waistline. It spoke of too many beers and pizzas. His Levis were held up by a wide leather belt with a big silver buckle. With his black western boots propped on the desk and his bolo tie, you’d expect his business to be cattle rather than salvage.
He eyed my recorder suspiciously. “Sure that thing’s on?”
I nodded. “So tell me about the salvage business. I understand your father started your company.”
Running a calloused hand through his thinning gray hair, he sighed. “Well, it’s changed a lot since I started working for the old man back, oh, almost forty-two years ago now. When he started the company, it was a business for rugged individualists, ya know, who were willing to bust their asses to make a buck. My golfing buddies never say it, but I know they look down on me for working in a business that got my hands dirty-I mean really dirty and greasy. I could buy and sell most of them duffers now and I sure don’t get my hands dirty anymore.”
After a short chuckle, he continued. “Fred’s Auto Salvage and Towing. Fred was my old man’s name. We’d tow in cars from accidents. If they were totaled out, a lot of times we could buy them from the insurance companies for cheap. Then we’d part ‘em out. Salvaging parts made so much money that we stopped towing and just bought wrecks to part out.”
Willis took his boots off his desk and sat up, leaning forward. “When my old man finally let me run the business, I didn’t just let it coast. I heard somewhere that if a business ain’t growing, it’s dying. I didn’t want it to die, but the old man fought me every turn. ‘Parts is parts,’ he used to say, ‘and it ain’t got to be fancy to make money.’ But after he died, I started doin’ all the stuff he wouldn’t let me do.”
I sipped some bitter coffee from my Styrofoam cup. “What kind of changes did you make?”
He grinned and tapped his forehead with his finger. “Maybe I ain’t got a college degree, but I can still use the old noggin. First, I changed the name of my company from Fred’s Auto Salvage and Towing to F.A.S.T. Recycling. A lot more professional sounding, don’t ya think? I modernized it. Like, who’s going to pay much for a greasy part thumped down on a greasy counter? I set it up so we stripped the cars down to the frame when they rolled in, steam cleaned the parts and shrink-wrapped ‘em. Even gave a ten day guarantee. Most guys had a ‘you bought it, it’s yours’ policy. After all, they’re used. But I sold them for twice as much and still got twice as many customers.”
I shifted in my uncomfortable grey, metal chair. “Sounds like you’ve made many improvements to the family business. Do you have kids who want to be like you, get involved and make it even better?”
With a sigh, he leaned back in his chair and propped up his feet on the desk again, shoving some of the clutter of papers and such against a new-looking computer keyboard. “I’ve got two sons and I’d hoped at least one of them would’ve gotten into the business. After all, it’s made me a good living, put food on the table, a roof over our heads, nice cars to drives, put both of ‘em through college. Now one’s a hot shot lawyer and the other calls himself an artist. Throws paint on a canvas that don’t look like anything, but some suckers buy his stuff. Both of them turned up their noses at the family business. `Dad,’ they tell me, `sell out and retire. Spend more time golfing. Travel. See the world.’”
I shrugged. “Sounds like your sons want you to enjoy the fruits of your labor. According to Forbes, your company is one of the most profitable salvage companies in the United States. Maybe it’s a good idea to enjoy some of what you’ve earned.”
Willis snorted derisively. “What they’re saying is, `Do something that won’t embarrass us when we tell our friends what you do.’ Well, I’m proud to be a parts man. They thought the money was good enough when they were growing up, so they can just accept what I do for a living now. Just wait ‘til they see me in your magazine. Maybe I ain’t Time ‘Man of the Year,’ but it’ll show ‘em I ain’t just some dumb hick.”
I thought I saw a tear form at the corner of his eye, but he quickly brushed it away. “It must be hard for you that your sons don’t want to continue the family business.”
