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Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 19


Ann and I started down the alley of the industrial complex. Small factories lined both sides, and shadows were everywhere and deep. After one block, I had the briefest sensation of movement near me. My breath stopped on the half exhale. I glanced over my shoulder and saw . . . nothing.

"What?"

"Nothing. I thought I saw a shadow move."

As we walked I looked for stirring in the Dumpsters, motion behind dismantled cars, faces in windows. Each time we put the light from a factory behind us, I watched our shadows in front of us. In the corner of my eye, there was a shadow where there shouldn't have been a shadow. When I turned my head, it was gone.

Then I heard something. Close.

Ann saw it first. I followed her gaze upward.

A bird swooped across the hazy moon, paused, dropped something shiny, and soared away. No. It wasn't a bird . . . but a giant black wasp. No. It can't be. It is. The missing Cobra.

Ann gasped and fell to the ground. In the moonlight I saw a dart stuck in her upper thigh.

I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her back into the shelter of the nearest doorway. She was trembling, but made no sound as I eased the dart out. Razor-sharp, it had penetrated an inch into her leg. The feel of her warm blood on my hand made me shake with rage as much as with fear.

We stayed in the shadows, unable to tell whether we could be seen. I forced myself to breathe silently when I wanted to pant like a dog. Watching the sky, I saw only clouds streaming across the moon.

The Cobra swept suddenly up over the rooftops, glided back down, and hovered. Its bay doors opened. A glint of light flashed. I dodged, but a dart punctured my jacket and skinned my arm.

I looked for motion and listened for footsteps. Over the monologue of the blustery wind I heard cars sloshing down streets and country music twanging from The Buffalo Stampede.

The hovering sound came again without warning.

A dart hit the trashcan next to me. I may have broken all national long jump records, but I'll never know, because while the can was still rattling, I carelessly rolled away from the icy spot where I'd landed without stopping to mark it.

"After the next pass," I whispered, "let's make a run for it." I handed Ann a trashcan lid to hold over her head.

We were crouched, leaning back slightly to get power for a quick start, when a pistol crack echoed among the buildings and sent pigeons hurtling upward from their rooftop perches.

"He's trying to pin us down while the helicopter circles," I said.

"Why not just shoot us?"

I braced my back against the wall, searching for our ambusher in the all-consuming blackness, then I twisted off my right shoe. Ann turned her head this way and that, glaring at me as if one eye had seen what the other had reason to doubt.

"Don't worry," I said. "I've seen Maxwell Smart do this."

"This is hardly the time for humor," Ann said, although I wouldn't have had much trouble deducing that from her tone of voice.

On the Cobra's next pass I heaved the shoe with all my strength. I watched the shoe sail upward toward its target . . . until gravity noticed it.

As it fell harmlessly into a Dumpster, a dart ripped my left ear and blood spit over me. I lost my footing in the slush and landed hard on the cold pavement. Trying to get up too fast, I flopped around like some pathetic salmon whose central nervous system had been destroyed by toxic waste. I took in a lungful of the damp night air, and got to my feet.

"You all right?" Her eyes were liquid with concern.

I put my hand to my burning ear and pulled it away soaked with blood. It felt as if tongs had been jammed into my brain. Shit, it hurts! The pain overloaded my senses and somehow crystallized them. Instead of confusion and fog, everything seemed clearer.

I yanked off my other shoe and pulled the laces out of all but the bottom two holes. Holding a trashcan lid over my head, I started across the alley pulling Ann behind me. As the Cobra banked in front of us, I dropped the lid and whipped the shoe high and hard, end over end. The shoe missed, but a lace caught in the Cobra's blades, which caused it to dip and wobble. Controlling it would be a two-handed job now.

The ambusher overcorrected and the bird spun, becoming a small black electric fan. A down draft caught it and dashed it against a building. Ann and I ran across the alley. Footsteps echoed away above us.

We hobbled into the delivery entrance of the motel, our cheeks red with cold and panic, our clothes bloodstained and torn, but we felt safe. Marginally.

* * *

"You would've been better off," Ann said, "if you hadn't looked in a mirror for a couple of days." We were squeezed into the bathroom. Blood was smeared over my cheek. I clutched my stinging left ear with the vague idea of holding it on.

Ann pressed both hands over her eyes as if they burned, then turned on the tap. Brown water oozed, seeming full of the sort of things you might find wriggling around in a glass of the Ganges River. I washed, then found a stiff towel and flapped my hands with it a couple of times.

Ann's wound was worse than mine, deeper. It was a tribute to her strength she didn't complain of the pain. But it also kept me from complaining like I really wanted to. Instead I moaned quietly to myself.

It was ten minutes to the start of the Laurel mission.

Ann leaned against me. "That man on the roof was waiting for us."

"He didn't seem to be trying very hard to kill us, only to delay us. Ann! You're turning a color I don't even recognize."

"That probably means he knows the timing of our plans. We'd better call off the mission. Give me the walkie-talkie."

I pulled it out. The back was open, the antenna broke, and the batteries gone. "Must've happened when I jumped and rolled."

Ann grabbed the phone and dialed.

"No answer. They're on their way."

"Right into a trap."

"Let's get over there," she said.

Am I willing to walk into a trap to save rabbits? To save the A.L.F.? To get revenge for Richard? To please Ann?

"Clark?" Ann's voice broke in on my thoughts. "Clark, are you listening to me?"

I blinked. Ann wanted an answer to some question I hadn't heard her ask.

"Are you there, Clark?"

"Yes."

"What were you thinking?"

"Nothing."

"You aren't telling the truth."

"I know it."

"Are you having second thoughts?"

I paused. "Tonight is big, isn't it?"

"Yes. Remember it's more than just Laurel. Other cosmetic companies use government grants as a source of income. We're sending a message to them not to rely on grants and bogus research for profit."

"If anyone knows we're coming, they'll be a more immediate threat to us than the police. Instead of scouting from this roof, it'll be better if you come with me. If the lab is heavily guarded, you'll be in position to keep the A.L.F. from walking into a trap."

Ann sighed and rested her head on my shoulder. It filled me with a sense of completeness. Her arms slipped around me, and nothing had ever felt better--her hair against my cheek, her hands on my back, her warmth, her lilac scent.

It was hard to believe I'd known her less than a year.

"Let's go."

Hatful of Pain 20

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