Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 21

Ann's arms were across her stomach, holding herself like something broken. I put my arms around her and held her close. She pushed me away and looked into my eyes.

"Maybe they hid the procedures in a safe somewhere."

"Why would they? They didn't expect anyone to steal those . . . okay, our plans may have been leaked."

I followed her into an office labeled "Jonathan Laurel, President." She went straight to an interior French door and pulled on it. It bowed, but didn't open. I gripped the handle and yanked. The door flew open, I lost my balance and fell backward. The dim ringing in my head was shrouded by a burglar alarm shrieking like a wounded banshee.

We ran out of the office.

"I have to get one last rabbit," I said. "Start the van."

"No! We have to leave now."

I dashed back to the testing area and took a wrong turn.

Where am I? To hell with it--I found a bank of light switches and flipped them all on.

Strange how light changed the size and complexity of the lab. Now it was smaller and more simply arranged. I found the stockade room, freed the small white rabbit and grasped him by the neck. As I ran through the front door I heard a police siren blare. Then a gunshot. No. Thunder.

Needles of rain stung my sliced ear as I climbed the slope. As I reached the van, a police cruiser squealed around the corner. Ann pushed the door open. I jumped in, holding the rabbit to my chest. I closed the door as quietly as I could but it sounded as if someone had dropped one steel slab on top of another.

The cruiser screeched to a stop behind us. We locked our doors and slid to the floor. I held the squirming rabbit tightly under me. Our only prayer was the police being drawn to the alarm.

Car doors opened. Lifetimes passed. A flashlight played over the dashboard, then the driver's seat. Someone tried to open the door. I squeezed my eyes shut.

Suddenly, a bloodcurdling scream: "Help! Rape!" Corky's agonized voice.

Two pairs of heavy footsteps ran toward the scream. I lifted my head. In the side mirror I saw people pouring out of The Buffalo Stampede and the mobile home park.

After ten seconds, Ann started the engine and we raced away. Time began to behave normally again.

Neither of us spoke until Ann said it wasn't such a good idea for me to go back for one more rabbit, that I was stubborn and a schmuck and a moron and a copious amount of other unflattering things. I listened to it all patiently and, when she was finished, I held up the tiny white rabbit and said, "How could I leave Alice?" at which point Ann proceeded to run down the whole list of my attributes again, even finding new ones.

"That bible by Lester's body," I said. "Bill?"

"What, he killed Lester in a struggle?"

"Hopefully, in self-defense."

"Lester was sitting in a chair."

"Maybe Bill made some deal for the procedures, then left."

"Why was Lester guarding Laurel?" Ann asked. "And who would go there to kill him?"

"He threatened Chas."

"I should have grilled Chas about that blackmail message. And kept my plan to talk with Lester."

"Lester would've seen an opportunity to blackmail the A.L.F. And everything that happened still would have happened." I was overstating my point. I wasn't sure that I had a point, and I was overstating it.

"Somehow," she said, "my priorities got jumbled up." I had never heard Ann use sarcasm, but what she did with the word "my" was a wonder to behold.

"Our agendas were different from the start," I said. "Mine included revenge. I'm pretty sure I told you that. So don't act surprised. . . ."

"Well, I . . ." She took her eyes off the road, far too long, and glared at me as though I had said, "Think I'll get an axe, since it's a stormy night, and do away with you."

We lapsed into silence. I became aware of the rain turning into sleet. After several miles, Ann reached to turn on the radio. I gently touched her wrist. She batted my hand away.

WOPPITTY WOPPITTY WOPPITTY! A horrible sound emanated from beneath us. Ann directed the van onto the shoulder and slid to a stop.

"I'll change the tire." Before Ann could respond I handed Alice to her, then stepped out into the freezing rain.

After fifteen cold, wet, miserable minutes, I managed to get the tire changed. I put my nose to Ann's window and when she rolled it down I wiped the rain off my face and tried, "Sorry."

"Sure." People make mistakes, her tone implied. But I sensed things were not exactly wonderful between us.