“Yeah, but thank God for Jeff. He started hanging around when he must have been fourteen or fifteen. Funny, ‘cause he’s one of those computer types, ya know, but he likes cars and don’t mind getting his fingers dirty. Started by being my gofer, cleaning up around the place and putting the tools away. Then he did all kinds of stuff to the computers. ‘Upgrading,’ he called it.”
“He must be a valuable asset for your company. You seem to look on him as more than just an employee.”
He gestured toward a picture on the wall above his desk.
“There’s a photo of us on a deep-sea fishing trip I took him on. His first. Look at that big one he caught.”
Willis and a tall, slim bond young man were standing on a pier, flanking a large marlin, suspended by its tail. Both men sported big smiles.
“That was about two years ago now. ‘Bout the time he came up with the big idea, these new salvage auctions. Insurance companies love ‘em. We’re heroes. Makin’ them and us both a bundle. I bought one of those big ol’ Searay cabin cruisers and a nice place in Cabo San Lucas from one month’s profits.”
“Bright young men like him are rare. Are you worried some competitor might try to steal him?”
“Nope. I got a plan.” He paused, eyeing me warily. “Can this be off the record? You can publish after I’m gone and it’ll be an exclusive.”
I raised my hand with three finders up. “Scout’s honor. I’ll keep it out of this article.”
He grinned. “I’m makin’ Jeff veep this year and gonna give him forty-nine percent of the company. He deserves it. Gonna give it all to him when I die, too. It’ll be a surprise to him and those boys of mine, too. If they’re too good for the salvage business when I’m alive, they’re too good for it when I’m dead, don’tcha think?”
Before I could answer, the computer terminal on his desk started beeping. He spun around, brushed some papers and an empty coffee mug out of the way and began punching keys on his computer keyboard. Although he used only his index fingers, they danced across the keys. He punched the print command and leaned back while he watched the printer spew out its hard copy of the information. When it finished, he grabbed the paper and turned toward to me with a smile.
“Well, it looks like you get a chance to see the old parts man in action. There’s been a fifteen vehicle pile-up over on the interstate. Seven total losses. The insurance companies are gonna auction ’em off right away, so get your stuff and let’s go. Time is money, ya know, and I don’t want to waste either.”
He stood, hitching up his trousers, which immediately dropped to their previous position. He ground out his cigar in the ashtray and gave a toothy grin saying, “Might as well stub it out here. They wouldn’t let me smoke it around the salvage, even if smoking weren’t outlawed about everywhere nowadays. Too dangerous, ya know. Let’s get a move on.”
As Willis drove down the highway in his luxurious crew-cab pick-up, I asked him to fill me in about some of the details of the business. Between making calls on his phone about parts and prices, he elaborated.
“The idea is to have as many of the parts sold before you buy the salvage. If you have your buyers all lined up, you’ll not only get back the cost, but make a good profit before you’ve even paid for it. The longer it takes to sell the parts, the longer your money’s tied up, more of a chance the parts’ll get damaged and the more money it’ll cost to store the parts. The faster you turn the salvage the better. I’ve already got a pretty good shopping list. Let’s me know how high I can bid and still make a buck or two.”
As he pulled his truck into a parking lot by a large, somber, gray, multi-storied building, I breathed a sigh of relief. “From the way you were talking, I was afraid we were going to the scene of a the accident.”
“Relax. Cops want the scene cleared ASAP. Plus it’d look pretty cold to have us there like vultures, bidding on the salvage.”
Willis opened double glass doors and headed down a long, sterile corridor, dimly illuminated within florescent lighting. He looked back.
“Gotta hurry so we don’t miss any of the bidding. Keep close so’s you don’t get lost.”
I stayed right behind him, not wanting to accidentally wander into the wrong room.
After going through a metal door with a sign above it simply stating “Salvage Room,” Willis gave a few short waves to several men standing around the room. There were several dozen men in all, some talking on cell phones. The air was chilly, heavily air conditioned.
I nodded toward a group of men in suits and ties who were in deep in conversation among themselves. “Who are they?”
