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Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 16


In the cold Atlantic wind his purple hair danced wildly beneath carnivorous eyes you'd expect to see in the jungle, casing you from behind a clump of foliage.

"Kiss your ass good-bye!"

Not even if I could. "What's the problem here?"

"You killed my girlfriend!"

Bill was right, Purple Hair had been an A.L.F. member. I'd spotted his car the night Kristin died. She'd probably been expecting him to pick her up.

"Who are you?"

"Brett Tarbatz." He moved closer. "Don't bother trying to remember. You won't remember your own name after I kick your spine out the top of your head."

He was at least twenty pounds heavier than me, about ten years younger, and pumped with anger. I was in trouble. I'd recently needed Ann's help to get the best of an aging newspaper reporter. I remembered something the TV detective Simon once said, "Talk tough enough and it's as good as landing the first punch."

I tried to look sadistic. "Don't come even a half step closer unless you want your tongue braided!" Sheesh! That sounds like something girls do at slumber parties. I'll have to work on my threats.

As Brett shook his head in disbelief, I made a fist and hit him square on his beefy nose. He slipped, bounced off his car, and went down like a Caucasian heavyweight.

I hoped he'd stay down, but I knew from his eyes he was going to spring at me. As he was coming to a crouch, I swung. He twisted sideways, making me miss. Momentum carried my body too close to his and he smashed his meaty fist just under my lowest rib the way a wrecking crew with a swinging ball smashes buildings. I crumbled.

I looked up from the lotus position.

Brett grabbed me by the throat and I popped him in the face. No weight behind it, just arm. Pain shot through my shoulder when I connected. He fell on his butt on the pavement.

I stood, but my knees started to give way. When I tried to lock them, I wavered like a newborn colt.

Brett rose more quickly than I expected, wiped blood from his nose and started toward me. I faced him, on the balls of my feet. We were both circling, the distance between us just longer than a kick. Moving in, he hit me with a left cross. Quick to swing, he was slow to get ready. He swung and missed. This time, before he readied, I moved in, hit him hard twice in the gut and twice in his face.

He went down on one knee.

I leaned back on the hood of the car, letting life drain back into me.

"Why do you blame me?"

"I can't breathe." His croaking wheeze corroborated his statement. "We believed in the A.L.F. We knew we could go to jail. No one told us we could die."

"The A.L.F. targets only equipment like decapitators and electrode implanters. Not buildings we aren't certain are free of all life. Her death, though tragic, was her own fault. You can't blame the A.L.F."

"Her father and I blame you."

"So you leaked the A.L.F.'s secrets to Beezil!"

"Damned right!" A bull pawing dust couldn't have looked more belligerent. "Anything to keep another innocent girl from dying. I was going to tell the press. Told Mr. Twitchle to meet me at the Lobster."

"Why'd you jump onto the stage?"

"I was angry and wanted to give Slim a negative story to print about Fluke."

I raised my voice. "Did you shoot Richard?"

"I hate you all! I wanted to kill you. I followed you, ran you off the road, sneaked poison into the hospital--"

Poison! I ran.

Inside the hospital, I took the stairs two at a time. The nurse on Richard's floor told me I couldn't go into Richard's room. I ignored her, but she cut me off, then touched the welt on my cheek. "Dear God, those are fresh welts. What kind of trouble do you keep getting into? Come with me."

"I'm okay. I need to know if a visitor could have caused Richard's heart to falter by poisoning his dextrose?"

"No one would do that," she started to turn but saw the look in my eyes and halted as suddenly as if I'd stepped from behind a bush and grabbed her arm.

"Is it possible?" I asked.

"The monitor alerts us of all tampering."

"Tampering has happened before?"

Her expression softened. "Men have tried to add alcohol to their own bags."

I left the hospital and cut through George's Cemetery where a strong cold wind brought ice crashing down from tree branches.

Brett and the Toyota were gone.

As my adrenaline subsided I began to feel the full measure of the damage Brett had inflicted. In my head. My neck. My lower back. My hands. There was one spot below my left eye that felt okay, but pretty much everything else hurt.

I headed for the Suite Night. My right knee throbbing in time with the beating of my heart, my aching muscles stiffening with the cold, soon I was lurching like Boris Karloff in one of his cheaper movies.

A police car passed me, driven by the same boneless policeman who'd interrogated me in the hospital. I averted my eyes, but then realized he wouldn't notice me; with a ripped jacket, blood on my chin, and tears in my eyes, I was not very conspicuous in this part of town.

Not that my appearance went entirely unnoticed. When I crossed the street in front of a family in a stopped minivan, they synchronously locked the doors, a drill they had obviously practiced before leaving home.

