Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain Chapter 2
I slid down in the front seat until my knees banged against the dashboard. The approaching headlights briefly swept across the interior above me, then raced by, heading toward Terrig Street.
After they rounded the corner, I sat up and tried the walkie-talkie. Still no response.
I drove eight blocks in the opposite direction, parked, got out, and backtracked on foot. Wind whipped at my face. I plunged my hands into my pockets and walked briskly past boarded up buildings, an empty Laundromat, and a gun shop advertising a "Back to School" special.
A hundred yards farther, in the middle of an otherwise vacant block, I reached a fence surrounding a U-Rent Storage compound. I stopped and looked over my shoulder in the traditionally furtive fashion of someone about to do something illegal. Then I climbed the fence, dropped to the other side, and trotted to the back, where the aisle was barricaded by a rusted out car sitting on concrete blocks. The car didn't have an interior, and just junk where the engine had been.
Two men were pounding on the car with heavy tools, their noise barely masking the growling and barking coming from the storage shed beyond. Ten feet from the old car, I stopped. I suspected the men knew I was there, but they didn't look up.
I moved closer.
A man with a face like a constipated bulldog's stopped and stepped out to block my path. Threatening. His hands curled into fists, his lip into a snarl. Primal and deadly.
I forgot the password.
That wasn't it.
He took a step toward me.
"Eat beans," I stammered, "not beings."
He smiled and I could see what he'd looked like as a little kid. Quickly he was behind me, slapping me soundly between the shoulders--which started me stumbling through a maze of crushed automobile parts.
Exiting the maze, I crawled through the side door of an ABC LAUNDRY van, out the back, and into a storage shed. In the center of the shed a light bulb tucked into a dented metal cone hung from the ceiling. Directly below the cone, a folding card table stood like an island in a sea of dog cages, laundry carts, and other supplies and equipment.
Squeezed around the periphery of the shed were twenty operatives wearing lab coats, tailored, it seemed, by the same guy who designed the Hefty Bag. The coats were accessorized with cheap wigs and fake mustaches.
I looked for Kristin, who I'd recognize in any disguise. We'd been teammates on many missions of the Animal Liberation Front. Blonde and pixyish, it was the passion of Kristin's gaze that made her memorable; her beauty sprang from her soul and illuminated her physical features.
But she wasn't here. I wondered if anybody had seen her, my brother, or the driver of the final van. But no trained operative would admit they knew anything about lookouts, drivers, or for that matter, the person standing next to him.
The guy right next to me spoke. "We're awfully close to Terrig."
"If the cops find us here," I said, "I'll be very surprised."
"We'll all be surprised," he said. "Unpleasantly."
I turned my attention to the two men and two women nearest the table. The men, veterinarians, were scrambling to set up shop. One of the two women was my sister, Corky.
Corky was the liaison between the A.L.F. and my rock band, Fluke. A third-grade school teacher, she would be my candidate for the person best qualified to run the universe, should that office ever get on the ballot. She had only a small repertoire of movements, brief and exact, like her words.
Standing next to her, with sparkling green eyes set in a sprinkle of freckles, was Ann Berlin, lead singer and saxophonist of Fluke. Her black jeans were tucked into black boots. A shifting curtain of blonde hair gathered loosely into the collar of her black coat. She had a law degree, and always tried to help people, but dressed in all black she looked intimidating. Dangerous even.
Corky raised her head slightly and gathered everyone's eyes.
"Don't take off your disguises. Talk only if you have to. Dogs with life-threatening wounds are our top priority. Bring them to this table. Dogs with no hope for survival will be put to sleep." Her eyes added, "Go!"
Inside the pen to my right a small brown puppy lay on his back, paws up, tongue out the side of his mouth, whimpering. The burns on his sides were raw, bleeding, festering. Kneeling down, I scratched his belly. His face was swollen.
"You'll be okay."
His tail wagged weakly in reply. Somehow he still wanted to trust mankind after all we'd done to him.
Although he could hardly roll over, he struggled up, tried to lick my hand, looked embarrassed and promptly collapsed in a heap. I scratched his ears, lifted him out, and cradled him close to my chest. He managed to lick my chin.
The younger of the two vets wore a folded bandanna around his head that looked like a cardinal in flight. He signaled I was next.
The older vet was the gentle grandfatherly type. If they'd been making a movie and looking for a small-town vet, he would have been perfect casting. Cold air had tinged his skin light blue. He slid over to the portable heater and held out his shivering hands--hands that needed to be steady.
The young vet removed rubber gloves from a medical bag. "Here, Dr. Dean . . ." His voice trailed away as he realized he'd breached the confidentiality essential to the Animal Liberation Front, since the FBI lists us as a terrorist organization.