“Insurance guys, here to make sure all the bidding’s on the up and up. Look up and you’ll see a little TV camera. It’s on simulcast for guys who can’t be here. I like to see the salvage up close and personal so there’s no surprises.” He grimaced slightly. “Guess that wasn’t the best way to say that, was it?”
Willis glanced around the room. It was about eighty feet long and twenty feet wide with about a ten foot ceiling and fluorescent lighting, giving off its muted glow on the stark, white walls. The floor was a well-scrubbed bare concrete. One of the long walls was covered with small metal doors, about three feet by two feet each, with chrome handles and hinges. Except for a couple of double doors on the opposite wall, the room was basically featureless.
“Some heavy hitters here today. Got a couple of prime salvage pieces. If there were older or badly damaged ones, like burn jobs, might be one or two bidders, total. But there’ll be buyers all over the country bidding on this one.”
Finally, the person they all seemed to be waiting for arrived. He was dressed in a long, white, lab coat and his rubber-soled shoes gave no sound as he walked across the hard floor. Another man followed behind him, adjusting a wireless mike attached to his shirt, and then another with a tablet computer and an earphone in one ear. The lab-coated man went up to one of the thick doors, opened it and pulled out a drawer-like tray, upon which was a white-sheet covered form. The room felt even chillier than before.
The white-coated man pulled away the sheet. It was the body of a young man, probably in his early twenties. He’d been in good shape, lean and fit. There was a paleness, almost a transparency, to his skin that gave him an eerie, other-worldly appearance. A small pump was mounted on the metal tray at the side of the body, keeping blood flowing through a transparent tube and a respirator above his head sent air through a flex tube down the young man’s throat. For a moment, everyone was silent. The only sounds were the pump and the wheeze of the respirator. The mood, however, was soon broken when the auctioneer stepped up and began his spiel.
“All right, we have here a young male, Caucasian, twenty-three years of age, in excellent condition, with all parts in perfect working order at time of death. Obviously fit and probably exercised regularly. Height six-foot one, weight one seventy-five. Death by brain trauma, but had been still alive when he was brought from the accident, so the body was in the cooler within less than five minutes of death. Many, many, good salvageable parts here. You’ve seen the complete data online or on your smartphone, so let’s have a reasonable opening bid. Who’ll give me five hundred for a start.”
Willis leaned over and whispered, “That’s five hundred grand, in case you’re wondering.”
One of the bidders there, a man in a loud Hawaiian shirt, white pants and sandals, called, “Fifty-thou.”
“I’m selling the entire piece of merchandise here, not one arm.”
A few people chuckled. I’d heard such macabre humor was common in occupations that deal with tragedy and death. The same seemed to be true here.
The man with the tablet tapped the auctioneer on the shoulder and he nodded.
“I have the five-hundred thou from an off-site bidder. Do I hear six?”
The auctioneer soon had his six, then seven, then seven hundred and fifty, then eight, eight fifty, nine, nine fifty, and one million, with bidding going on both live and remotely. After the million dollar mark the bidding slowed considerably. Increases stopped being the fifty thousand dollar juggernauts and dropped to twenty, then ten thousand. Bidders frantically talked on the phone before upping the bid.
Willis was definitely a player, signaling his bid at seven fifty by rubbing the right side of his nose. Beads of sweat formed on his brow, even though the room was chilly. When the bidding hit one million, two hundred thousand, the parts man shook his head and looked disgustedly at the floor. The bidding continued in spurts and stalls, obviously close to the limit. The auctioneer and a couple of the insurance company representatives looked pleased.
It finally narrowed down to a Middle Eastern-looking man and an East Asian bidder. Both frantically spoke on their cells before upping the bid. One million, three hundred thousand was topped. Then slowly one million, four hundred thousand. Finally, the bidding stalled at one million, four hundred and fifty thousand. The Asian bidder was on and looked impassively calm. The Middle Eastern bidder, speaking rapidly on his phone, scowled at his opponent. Then he stuck his phone in his pocket, spun on his heel, and stomped from the room.
