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Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 20


The wind had stopped and an eerie calm hung in the air. A sign posted at the edge of the Laurel compound read PRIVATE PROPERTY--NO TRESPASSING. It was a large sign, and it shielded our approach as we clambered over a four-foot-high snow bank, then ran across the parking lot to the darkest corner of the test lab.

I pressed my ear to each door and window before checking to see if it was locked. They all were. At one window I heard the faint sound of a TV but couldn't see anything.

On the far side of the lab, I whispered to Ann, "It sounds as if the guard is watching TV. If I can pry open a window or a door, I can throw him a surprise party."

I stuck a piece of a guitar string into a door lock and twisted and pried. It was a heavy lock, and a good one. I moved to a window. Suddenly, a bright light flashed on me from behind. I squatted low. Just a passing car. But it meant I could be seen from the road.

I worked quickly on the window, occasionally glancing around, doing a very bad impression of a guy minding his own business. I forced the outer corner of the window away from the frame to get a grip on it with my fingertips. Pulling the corner, I slid a guitar pick along the top toward the hinged edge, making the opening steadily wider until a sudden click-clack sound came from the bottom of the window as the ratchet slipped two notches. I pulled harder and the ratchet gave way with a sound slightly louder than the clap of Creation.

I wanted to run. Instead, I slipped my hand inside and opened the window.

"If the guard grabs me, call the police while you're running."

"Running?"

"Like a cheap pair of stockings."

She squeezed my hand. I snaked in through the window.

The room gave off a cloying odor, the sickly-sweet commingling of chemicals and dead flesh. I could only imagine what lay in front of me as I waited for my eyes to adjust.

Slowly the gigantic laboratory came into dark focus. Glass-fronted cabinets lined the wall to my left. Electrical cords crisscrossed the floor. Down the center ran stainless steel tables on which a half-dozen dead rabbits were displayed in varying stages of dissection. Along a wall were workbenches with rows of rabbit stockades used for Draize testing.

One runty white rabbit was still headlocked, squirming in listless denial. I put a hand over my flashlight and turned it on for a moment. The rabbit looked back at me with cloudy, blistered corneas that could barely see, yet I sensed were hopeful.

I'll come back for him.

I stuck my hand in my pocket, found the pistol's handle, and accidentally squeezed the trigger. Fortunately it wasn't loaded, so I didn't spritz myself. I raised the pistol up next to my head and listened. I placed one foot in the hallway, heard a voice, and snapped my foot back.

Chicken! I was angry with myself. I wanted to be angry. Not that this was a particularly good time for self-appraisal. Anger held back the fear. The two emotions danced together divinely, anger leading a swirling performance at the core of my being.

So much for being able to think.

As I moved down the hallway toward a thin strip of light flickering under a door, I wondered if my approach to life had been too simplistic: Be happy, try not to hurt anyone, and hope I fall in love. I wanted to know if Ann could ever love me. I wanted to know if the Laurel guard was waiting behind the door with an ice pick dipped in rat poison. There was a lot I wanted to know before I died.

I inhaled, shoved the door open, threw myself forward into a fast roll, banged my head against the leg of a table, heard something shatter, then sprang to my feet with the water pistol square on the guard's stunned expression.

Assuming a shooter's stance, I gripped the gun with both hands as if it would kick.

"Freeze!"

Although the guard didn't move, I kept the gun on him. A smell like food gone bad made me slightly dizzy. Leaning against the wall, I tried to look alert while I let my head clear.

The guard was mostly in shadows, leaning back in a large executive chair, light from a portable television washing over him in the violent colors of a modern Technicolor bloodbath. His expression mildly vampirish, as if the joke were on me.

I groped the wall for the light switch and flipped it on. Bathed in green fluorescent light, everything looked so sharply different that I might have been changed into another kind of creature with differently made eyes. My world had suddenly changed.

The guard was Lester Gillis. I sagged back against the wall. It was as if I'd just scored a touchdown, spiked the football to the ground, and it bounced up and smacked into my knicky-knacks.

His neck was topped with a bloody pulp that had once been a face. Even his eyes weren't where they were supposed to be, and seemed to be peeping at me from around a side of hanging beef. Nausea gripped my insides.

I unlocked the front door and whispered, "Ann?"

She came churning through the doorway so fast that she saw Lester's body before I could block her view. She clapped both hands to her cheeks, then over her mouth.

I approached the body, slipped on the bloody floor, and grabbed the arm of the chair to keep from falling. A can of Body Slam Malt Liquor dropped onto the floor and rolled five feet until it stopped against a bloody bible.

I poked around on Lester's neck. No pulse, but he was still warm--his killer couldn't be far away. To better hear, I turned off the TV.

"Now what?" Ann whispered. "If we free the rabbits, the A.L.F. gets blamed for the murder."

Outside, a van rolled to a stop, lights out. I opened the door to the lab. Corky came in first. Behind her, a man in a fake wig and mustache was pushing a laundry cart.

"We should abort," I said. "Something's wrong. It may be a trap."

"We're already here. If it's a trap, we're in it. If it isn't a trap, let's do our job." She followed Wig down the hall, opening doors.

"Empty."

Wig, his voice familiar, said "Empty," from the next room.

Corky raced to the next door. "Empty."

"Nothing here either." Wig was Mervyn.

Had the experiment ended? Had the rabbits been killed?

"Here!" Corky cried. "Rabbits!"

Ann gripped my shoulder. She said something, but I wasn't listening carefully until her nails penetrated.

"The test procedures."

We headed the other way down the corridor. At an intersection she nudged me to the left and took the right.

The dark hall stretched in front of me. My heart thumped. The first door was metal with a small rectangular window just below eye level. I peered in, but the lights were out, so I cracked the door open. Standing outside, I reached inside with my left hand, fumbling for the light switch. I expected something to charge out at me--or to put its hand over mine as I patted the wall in search of the switch plate.

Nothing did.

I found the switch. Lights illuminated bloody surgical pliers and a hacksaw with pieces of bone and rabbit fur in its teeth. Mesh cages, empty, lined three walls. Tentatively, I stepped inside, leaving the door open.

Two file cabinets stood against the far wall. The first was labeled "Test Procedures." Eureka! Foregoing caution, I crossed the room and pulled drawers. They flew open, empty.

The second cabinet, marked "Technical Papers," held hundreds of articles already published in medical journals. In the rear of the bottom drawer was a file containing three research papers stamped "confidential." I stuffed them into my jacket pocket.

Back in the hallway a laundry cart nearly ran me down. Without losing momentum, Mervyn waved an apology. I checked the other rooms along the hall, but none had the procedures.

I met Ann at the intersection where we'd parted. We searched each other's eyes for signs the other had found the illegal procedures. I saw the change in her face, the swift darkening of her eyes, and knew it was mirrored in my own.

Hatful of Pain 21

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