"Excuse me?" I said, pretending I thought he'd been talking to me and I hadn't heard him clearly. The young vet's eyes thanked me.
I set the puppy gently on the table. As the two vets examined him, he lay silent, head on his paws, looking up at me. He opened his mouth slightly, then closed it, as though forever.
"They'll fix you up," I said. He wiggled his tail once, weakly.
After a few moments Dr. Dean shook his head and took out a needle. I knew what that meant. So quickly extinguished was my spark of hope. Eyes open, staring ahead, the small brown puppy looked as he had an instant ago. For something as meaningful as it is, death doesn't look like much at first.
A slow blues riff ran through my mind, an all-too-familiar theme. Regret. We should've gotten to Terrig sooner.
Once again, Corky drew everyone's attention. As before, it was her stillness you noticed, the economy of movement emphasized by the way she did not speak, but politely waited.
"Second priority," she said. "Calm any barking dogs who might give away our location. Third: examine dogs in pain. Fourth: feed each dog. Finally: return the vans to the rental agencies and discard all the clothes you wore tonight. Fibers can be used to link you to the Terrig Lab." She paused as the sound of sirens grew louder. When they began fading, she continued. "We'll guard this shed in six-hour shifts. In three days, if the police have let up on their search, we'll take the dogs to the Peace Plantation Refuge."
They'd be safe there.
Memories of the thousand acre Refuge, some as vivid as photographs, flipped through my mind. Once, while I was working there, an elderly woman returned to thank us, saying that when we saved a small dog from destruction and gave it to her, we had saved two lives. She claimed that Winnie the Pooch provided her with the most unselfish love she'd ever experienced. He gratefully slept on the cold ground to be near her, licked her hand even when she had no food to offer, guarded her as though she were royalty. Gave her a reason to live.
I hoped that some of the dogs rescued tonight would one day have a similar impact.
I moved to a snarling little bundle of ferocity, a Scottish terrier, and held out my hand. He growled, sniffed, then allowed me to pat his head.
Two hours later, every dog was fed. Some were asleep. Three were dead.
"Great work," Ann said, to the nods and smiles of everyone in the room.
We had saved eighty-five dogs and filmed video footage of Terrig's illegal animal testing. But our biggest challenge loomed a week ahead. December eighteenth. The Laurel Corporation. But where was Kristin?
Ann looked at Corky.
My sister said, "As you all know, our next mission involves even higher stakes; the lives of over ten thousand rabbits. Laurel is trying to extend their government grant for another five years. To get this research welfare, three million dollars' worth, Laurel has only to complete one final battery of tests and file a report. We can stop them by taking photos of signed test procedures that prove they are defrauding the government. We'll contact you in the usual way. Code twelve. Repeat: code one, two. Timing will be critical. Take care, and thanks."
One operative left every two minutes. The first to go were those who'd requested to leave early--like Ann Berlin, who worked Sundays for a legal firm providing free services to the poor. Ann represented children in child abuse cases, and her workload increased each year. As a result, the firm put pressure on her to join them full-time. Certainly her legal work was very important, but it seemed to me there were plenty of lawyers to handle all the legitimate work, with some to spare. A.L.F. members were hard to come by. So, every Sunday, I said a silent prayer we wouldn't lose her, and this was the cause of some of my anxiety on weekends. Although, admittedly, some of it was due to the slipshod play of the New England Patriots.
Having no pressing engagements, I was one of the last to leave. I drove back to Hammer's. The same homeless man lay in the doorway, asleep, his legs under his grocery cart. His head rested on the cold cement sidewalk. His neck was at an angle that made me wince. It looked broken. After I saw him breathing, I took off my jacket, folded it, and slid it under his cheek. He didn't awaken.
A vague disquiet lingered, one I'd had since leaving the shed, a nagging sense that I was forgetting something, or unaware of something. Am I being followed? Holding down my wig, I peered from the entrance of the pool hall. Winds swept clean the east side of the street, piling deep snowdrifts against the west side. The street was deserted except for a cat that scampered across the sidewalk and hid behind the tire of a parked car, watching me. No people. No traffic. What's wrong?
Sirens still blared from the direction of the Terrig Lab, which worried me. Why would they still be there? Had they gotten Kristin? I was tempted to return to Terrig, but knew better. I'd been trained to stick to the plan.
My thoughts swirled away from the sirens and sank into my gut. The chilling experience of seeing animals suffering was mingling with the warmth of knowing I'd helped stop some of it. In the morning, Mr. Terrig would be very surprised. And very, very angry. With no dogs to torture, he might grease the steps at the old folks home.
I managed a choking laugh. I had to. Laughter kept the lid on my anger.