The auctioneer called off the final, “Sold,” and the auction was over.
“Sheesh,” Willis muttered with a shake of his head. “Looks like high tech manufacturing beat out oil money this time. Hard to compete with those guys. Come on. I’ll buy ya a beer.”
“Thanks. I could use a drink.” I paused. “Isn’t almost a million and a half dollars a lot for a bod… a piece of salvage?”
As Willis walked out, he glanced back at one of the suits smiling and shaking hands with the auctioneer.
“Yeah, and I bet the bastards are happy. I understand the stiff only had a million dollar policy. Normally the insurance guys are lucky to get back twenty-five percent of payout. You figure with the premiums that guy paid added to the salvage return, the insurer hit a home run on this one. Family offered to buy the body back from them for a hundred thou before the auction. Guess they almost got laughed out of the office. Ah, well. What could they have done with him anyway? Stick him in the ground and let him rot. Least now the parts will be recycled. Just too bad I couldn’t buy it.”
Sitting on a barstool, Willis nursed his beer and stared straight ahead.
I shifted uneasily on my stool, my beer untouched. My stomach was still a little queasy. I seldom deal with death so close up and personal. “So, how did the insurance companies get into the body business?”
“Funny. Me and Jeff got this whole thing rolling in the first place. His idea, my salesmanship. Convinced the insurance companies they was leavin’ money on the table by payin’ out on life insurance and lettin’ the family keep the body. They saw the light and got a law passed. Sold it as the concept that it kept the cost of insurance down. Said that whenever a car was insured and it was wrecked, they owned what was left after they paid off the insured. Same should hold true for life insurance. Went all the way to the Supreme Court, but they won. So now, if you want life insurance, ya gotta expect that your insurance company’s gonna have the salvage rights. If your body’s old and worn out or severely damaged, your family might keep the body for just a few bucks, but on a piece like the one this morning, it’s big money.”
“It seems pretty risky to pay so much out for a dead body. How do you make a profit on it?”
He sipped his beer and belched.
“Ya see, ya gotta figure up the basic parts and what they’re worth. Quick sell items, the heart, liver, kidneys, eyes, those are fast money and they’re worth a lot from a late model piece like that. I mean ya got some eighty-year old billionaire, he’s gonna spend a lot just to get a new heart. If he went through the channels for one from an uninsured piece, he’d be put on a waiting list at some hospital where some little kid gets a higher priority than him. This way there’s no lists, no hassles, no worries. Just money. But he’s got plenty of that and not much time.
“Shoot, if you’re lucky, ya could almost get a three-quarters of a mil for that heart. I had a buyer lined up for six fifty. The kidneys were goin’ for a hundred thou apiece and an alcoholic CEO ready to give two hundred and fifty for the liver. I knew the lungs were an easy hundred a piece. Ya see, this kid had never smoked or drank. Mighty rare commodity.”
“So the insurance company tells you all about the person’s history. I mean the salvage’s history. Isn’t that an invasion of privacy?”
“We don’t get no names, but facts about the condition up the ante for the insurance companies. Well, anyway, ya see I was gonna bid it to exactly what I had already pre-sold and the lung value. Figured I’d make my profit on the rest of the parts. Not a whole lot of market for arms and legs and such but they’ll keep awhile in the cooler. Have to market the eyes pretty quick, though. They don’t last long. Those are where my profit would have been. Anything more than that, it just wasn’t there. I think the Chinese guy was probably good for another two hundred and fifty, three hundred thou at least. The exchange rate’s in his favor right now, as well as the trade deficit. They only come in for the really prime salvage, though. It’s just when they do, watch out. They’re gonna walk away with it. I was glad the camel jockey made him pay. Now that it’s an international market, but I’m only set up for the good ol’ U.S. of A. It’s tough. The salvage biz is changing, I guess. We’ve gotta adapt or die.”
I stifled my smile. “Then you might end up as salvage yourself.”
