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Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 14


Heading in the direction from which darkness was descending, Ann and I took Hoover back to his doctor for a follow-up visit.

While waiting at Dr. Dean's kitchen table, Ann opened Wednesday's Examiner and started laughing. She handed me the paper--another Twitchle article, this one with a photo of me. I desperately wanted to believe it had been electronically altered.

I looked as if I'd spent a week doing sit-ups under parked cars. My eyes seemed impossible without intoxication, drug use, lack of sleep, or psychopathy. The tone of the article matched the photo--I was obsessed with chasing an unknown assailant, and all citizens in the county should watch out for me driving through their neighborhood shooting a gun out the window.

I tossed the paper on the floor where it landed like a half-collapsed tent. Ann picked it up, folded it so my photo was on top, and started laughing again.

For the next few minutes, every time I made eye contact with her, she laughed hysterically. I decided this constituted excessive mirth at my expense.

"It's not that funny."

"You're right, it's not." Then she looked at me and slid off into hysterics again.

My eyes teared as I choked out again that it wasn't that funny.

Dr. Dean came out of the examining room.

"He's doing pretty well, but there is some swelling. You mind leaving him with me for observation?"

We said a long good-bye to Hoover. Outside, Ann and I got into an old Dodge she'd borrowed. Possibly metallic brown at one time, it was now the color of mustard gone bad. She drove.

The parking lot of the Lobster was full. We circled the block to look for a spot and got stuck in traffic by a church. A glass case containing white letters on a black background listed the topics of the next sermon (essentially, all the things people like to do). A limousine pulled out in front of us with JUST MARRIED painted on the trunk. Traffic started to move.

"So, what spoiled your marriage, Clark?" Ann asked.

"It hit an underwater stump and sunk. There's a spot." To my relief, Ann shifted her attention to parallel parking on ice.

I held onto my baseball cap as the wind propelled us toward the Lobster. The GRAND OPENING sign hung a little askew. At the door, Chas greeted us in a tuxedo. He seemed to have gained at least five pounds since I'd last seen him.

"Great to see you," he said. "Thanks for coming."

I handed him the five-dollar cover charge. He waved it away as if fighting off a swarm of bees.

I wanted to ask him who had reopened the Lobster, and why Fluke hadn't been invited to audition, but the next group of people arrived at the door, and besides, his scars reminded me that he was an ex-con and no stranger to violence.

Inside was the fevered excitement one expects only at championship heavyweight fights. People were three deep at the bar and booths lining the walls were packed. On the dance floor, if my math was correct, 3.6 whomptillion people were frantically dancing to the beat of Geezer Fever. Geezer's youngest member was over seventy. Their lead singer had skin like leather, blue eyes buried in a mess of laugh lines, and shocks of white hair pointing every which way. Einstein enjoying a bad hair day.

Ann headed for the stage. I headed for the bar until I recognized a group of teenagers from the night Richard was shot. I hovered on the fringe of their conversation.

"Heard about the shooting?" said a girl.

"Yeah. Cool, huh?" replied her friend. "Maybe he'll strike again."

Throughout the evening I divided my time between eavesdropping and keeping an eye on Ann. At ten minutes to midnight she began lounging near the EMPLOYEES ONLY door. Chas was standing near the bar watching her. He waved his hand, conjured up a Snickers bar, and caressed it twice before unwrapping it the way one undresses a lover for the first time. When Ann slipped into the back, Chas was so surprised he almost stopped chewing. He glanced at his watch, loosened his collar, walked to the door, and wedged through the doorway.

My stomach went on spin cycle.

I moved to the door, eased through, stopped and listened--nothing. I stalked down the hallway and rounded a corner into a narrower, darker corridor. I heard a noise--Ann's voice from Richard's office. I peered around the doorway into the office.

Chas, his back to me, was holding Ann's hands away from a brass letter opener lying between them on the desk. Ann tugged at her hands as though unable to understand why they did not move as she wished.

Adrenaline tore through my veins.

I began sneaking up behind Chas, step by step.

Ann glanced up and saw me. Her eyes gaped, giving away my presence, but she recovered her poise and forced her eyes back down. Her action was too deliberate.

Chas stood, turned, and leaned forward like a mountainous cresting wave about to break. My first instinct was to kneel and pray. Instead, head down, I plowed straight into him. Before I could blink, he'd seized both Ann's head and mine, like footballs, one under each powerful arm--tight enough to let me know that if he wanted to, he could compress my head into a dumpling with just one flex of his biceps.

Many wrestling opponents had fashioned me into that position and I had escaped. All I had to do was grab Chas with my legs and twist hard until he lost balance. But I was staring directly at bloodstains and shotgun pellets in the splintered wall and something rustled in the back of my mind like a wild thing hiding in the bushes, but it was crouching so still I couldn't make it out.

Abruptly, Chas released us. "Now, tell me," he said, moving between me and the door, thereby thwarting my first plan. "What do you think you're doing?"

Ann spoke first, stretching her neck to loosen it.

"We figure whoever reopened the Lobster shot Richard to get it."

The flesh around Chas's scars grew whiter.

"I reopened the bar. But I didn't shoot Richard--"

"Sure," I muttered. I had not wanted it to sound as doubtful as it did.

"You saying you don't believe me?"

"Not at all." Why would I choose those as my last words?

"Why did you attack me?"

"Point one," I said, "you're an ex-con for reasons unknown. Two, you had a motive--financial gain from the bar. Three, you had the best opportunity. You were first to reach Richard, and you might have gone to the hospital to ensure he didn't tell us anything. Four, when Richard was shot, I was outside in the parking lot. No one ran past me with a shotgun, but you could have hidden the shotgun inside and removed it later. Dudley saw you return after the cops left."

