Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain Chapter 1
I drove the van slowly, scanning the street signs reflected in my headlights. Behind me, ragged dark clouds flew like witches among faint stars and a thin moon. I was just ahead of a snowstorm that hadn't been predicted, and its flashes of lightning sparked a danger sign in my mind.
I cut the headlights, cut the motor, and coasted to a stop across the street from the Mischievous Motel. The three-story building sat between a deserted pool hall and a rundown tenement.
I pulled my wig down just over my forehead, topped it with a Boston Red Sox cap, and double-checked the contents of my paper bag.
After a brewery truck rumbled by, I stepped out of the van to an audience of eight or nine kids sneering and making wisecracks. I felt them sizing me up.
I'm six-one and was a varsity wrestler for Boston College, but my slight limp and baby face don't exude the authority necessary for survival in dark alleys, rough bars, or newly opened express checkout lanes.
"Hey, thanks for the van."
"Washing it should disguise it."
"Don't hurry back."
I couldn't let the kids distract me. I dashed across the icy street, fighting the wind.
When I passed the darkened entrance of Hammer's Pool Hall, I tripped over the legs of a man sitting on the cold pavement. He was propped against a bent metal grocery cart full of garbage bags. His pockets were turned inside out. He didn't bother to look up.
I hesitated over him, feeling a strange bond between us, a peculiar sort of camaraderie. Yes, my clothes appeared to have some pharmaceutical explanation--but it was more than that. In him I saw an image of every outsider who'd ever lived, myself included. Outsiders hoping someday it might occur to the general populace, perhaps while they're stepping over some man on the sidewalk who could soon be lying in the ragged coffin of his own frozen body, that the system just may not be working.
I set down my paper bag, pulled out my wallet and dropped all my cash--forty dollars--into his lap. I was encouraged when he stuffed the bills into his shirt pocket (recently a homeless lady had taken a bill from me, stuffed it into her moist mouth, and chewed it with salivating relish). The man looked up, mouth ajar, eyes wet. I think he'd been crying. He couldn't have been much older than me, maybe thirty, but he looked like a very old man.
If he could have endured any eye-to-eye contact, he might have taken the chance and smiled at me. As it was, he nodded slightly and returned his gaze to the ground.
"I'll be back soon." I have to go. Honest.
I picked up my paper bag and stepped around him. Before heading into the alley I checked my watch. 11:59:30. In thirty seconds a homeless-looking man should give me a signal.
Fifty yards ahead of me a man with an overcoat buttoned up to his chin staggered into a trashcan. I think he said, "Excuse me, ma'am." Two women in miniskirts and fur coats who'd been loitering on the corner approached him. One of them gave him something. I waited for him to signal to me, but instead he shuffled away. 12:01:18. Something was wrong.
Backing into the shadows, I looked toward the man sitting in the entrance of the pool hall. Surely he wasn't the operative. But who else could it be?
I peered into the shadows of the alley one last time. A human figure was emerging and straightening from what a moment before had appeared to be only a large pile of trash. He brushed himself off, then nodded at me.
I signaled to a solitary figure pacing on the roof of the tenement, then headed into the alley between a battered hurricane fence and the motel. Several windows were lit. In one, a woman wearing only a red lace brassiere was sitting on the lap of a man in a Santa Claus costume. I ducked and ran past it.
Sixty yards into the alley I flexed my fingers and tugged on the frosted railing of a fire escape. It felt sturdy. I hoped so. All I could see to break my fall were greasy fast-food wrappers swirling after each other.
The large paper bag clenched between my teeth made climbing awkward. Two stories up, I slipped on an icy rung. Dangling by my arms in the wind, all my muscles tightened--my hands so I wouldn't fall, my jaw so I wouldn't drop the bag, my sphincter so I wouldn't soil my pants. Finally, I found the rung with my feet and kept going.
As I pulled myself up onto the snowy roof, I inhaled a mouthful of stale frying fat fumes billowing from the exhaust of the motel's coffee shop. I worked my way through the smoke and across the slippery roof to the far edge. Keeping my eyes on the horizon, I took a walkie-talkie from my pocket and checked its channel.
Next, I pulled out my binoculars. Three miles east, I saw the Atlantic Ocean. Moving slowly, the top of the mast of a cargo iceboat disappeared behind the golden steeple of a church. I focused on the Terrig Corporation Animal Test Lab, one block down Terrig Street. Next, I scouted for police cars. I saw fire escapes of nearby buildings, and a beer sign's blinking yellow light. In the distance, dark purple clouds marked a rapidly moving squall line.