Willis looked at me quizzically for a moment, then laughed. “Good one.”
I sipped my beer. Was I already becoming inured to the people who were salvage?
A week later, Willis called me.
“Ya gotta see this. Jeff just finished a whole new program. He’s a real whiz kid. Why, last year he computerized our dissecting section. I was hiring surgeons to do the dissecting so the parts weren’t damaged when we stripped the salvage. Jeff programmed a computer-controlled laser to do it better than any bone cutter. Our profit margin went up twenty-one percent on each unit. Not only that, we’ll pay for all that equipment in the first two years. Then it’ll be all profit.”
He took a breath.
“This time he really did it. We’ve gone worldwide. All I gotta do is link with my computer and tell it what I’m bidding on, what the salvage is and what parts are good. Jeff says the computer will scan the data banks, find the highest possible buyer for each part, contact the buyer, confirm the buy if we win the bid, figure what we will get for all parts sold, and add overhead and profit, then give me my highest bid. I can go toe-to-toe with the Chinese and the Arabs now. I’m on my way to a sale. Same place as before. Meet me there and you’ll see the ol’ parts man put it in action.”
I pulled into the parking lot. A damp, bone-chilling wind swept across it. The sky was dark and ominous, foreboding rain. It was not much warmer inside the gray building.
Willis was already there, in that sterile room of death. A handful of potential buyers were also there, as well as the auctioneer and some obvious insurance company representatives. The parts man was standing, looking at the body drawn out on the drawer. As I walked up, he was shaking his head with a disappointed expression on his face.
“Sheesh,” he sighed, as I walked up. “Talk about a bad bit of information. This is nothing but a piece of junk. I mean, just look at it.”
It was a woman, Caucasian, with unkempt blonde hair, short and probably about fifty pounds overweight. There was something sad in this forced immodesty of her naked, unclothed body. Most likely she would have been dreadfully embarrassed if she had been alive. The parts man would probably have been embarrassed to see her. Now she was only salvage, and not the best at that. It hurt me to see her reduced to such a state.
“I mean, look at it. Ya can tell by looking, it’s not prime merchandise. Not only that, she was a smoker and a heavy drinker. I mean lungs and liver are probably not worth a dime. To top it off, she had a heart attack. I mean, I’m wondering if I even want to waste my time on this. Well, at least I’ll show you how the new system works.”
He pulled out a phone with a screen about three inches square.
“Watch this. It’s all voice-actuated.”
Speaking into the phone, he described the piece of salvage. “Female, Caucasian, thirty-nine, five foot-two, one hundred seventy pounds, drinker,” and so forth.
On the screen appeared: Cornea – Eisenhower Medical Center, Palm Desert – ten thousand, Cornea – St. Mary’s Hospital, London – eight thousand, Kidney – Scripp’s, La Jolla – seventy-five hundred, Kidney – Mayo Clinic, Minnesota – seventy-five hundred.
Willis shook his head. “Man, this one’s hardly worth my time. The pre-sales are only twenty-three thou. Not much else usable, though. It says I can go to twenty. Oh well, let’s see what happens.”
The auctioneer stepped forward. “Okay, who’ll give me forty to start. Come on, forty to start. We’ve got a good piece of merchandise here. Forty to start. Who’ll give me forty? Forty to start.”
The auctioneer caught a bid over to his side. “I’ve got ten, I’ve got ten. Who’ll give me twenty, who’ll give me twenty? Fifteen, I’ve got fifteen over here. Fifteen on my right, fifteen on my right. Looking for the twenty, looking for the twenty. Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, eighteen five, eighteen five.”
The parts man signaled his interest with a twitched finger, raising the bid by five hundred dollars. He was a player.
“Eighteen five, now nineteen, nineteen five, twenty, twenty five, twenty five, twenty five, twenty-one.”
The parts man was out of the bidding and looked disgusted.
“Twenty-two, twenty-three. I have twenty-three. Any further advance? I’ll take twenty-three five.”