Chas put his hands to his head and squeezed lightly, as if testing a cantaloupe for ripeness. Suddenly I knew the significance of the pellets in the wall. Their height. "And five," I said, "Richard was shot in the face and the chest. The wall behind him was splintered knee-high. There was only one blast, which means it was fired downward by someone very tall. Like you."

"Keep it up," Chas sighed heavily, "and I'll find my own self guilty. It's true I reopened the club illegally, but only until I earned enough money to give Richard all the hospital care he needs, and to pay the Lobster's mortgage. That's why I hired the Geezers. To save money." He threw himself onto the couch.

Ann asked, "Doesn't Richard have health insurance?"

"No. But in about a week I should be able to pay his bills." Chas squirmed around on the couch, unable to find a position that fit. "Unless, that is, you have me arrested--"

"Chas!" Mervyn appeared in the doorway, ashen. "Two cops are outside. They say they want to talk to you."

"Damn!" Chas said, fingering a scar on his forehead. "They wanted this crime scene secured, but they usually ignore this side of town. Lester knows I'm on probation, he must have called them." His eyes darted around the room. No windows. No closets. "Looks like this was a bad mistake."

"Maybe you can escape," Mervyn whispered. He glanced at Ann and me, his eyes pleading as he backed out the door and closed it. "I think he's in the kitchen, officers."

"Who's in there?"

"Just two of the band members."

Chas crouched behind the desk, which hid only part of him. I stood in front of the desk, hoping to conceal the rest of him, but it was futile.

A slight brushing noise against the door froze me. As the handle turned, Ann moved in front of me and, to my wonderment, pushed me backward onto the desk and dove on top of me.

CRASH! The door burst wide open.

A deep male voice stammered, "Wha . . . excuse me, sorry . . ." Then he sighed with annoyance and shut the door. Through the door, I heard him say, "I'll check the storage room. Meet you in the kitchen."

Chas rose. "Thanks."

I vaulted to the door and looked both ways. "All clear."

Chas's huge forehead puckered in puzzlement, "That was really nice of you guys. Why'd you do it?"

"Go!" I said.

Chas waited for an answer. I tried pulling him toward the door, but I might as well have tried pulling the door toward him.

Ann answered: "We helped you because it means now you owe us. We like that trait in a person."

Chas smiled and left, then Ann and I walked through the lounge, outside, and across the parking lot.

"That was quick thinking," I said.

"Thanks."

I opened the car door on the driver's side. Ann got in and slid across the seat, inviting me to drive. I got in and twisted the key. The engine shuddered in the cold, then turned over.

"Why did Chas grab you?"

"I guess he didn't like me going through Richard's desk. When he barged in on me I panicked and grabbed a letter opener. Huge mistake, solidly in my all-time top ten. But then I looked up and like a miracle, you appeared in the doorway."

"I'm glad Chas didn't want to hurt us. I'd prefer to be dropped from a great height onto rotating helicopter blades."

The Dodge plowed through fast-falling snow, the windshield wipers clicking and clacking to different beats.

"Since we helped Chas escape," Ann said, "I gather neither of us believe he shot Richard."

Suddenly I realized what poor judgement I'd used. I had helped Chas because I liked him. As simple as that. But how many times had I watched a television news reporter interviewing the neighbors of a mass murderer: "I can't believe he did it." "He was such a nice man."

"I figure there's no way Chas could have shot Richard."

"Really?" Hope was in her voice.

"No time. He never stopped eating."

Ann punched my shoulder. "He was involved somehow. Lester left a message for him on Richard's answering machine, 'Do exactly as I told you, or I won't protect your friends in the A.L.F.'"

I stopped at a red light. "How's that possible? Chas isn't an A.L.F. member."

"Maybe he was."

"Doubtful. Even in disguise Chas would've been as inconspicuous as Smuffy on a slice of angel-food."

Ann pointed ahead. The light had turned green and vehicles behind us were sliding past.

"So why does Lester think Chas cares about the A.L.F.?"

"Maybe it's 'blackmailer versus blackmailer'. When Mungo saw Chas in the Lobster, he reacted as if he'd swallowed a bottle cap. Maybe Chas has something on him." I stopped at a stop sign a block from the Suite Night. "I'll ask Chas tomorrow. Assuming I can find him."

"Maybe Richard was shot because he was protecting the A.L.F. and he wouldn't be blackmailed."

The thought that Richard was shot while protecting us jarred me. I slammed the Dodge into a random gear and we went kangarooing down the block, coming to a final bounce and stop in front of the Suite Night.

Ann and I went past the sleeping desk clerk, then upstairs. After I said good-night, I watched Ann go into her room and heard the click of her lock.

As I approached my room, I noticed a key in the lock. I squatted and examined it, then pulled it out. It looked like a key to another room--maybe someone had gotten confused. I listened for a minute before unlocking the door. Feeling less fearful than paranoid, I reached in with my right hand, switched on the light, and pushed the door gently. Except for snow brushing against the window, the room stood silent. So silent I imagined hearing Smuffy communicating with unseen spiders moving in dark corners.

I took one step inside.

I heard a faint swoosh behind me.

Later I was able to recall only jagged pieces of consciousness.

The sound of something going crunch on my head.

The sight of my keys leaving my hand, arcing away.

The taste of linoleum.

But I don't remember closing my eyelids and going nighty-night.

Hatful of Pain 15

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