I checked my watch--forty seconds left. No time to figure out what complications the storm might bring. I keyed my walkie-talkie.
Slowly, a white van pulled around the corner. Black lettering stenciled on its rear doors read ABC LAUNDRY SERVICE. It stopped in front of the Terrig Test Lab and two operatives sprang out. Lab coats and sanitary face masks disguised them as laboratory technicians. Using a key, they entered the building through the front door.
I blew on my icy fingertips, then focused the binoculars on the van. The rear doors opened. A ramp lowered. An operative wheeled an industrial-size laundry cart down the ramp, onto the street, and into the Test Lab at a pace suggesting more at stake than brighter whites.
I continued watching the cross streets. Four rumpled men sat on a snow-cleared curb warming themselves in steam rising from a sewer grating.
Wind slapped at my jacket. I waited for the operative to return.
Two minutes later, he came out of the lab pushing the cart slowly. My binoculars revealed a full cargo of bloody lab coats. From beneath the coats, cries of fear carried in the wind and stirred rage that rippled along my spine. I rubbed the back of my neck, massaging the knots my muscles had twisted themselves into.
From inside the van an assistant emerged and pulled the heavy cart slowly up the ramp. The operative raced another empty cart down the ramp and into the Test Lab. A few minutes later, puffing hard into the frigid air, he returned with the second cart full.
The van drove away leaving two operatives inside the lab. Sixty seconds later, I keyed the walkie-talkie.
A second van, twin to the first, arrived from the opposite direction. Two more laundry carts were shuttled in. I moved carefully across the roof. My van was surrounded by kids with tattoos, boot camp haircuts, and broken-glass expressions, casually plotting their lives of crime.
Snow started falling. I wiped moisture from the binoculars and scanned the streets. One block north, as out of place as a ski mask in a bank, was a late model car. A white Toyota. Braking repeatedly, its driver rapidly twisted his head left and right, perhaps aware that if he turned down the wrong street, his car and he would be spare parts and Alpo before he could shift into reverse. From my perch, the car looked like a white rat lost in a maze.
Two vans had come and gone without incident and a third identical van arrived as the wind swung to the north. With the changing wind, new sounds emerged from the night. Swirling in their center was the wail of a police siren. Sirens were part of the music of the city, day and night, but this was close.
Headlights broke the darkness of Terrig Street. I keyed my walkie-talkie.
"Tell it," a voice huffed. "Tell it fast." In the background I heard metal cages being pried open.
"Hazard one," I said, then cued my brother stationed on the far side of Terrig, "Diversion A. Hit it."
A police cruiser, lights flashing, rolled up behind the van. I hoped that the operatives in the van wouldn't resist arrest, but they might. Perhaps they hadn't learned, as I did two years ago, to put your hands on top of your head to avoid the unpleasant experience of getting shot first and questioned afterward.
My resultant limp is almost gone. However, my leg ached a little in tonight's cold.
A hand-held searchlight from the police cruiser shined on the license plate of the van. Suddenly, a burglar alarm began shrieking. The cruiser pulled around the van, fishtailed slightly, then raced away.
Diversion 'A', never before attempted, had worked.
During the loading of the eighth and final van, snow began falling faster. The connection between the unforeseen snow and impending danger flashed once more across my mind.
I snapped the binoculars to my eyes and focused on the rear doors of the van. The "Y" of ABC LAUNDRY was dripping. I focused on the license plate. The "E" was bleeding, changing back to its original "L."
Police backup was surely on the way. We had to get the van out of there.
Too late! The piercing sound of a police siren tied a knot in my stomach. I keyed my walkie-talkie.
"Second hazard one."
A cruiser turned down Terrig Street. As it slowed, the pitch of its engine lowered. It sounded hungry. Feral.
I panicked and ignored code. "Police. Hold still."
I pressed the cold metal receiver against my forehead to keep from yelling into it. The cruiser's headlights were diffused by snow that seemed not to be reflecting light but glowing with a radiance of its own.
"Ten-four," a soft female voice said. Kristin. Good. She wouldn't make any mistakes. Although only twenty years old, she was an experienced operative.
The cruiser's searchlight lit up as the car rolled to a stop directly behind the van. The beam shined on the van's rear doors, then traced the paint flowing downward in river patterns.
The light flicked off, the doors opened, and two giant cops wearing yellow rain ponchos climbed out of the cruiser and stalked the van. They looked as if they could lift it off the ground and play catch with it.
"Team three: start Diversion B in sixty seconds."