All of a sudden Willis pointed to his phone’s screen. A new buyer for a pancreas at seven thousand. He jumped back in the bidding.
“Twenty-three five. Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, twenty-nine, twenty-nine five, twenty-nine five. We’re at twenty-nine five, and now thirty.”
The auctioneer looked at Willis, but the parts man just stared at the floor. “We have thirty, thirty thousand. Are we done? Sold! Thirty thousand even to the buyer in the blue shirt.”
Willis glared at the high bidder, the Middle East man who was second-high bidder at the last auction. He leaned over to me.
“He must have some source that’s not on my network. Either that, or he just overbid the salvage. Either way, he’s got it. I hope he chokes on this one. Let’s get outta here.”
Just as we got to the double doors, Willis’ cell rang. He talked softly on it for a moment, then hung up and turned with a big grin on his face.
“A hot one just got here, prime merchandise. Brain aneurysm. Happened while the guy was at a gym. It was quick, but the paramedics got there in time to keep the body on life support. Brain dead, though. Big policy, so the insurance company wants to make sure they sell the salvage while everything’s still good. Young and healthy. We’re talking big bucks here.”
Once back in the auction room, Willis glanced at me. “Is your recorder on?”
I nodded as I hit the record button.
“Good. This is auction going to make your article.”
He excitedly punched information into his cell, watching his display screen.
“Look at this! I’m up to a three-quarter million sold so far, and I still have a lungs/heart combo that’ll drive it to a mil five for sure. That’s a safe bid! The insurance data on my email said this one’s absolutely A-one prime merchandise. Mid-twenties, athletic, never smoked, never drank, didn’t do drugs. I mean, were looking at a home run here. I’m getting confirmations from Japan, Germany and Sweden right now. This is a hard money deal. No pie-in-the-sky, hope-ya-make-a-buck bidding.”
A dozen or so other bidders were already in the room and more walking through the door. Both bidders who had topped the parts man at the previous auctions were there, but Willis didn’t seem to mind.
“I’ve tapped right into their markets this time. Not only that, I’m locking ’em out. Confirmed sales, if I win. I mean, I can deliver the goods right in their own backyard. We’re looking at global marketing. I wish Jeff could be her to see his work in action.”
The auctioneer looked at his watch, consulted the “suits”, and turned on his microphone. He pulled out the drawer so the bidders could view the salvage and began his description, the pump keeping the body’s blood flowing and a respirator mimicking the breath of life.
“All right, everyone. We have here a male, mid-twenties, good condition, never smoked, never drank …”
As the auctioneer droned his description of the salvage, Willis paled and grabbed the drawer, swaying.
The auctioneer glared at him. “Sir, please don’t handle the salvage unless you have bought it. You might contaminate it.”
Willis looked up, his lips tightly clamped and quivering. Tears rolled, unchecked, down mottled-red cheeks.
“But . . . but, it’s Jeff. This is Jeff.”
“You know the rules here. No names are to be given to the salvage.” The auctioneer turned to the gathering crowd. “Okay, who’ll give me five hundred to start? Five hundred thousand to start. Do I have five hundred? I’ve got three, three, now three-fifty, four, four, four and four-fifty. Looking for five, five. Who’ll give me five?”
For a few moments, Willis stood and stared and at the young man on the auction block. He started to reach out to him, but slowly withdrew his hand. I put my arm across his shoulder and started to guide him to the door.
“I’m really sorry. I can’t imagine how much of a shock this is,” I said in a soft voice. “Losing someone who meant so much to thou and now having him out there to bid like . . . .” A piece of meat? True, but too brutal to say to someone in the “meat” business.
Willis suddenly stopped, turned to the auctioneer and rubbed the right side of his nose. His opening bid.
He glanced over at me and softly said in a choked voice, “I think Jeff would have wanted it this way, having his system work.”
He paused for a moment.
“Parts is parts, ya know.”