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Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 15


Fluke was playing basketball against Mungo, Lester, Beezil, Slim, and Purple Hair. Time was running out when I took a no-look behind-the-back pass from Ann. At the final buzzer, as I arced away the game-deciding shot, a crunching elbow to the head knocked me down. The ball clanked off the rim.

I woke up depressed.

The floor had leeched the warmth from my body. I breathed deeply, inched my arms under me, and pushed myself up onto my hands and knees, like a sailor washed ashore after a shipwreck.

My awareness came in stages. Was I still in a basketball arena? No. I was in the Suite Night Hotel. Did I run into something? Long, careful thought. No. The back of my head hurts. What then? Aha. Somebody hit me from behind. Now I was clear-headed enough to know I should be alarmed. Someone could be standing over me with an Uzi machine gun. Yet, I could muster up only a mild concern.

I fought my way to a cross-legged sitting position and checked my watch. Five a.m. I'd been sleeping facedown on the floor nearly three hours. I felt my pockets: the outline of my wallet and the key I'd found in the door.

Getting up was a mistake. My head spun and I sat down backward. The sudden movement set pain whirring.

After several minutes, I wobbled up and turned on the light. The room looked as if someone had picked it up and shaken it. The bed, the chair, and the television were tipped over. Drawers stuck out from the teetering dresser like tongues trying to tell me something. Underwear, socks, and T-shirts were strewn everywhere. The mattress was slit open and stuffing pulled out. Even the door to the refrigerator was open.

At first I figured my ex-wife had sent her lawyer over for another round. Then I checked my wallet. Thirty-four dollars. Skidmark Murphy would never have left cash behind.

With the uncertainty of a baby's first steps, I walked to Ann's door and knocked.

She wore a filmy flesh-colored nightgown with white overtones, its neckline showing some freckles at her throat.

"Good morning. What happened to you?"

"Got clubbed like a baby seal. Someone ransacked--"

Ann pushed past me. I wobbled after her to my room, where she already was looking around at the chaos. The room hadn't been burglarized; it had been searched. And the ransacker hadn't found what he'd been looking for, unless he found it in the very last place he thought to look, which seemed improbable, except that it happens to me a lot.

"No thief did this," I said.

"Who then?"

I thumbed the money in my wallet. "Don't know, but in this neighborhood, thirty-four dollars would be a nice haul. Maybe Richard's gunman?"

"Sure. He might've been looking for something he thought Richard had, and thinks you now have."

"Or he might be trying to scare us off."

"Or perhaps staying two days in this neighborhood, without being savagely violated, is simply pushing the odds."

I headed for the fridge.

"Breakfast?"

"Please. I'm famished."

"It won't be fancy. I have a bachelor's cooking skills--throw food at the stove, eat it, then clean up."

"I'll help."

Ann held the wastebasket as I took from the refrigerator all the food the intruder might have touched--bread in aluminum foil even though it didn't appear to have been tampered with, a jar of pickles with a screw-on top, several other items which, like every other product currently sold in the United States including Drano, were marked "Low Cholesterol."

All that remained was an unopened box of pancake mix and a Weight Watchers frozen entree. Since the Weight Watchers entree was a convenient product that came right out of the box with most of the food already eaten for you, we settled on pancakes.

The telephone rang.

"You still looking for a white Celica?"

"You've seen it?"

"There still a reward?"

"Absolutely. Who is this?"

"Sam Johnson. Johnson's Auto Repair. How much?"

"Two tickets to the Patriots-Steelers playoff game. Forty-eight yard line."

"No kidding? Thing is, I don't know whose it is, I've only seen it, near the hospital, coming and going. I'm a big Patriots fan."

"I'll drop the tickets off today."

"I'll be waiting."

"I'm going to visit Richard," I said as we finished breakfast. "He might know whether he has anything worth killing for. Then I'll drop off the football tickets and scout around for the Celica. Care to join me?"

"Can't. I'm not certain if your getting clubbed is related to the Laurel mission, but I need to call every A.L.F. member and find out if anything else suspicious happened last night. If we're under attack, the mission goes on hold."

"But if the mission is delayed, the rabbits will die."

"It won't be an easy decision. Give Richard my best. I'll catch up with you later." The shadows of her nightgown shimmered and dissolved as she moved through the doorway.

* * *

I called Mervyn at the Lobster.

"Remember the night Richard was shot? You talked with a reporter in a brown leather coat."

"Slim? Sure. Mostly chitchat. Plus one question he knew I wouldn't answer: if I would point out anyone in the A.L.F. Said he was waiting for an A.L.F. member."

"Anything else?"

"He'd just come from the Stagger Back Inn. City inspectors are cracking down hard there. Code violations. Gillis has been fighting city hall and losing. Now he's got money problems and he's drinking again."