At my room I missed being greeted by Hoover's happy face. I leaned on the counter and watched Smuffkins stretching her legs on the glass wall of the food processor, reaching out, trying to make contact with the world. Conveying by means of body language the concept of "Please oh PLEASE pay attention to me . . ." And I know precisely why you're reaching out, Smuffy! You're saying, "Please look at me! I'm so unique! So irreplaceable! So alone! Look at me and love me!" For my money, she is far better at this kind of silent communication than those people called "mimes."

I called Corky and asked her to have someone watch Richard's hospital room.

"Done."

I told her I'd found the leak.

"I'll ask around, try to learn more about Brett," she said, "and I'll pull any operative he's worked with off the Laurel mission. But didn't Chas throw him out of the Lobster that night?"

"Literally."

"Then how could he have shot Richard?"

"I'm not sure."

After I said good-bye, I went to the cupboard. My box of Cracker Jacks had teeth marks where something had beaten me to it, so I got an Eskimo Whip from the fridge instead. Then I called Dudley.

"Caught anyone?" he asked.

I told him of my encounter with Brett.

"You're getting good at this detective stuff. Maybe there's a career in it for you."

"I already broke the first rule."

"What's that?"

"You're supposed to have a client."

"Ah yes. In that case, while you're mastering the rules, you might try counseling. Thanks to your advice, I opened my heart to Corky--"

I advised that?

"--and told her that I still liked her, that I wanted to start again, slowly, and was hoping she'd let me buy her a modest dinner, and perhaps let me escort her to a small European country."

"What'd she say?"

"We talked for hours about our convictions and how they've handicapped our relationships. She said she'd become self-contained after her, um, your father's death. She used to be proud she didn't need anyone for emotional support, that she wasn't vulnerable."

"You can't get hurt that way." Like her, I believed wanting something of other people was selfish and having them want something of me would ultimately lead to my disappointing them. So I just stayed away from people. The truth is that I have been more an observer than human being, and my heart has always served my head. Poorly.

"I told her how I feel when I'm not with her. It's like I'm just killing time."

That's touching. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to put my finger down my throat. "Why Corky? Is it because she's the only girl not interested in you?"

There was a long pause. Maybe I'd overstepped my boundary as a friend, or maybe as a protective brother.

I clung to the image of Corky the year Dad died. She was twelve and her bed was covered with furry pink and green stuffed animals. The next year, posters of nearly naked sweaty rock stars hung on the walls, but I considered it a passing fad.

"Fair question," Dudley said. "Detective work has made you spunky. I love her commitment and dedication. She loves things based on their worth, not their appearance." He paused. "I want to make sure nothing bad ever happens to her."

"Sorry, Dudley. Sorry I doubted you."

"No problem. Happens all the time."

* * *

Hoover slept all the way home from Dr. Dean's office. At the Suite Night he came to life, staggered to his feet and wandered around, sniffing and tottering like a little old four-legged man. I told him it was terrific having him back. He wagged his tail, lapped at his water bowl as if he hadn't drunk in days, then went back to sleep.

"What's that you're humming?" Ann asked.

"Humming? Was I?" Bad omen. Only two kinds of people hum unconsciously, those who are falling in love, and those who argue with buses.

"Do you think we can find Brett before the mission tomorrow night?" she asked.

I handed her a Coke.

"Can't count on it, but we need to know what he leaked. That's one reason I'm keeping my appointment with the Terrigs."

She stared at me, her index finger poised to open her Coke as if she were holding a pose for a painter.

"You're still going to go see Beezil after he hired Lester to hurt you? Wouldn't it be easier to let me beat you up right here, save you the drive?"

"We owe it to Kristin. Besides, I have a plan. Want to come?"

"Sure, I'll tag along. It'll give me the opportunity to see if my first-aid kit is complete and in order." She opened the cupboard. "You're out of food."

"I'll run over to the Quick Mart." Hoover and I got up, both of us grunting a little.

The phone rang.

"Hello?" I heard the click of someone hanging up. Even a card-carrying optimist would expect nothing good from that.

Hoover waddled after me to the door. I petted him on the head and told him to stay and protect Ann. It was easier than telling Ann that I was worried.

At the Quick Mart I found Cracker Jacks, Eskimo Whips, jam, peanut butter, and bread. I piled them on the checkout counter next to a display of water pistols: "On sale. Replicas of the authentic Luger." I took one.

Back at the Suite Night the door to my room was cracked open. Off to the side, I set down my groceries and listened for sounds. It was too quiet. A pulse in my throat started kicking. I could smell the strange briny smell of radiator steam. I leaned toward the crack in the doorway.

My eye was greeted by a .45-caliber pistol.