I would need the full minute. I hoped Kristin would wait inside the lab and perfectly time her escape--and that the driver of the van wouldn't panic and leave without her.
I reached into my paper bag and removed a radio-controlled model Cobra helicopter. I positioned it on the roof, then checked its payload. Muted by a Whisper Tech muffler, its engine wouldn't be heard above the wind and the rattling of the coffee shop's exhaust fan. After testing the controls, I lifted it off. Stabilized by a gyro, it rose twenty yards straight up, then propelled forward into the threatening sky.
As I zeroed it in on a final approach down Terrig Street, the wind rocked it hard. I struggled to keep it upright. The Cobra had to be steady when its bay doors opened or it would shake and lose altitude. Impatient, I kept shifting the controls from one hand to the other, fingering the button that releases the payload.
One of the cops peered in the rear window of the van. His partner took off a glove, then wiped at the "ABC." Moving decisively now, he shoved his glove back on and began rounding the van, shouting something that made his partner start going around the far side.
Cutting the speed of the Cobra, I maneuvered it into position less than a yard above the police cruiser. From that point, I lifted it straight up about fifty yards and stabilized the controls. When the Cobra seemed steady, I released the payload. Two dozen clear glass marbles rained down on the metal trunk.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Even a block away it sounded like gunfire.
Both cops spun, drew their guns, and went into a crouch, frantically yelling things I couldn't make out. They crouch-hopped toward the cruiser, springing up and down as if riding short, invisible ponies, waving guns in all directions.
I keyed my walkie-talkie. It triggered a gunshot that rang in the distance.
The cops scrambled into the cruiser, U-turned, and drove down Terrig Street shining their light into every dark corner along the way.
Unhindered, the van drove off.
I worked the next several minutes bringing the Cobra in to a safe landing. Then I returned to the edge of the icy roof.
I had not seen Kristin escape. Maybe she slipped away while I was landing the Cobra. I keyed my mike.
A popping noise came through the speaker, followed by the chugging sound of the van's engine. The driver's voice held a rasp of excitement. "Smashing aerial show, Captain. Thanks for pulling my chestnuts out of the fire."
The unexpected humor loosened the knot in my stomach.
"You're welcome. Is everyone accounted for?"
I repeated my question.
Again no answer.
I thumped the walkie-talkie to make sure the batteries were in place.
Still no answer. The night suddenly seemed darker and colder.
The silence was broken by the shriek of skidding tires. The police cruiser with the cops in yellow ponchos was rounding the corner and it squealed to a halt in front of Terrig Corporation.
After charging out of the cruiser the cops stared open-mouthed at the spot where the van had been parked minutes before. Then they jumped along the street, kicking at slush puddles and flapping like giant yellow bats.
I waited. The storm blackened the sky. The golden steeple of the church went monochromatic before disappearing altogether.
After the cops finally left, I climbed down the fire escape.
Keeping a wary eye on the shadows, I made my way through the alley, then onto the slushy sidewalk. Wind lashed the snow in waves. I glanced toward Hammer's Pool Hall and hesitated. I felt bad about not returning to the homeless man in the entranceway.
I'll help him later. Something seemed to have gone wrong with the mission. Head down, I crossed the street.
All four tires of my van were still inflated, and all the hubcaps were still there. The gang hadn't been feeling playful.
They were, however, watching me like buzzards watch a dying horse crossing the desert. One thin punk, his face decorated as if he'd just removed it from a tackle box, was leaning on the van. Behind me, someone shouted a nasty anatomical name popular with guys who like to sound tough.
I kept walking. Did they think I had money? Was I on their turf?
From every direction, I heard whistles and movement. The gang was mobilizing. Shit creek seemed to have claimed me. A paddle wouldn't help.
The gang was almost on me. I saw glints of reflected light and heard Switchblades snicking open.
I ran, anticipating the punk leaning on the van would block my path.
Ghostlike, he went backward, fusing into shadows.
I didn't realize how relieved I was to reach my van until I climbed inside and was overcome with emotion and the yearning to softly kiss my steering wheel. Then came the sinking feeling the gang's calmness was due to their knowledge that my van's engine was resting on the sidewalk behind them. And I wasn't going anywhere.
I ground the starter, gave the engine too much gas, and was surprised when it growled to life somewhere under a cloud of smoke. I wasn't sure whether the engine was running or on fire, but I put it in gear.
Curious about why the gang had let me go, I rolled down my window and looked back. The gang was skillfully melding into the night, and racing toward me was a carnival of whirling red and white lights.