"So that's why suddenly he's uptight about competition. Any inspectors been digging around the Lobster?"

"No."

"I wonder what made them go after the Stagger Back, aside from the fact that it looks less like a lounge than an upholstered sewer?"

Mervyn's voice dropped to a whisper. "You know Petey, the waitress? She tipped them off. Anonymously."

"How'd she know about code violations?"

"Petey dated Mungo a couple of times, until he slapped her once. Lester was right there and joked, 'What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?' He paused. 'Nothing. You already told her twice.' Petey was so mad she called the city and told them Lester'd rewired the place without a permit. Turned out it was all to code because he was an electronics expert in the army and knew what he was doing, but the city made him tear it out anyway."

"Did Lester ever find out that Petey turned him in?"

"Doubt it. She's still breathing."

"Mervyn, thanks. I'll see you later."

"Whatever you're doing, Clark, be careful."

Next I looked up Blat in the phone book and found only one, Edith. I called her.

"Do you know Chas Blat?"

"Yes, sir, I do."

"May I talk with you about Chas?"

"Yes, sir, you may."

I took a taxi. Edith was a grand old lady, dressed formally although she didn't appear to be going anywhere. She offered me tea and finger cakes, and shared fond memories of her great-nephew Chas. She'd moved out of Cavalry with her husband, then returned last year after he died. Her information about Chas ended when he was three, joyously splashing through puddles, walking with her husband and their basset. Every memory Edith shared was tied intimately to a memory of her husband. She was old and lonely, and I stayed an hour. I managed to say good-bye without promising to come back and visit. Maybe I would anyway.

The hospital's receptionist scolded me for not bringing Hoover.

The nurse behind the desk on Richard's floor wore a badge that said SUPERVISOR.

"Richard Tipton," I said.

"Go ahead, he already has a visitor."

I hadn't seen the van in the parking lot. Who else can it be?

But Richard was alone, propped up asleep against pillows, feeding off five-percent dextrose. He was hooked to a monitor that transformed impulses into waveforms that looked as if they belonged on his sound-sampling keyboard oscilloscope. I tiptoed past his bed and cracked one of the windows open to a thin stream of frigid December air.

I sat and held his hand, but he was too deep in sleep or too drugged to acknowledge me. When I lowered his hand back onto the bed, I nearly leapt up out of my chair. Curled on the sky-blue sheet was a four-inch strand of purple hair.

I went back to the nurses' station. "Who was the other visitor?"

An alarm went off. The supervisor looked at her console, shot me a glance, then ran off towards Richard's room. I followed.

The room filled with doctors and nurses. Commands were barked, syringes were pumped. I stood in the middle like some startled animal until a nurse ushered me out.

I paced, occasionally exchanging glances with an elderly gentleman who kept checking his watch, both of us wired to detonate. I wanted to comfort him, share his grief, but I didn't. Didn't want to lose my focus on Richard. As if it mattered.

A face appeared in front of mine--the nurse.

"What happened?" I asked.

"We're not sure. His heart almost stopped."

"Is he okay now?"

"Adrenaline brought him back. He regained consciousness for a few minutes, then fell asleep. You'll probably be able to see him tomorrow."

"Who visited him before I did?"

She looked at me like I'd wandered down the hall from the Head-trauma wing.

"We don't give out that kind of information, sir."

I'm not especially good at confrontation. I'm better at trying to please and then resenting it. She pointed her finger to the door. Under my breath, I ranted and raved. Fortunately for her, I am one of those odd Americans who doesn't always carry a loaded handgun, so she was able to sneer at my ranting with impunity.

Outside, as I passed the Paul Revere fountain, I gazed down at my reflection. My eyes were deep black holes and I appeared to have sharper cheekbones than I really did.

I couldn't guard the hospital day and night. I needed to track down Purple Hair.

Pinned on Sam Johnson's office wall were three Patriot posters. He was elated with the playoff tickets.

"Yeah, I saw the kid in the Toyota this morning. This time I noticed his hair. Odd color. It seemed to change shades as he drove by."

"Thanks, Sam. Go Patriots!"

I spent an hour walking streets around Johnson's. No white Celica. Getting cold, I gave up and headed home, down Washington Street.

At Firebone's Used Cars, I stopped. There, under frozen crossing stringers of yellow, white, and red plastic pennants, amongst cars ranging from old VW's to full-sized vans, was a white Celica with a fresh metallic scar carved along the rear fender. Why would he park here? Maybe he worried I'd seen his license plate and reported a hit-and-run. When the police came to arrest him, he'd declare the car had been stolen.

Reality knocked me flat. I had no proof Purple Hair intentionally ran me off the road. Nor did I have a motive. I peered inside the Celica, looking for clues. From behind me, I heard a voice, "Hey! You! Looking for trouble?"

I was.

Hatful of Pain 16

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