"Over there." Mungo waved me to the side of the room where Ann sat in the ratty chair. His gun muzzle made impatient arcs, circling, pointing one moment at my chest, the next at my face. I heard growling--Hoover was trapped in the bathroom.

"See this gun?" Mungo's eyes were bloodshot and he smelled of alcohol.

"How can I miss it? You're pointing it at me. Why?" Hoover began frantically scratching at the bathroom door.

"Lester says never to trust fools who believe dumb animals should be treated as good as pets." He raised his eyebrows as if to say, "Understand?" Evidently I didn't look convinced because he poked my chest with the gun barrel and cocked the hammer.

I don't know guns, but the one burrowing into my chest didn't seem to have a silencer.

"My neighbors will hear the shot."

He laughed. "And run to lock their doors." He used the gun to push me away, then he leered at Ann, bringing tongue and eyebrows into play. I almost forgot he had the gun and went at him. Almost.

He staggered around the couch and stopped in front of Ann.

With exaggerated slow motion he placed his hand on her cheek and stroked it, turning his head so he could watch my reaction as his huge hand felt its way down her neckline.

A low growl came from the back of her throat, but she didn't move.

I edged sideways, angling, trying to get closer.

The gun muzzle followed me like an empty eye socket. His finger was on the trigger and he didn't seem to be paying close attention to whether or not he was squeezing.

Hoover barked. Mungo glared at the bathroom door, but his gun stayed trained on me, daring me to move.

"Unless you want the A.L.F.'s next target to be warned, you gotta do two things. Shut down the Lobster--"

"Don't worry," I said. "Chas opened the Lobster for only a few days."

"Only a fool who doesn't know Blat would believe that. You also gotta return all the dogs you stole from Terrig's lab."

"Can't do that."

"Remember what happened to Tipton?"

He cracked the back of his hand across my face, catching me off balance and knocking me down hard onto the cold linoleum. I started to get up, but he shook his head. I felt like a dog being trained to stay.

"You even think about moving, your brains'll fly out the back of your head."

I stayed. I prepared to roll over, sit up, and beg if need be. My internal reactions collided. Anger, and beneath that, humiliation. But neither was making much headway against the fear of having my brain become a Rorschach inkblot test on the wall behind me.

Mungo turned to go, saw Smuffkins reaching out her arms toward him and did a double take, whipping his head without realizing his proximity to the doorjamb. This slight misjudgment made a sound like a ripe melon dropping onto the pavement. A very satisfying sound, indeed. He cursed and stumbled out the door.

Ann and I stared numbly at the open door for several seconds before letting out an intertwined sigh. I helped her out of the chair.

"Did he hurt you?"

"No. What a worm. It's a shame that things have learned to walk that ought to crawl." She looked at Smuffy. "No offense. You sure startled him."

"Mungo will see Smuffy in his nightmares."

I let Hoover out of the bathroom. He whooped and moaned and tried squirming into my jacket.

"Mungo actually implied he and Lester shot Richard for Mr. Terrig," Ann said. "Does he think they're above the law?"

"Could be. Terrig Corporation dominates so much of the economic life here--jobs, taxes. It wouldn't surprise me if it wields power over local authorities."

Ann's expression changed with an unreadable emotion. "How did Mungo find us?"

"He might have tailed me, or found me by whatever means he found me in Chez Beagle." Or, with the way my luck's been running, he's my secret Santa.

"Maybe Lester's boys planted a bug on your van," Ann said. "Since they obviously know we're here, I'd say we can thank them for the ransacking?"

"That doesn't seem like Lester's style, though. If he wanted anything I had, I believe he'd just beat me to a jelly and make me give it to him."

"Who then?"

I tried to think of other candidates. But after having been slapped by Mungo, I had to concentrate hard just to keep my eyes from crossing.

Ann said, "Do you think Lester really knows Laurel is our next target?"

"Hard to say. Mungo could be bluffing."

She smoothed her dress with a nervous, patting motion.

"Our plan was to send a scout. He was going to park in front of Laurel, march around for a few minutes, then knock on the door and ask to use a phone. If the Laurel guard called the cops, they'd find nothing, and the mission would never start. But now it seems Lester and his thugs might set up an ambush and make Laurel seem vulnerable until we're all trapped inside."

I stared out the window at the snow sifting down in the checkerboard light from other tenement windows.

"What if I break in through a rear door and get the drop on the guard?" I pulled my gaze back to a closer point of focus and watched Ann's reflection.

"Too risky. There's got to be a better way." But her voice died at the end as if she were giving the idea more thought.

Snow melted on the window and speckled the room with the watery shadows of beads tracking down the glass. I felt those beads crawling over me.

Hatful of Pain 17

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