"Want me to drive?"

She slid over. When I climbed in, she was still sulking, but watching me get soaked seemed to have mellowed her a little. She opened the glove box, rummaged through some tapes, and made a thoughtful selection. She popped a B-52s tape in the player and turned up the volume so she couldn't hear me if I decided to talk.

I took the first exit and headed south on gloomy, unlit back roads. She navigated us onto a narrow lane that dead-ended at a dance hall. FRAT PARTY proclaimed a sign above the door, and music blared from inside. I parked.

The same bulldog face that had guarded the U-Rent shed was now guarding the dance hall entrance.

"In their behavior toward creatures," Ann said to the guard, "all men are Nazis." He stepped aside to let us in.

Corky, Dr. Dean, and a couple dozen operatives in disguise were examining rabbits in cages. Six operatives ran outside to unload the rest of them from our van.

An unnatural silence fell over the room as word spread we hadn't recovered the test procedures. The mood improved slightly with the news that most of the rabbits needed only minor medical treatment.

Alice was the only seriously injured survivor. Visible shimmers shook her flanks as I carried her to the table. Dr. Dean gave her two shots and put some drops in her eyes.

"She'll be okay."

"In two days we'll take her to the Peace Plantation with the others," Corky said.

Ann turned the music down.

"Wonderful job, everyone. We saved five-hundred rabbits tonight."

"Our next mission," Corky said, "in three weeks, is the rescue of ten chimpanzees scheduled to be shot in the head by bastards--pardon me, researchers. Not to study head injuries, but to test the effectiveness of the bullets."

* * *

While I drove to the Suite Night, Ann was quiet. Something was on her mind. I kept up a line of polite chatter and waited her out.

Finally she asked, "Did you mean what you said about Bill leaving that bible? Couldn't it have belonged to Lester?"

"Maybe. But I recognize Bill's taste in bibles. In fact, I have a nice collection of them myself. I'll call him when we get back."

"Things got out of control. Someone broke rank. That 'rape' scream was an old recording and not part of tonight's decoy plan. Who could've done that?"

An intriguing question, but I was unable to come up with an answer by the time we reached the Suite Night. Hoover greeted us enthusiastically. He was always glad when I returned, as if astounded any creature with such an inferior sense of smell could find its way home.

Ann put Alice on the floor. Alice's flanks shivered as she tried to make herself into a tiny, invisible rabbit. Hoover approached, sniffing cautiously. When his nose was an inch from her, he froze. I wondered if he had any idea what a rabbit looked like. I was sure he knew the smell of fear.

He gently licked Alice's face. She twitched her nose, then relaxed. Hoover lay down while Alice hopped around, exploring the room. Then she came back and snuggled up against Hoover. His tail thumped once.

I called home and reached our answering machine.

"Bill, please call me." I hoped it wasn't too late for him to hear the message. "I love you."

Ann smiled one of the prettiest smiles I'd ever seen. But it didn't last long.

"It seems someone knew we were coming, but didn't call the police. They killed Lester and took the test procedures. Who would hate the A.L.F. enough to set us up by killing someone?"

"I wonder if the police are after us now?"

"If not now, soon. They've already found Lester, and they want to blame Fluke if they can--with the missing rabbits, that leads them to the A.L.F."

"Any other way to tie the A.L.F. to this?"

"Two ways. Brett may still be a loose cannon. And certainly the Laurel employee who tipped us off, when he hears there was a murder, will admit that he gave us a key. We promised him we wouldn't hurt anything."

"Maybe the police will wait to interrogate the employees when they return to work Monday."

"If we don't find the killer before then, the A.L.F.'s future is bleak." Ann's eyes were lifeless, emptied of their spark.

"Let's get some sleep," I said. "In the morning we'll terrorize vast portions of Cavalry until someone confesses to Lester's murder. Then we'll do lunch."

Ann stood, straightened her shoulders and with an exhausted sigh said good-night. After several pounding heartbeats, she went to her room.

Hatful of Pain 22

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