By Daniel Kalla
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2006 Daniel Kalla
All rights reserved.
He eased the stolen black Ford Explorer to a stop behind the Dumpster in the dismal alley. When he switched off the ignition, the interior lights brightened and he caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the rearview mirror. There was nothing familiar about the face staring back. With three days' worth of stubble, spiked black hair and frosted tips, and the thick chain and heavy cross dangling from his neck, he could have been eyeing a total stranger. Someone he would have despised at first sight.
Dennis Lyndon Tyler — or at least that was who his out-of-state driver's license purported him to be — appreciated order in his life. Normally fastidiously clean-cut, he favored a dark jacket and tie for his assignments. Simple. Dignified. Nondescript. But now he dressed like a walking neon sign in a shiny blue track suit with reflective white Nikes and the gaudiest Rolex knockoff he could find.
And he couldn't shake his low-grade nausea from the stench of his own cheap cologne.
Tyler peeled his eyes from the mirror. A job is a job, he repeated the familiar mantra in his head. The money is right. Focus.
He stepped out of the car. As he instinctively smoothed out the creases in his jacket, his hand brushed over the hard metal strapped under his right sleeve. The gun's contact brought a welcome sense of familiarity.
Walking the alleyway, he deliberately infused his normally crisp stride with the cocky spring he had noticed in the others he'd studied. After three weeks of posing, the gait had nearly become second nature. He could maintain it without trying.
This was the fifth alley he had covered tonight. Yet another of the many gathering spots for the lowest of Portland's lowlifes he'd visited in the past few days. They congregated here, huddling in the doorways and other nooks and crannies among and between the rundown buildings, preoccupied with their sole reason for existence. Drugs.
He'd chosen well this time. This alley writhed with junkies. Male. Female. Some alone, others clustered in groups. A number of them looked young enough to be in junior high school. A few lay on their sides or sat propped up by a wall, their glassy eyes open and pinpoint pupils staring out at nothing. Several fumbled at the tourniquets on their elbows or at their partners' necks, searching for that elusive vein to inject whatever chemicals they could force into their bloodstreams. Though Tyler had become accustomed to the activity, his guts still churned from the stench of the Dumpsters and the smothering sense of desperation and need.
As he passed by, he caught the eye of a number of junkies who recognized his unofficial uniform. A tall thin man with a ravaged face and matted hair swaggered up to him. He stopped directly in Tyler's path and, without a word, nodded to him.
Tyler eyeballed the addict up and down. His cheeks were hollow, and his scraggly pale arms bore telltale scabs crusted over. Still, Tyler decided that the man didn't quite fit his need. He shook his head. When that didn't budge the junkie, he narrowed his gaze and curled his lip into a slight sneer. That sent the man scuttling like a beetle back into the shadows of the nearby building.
He repeated the same silent dance with four or five other alley dwellers. He recognized a few potential candidates but passed them over too, remembering that he had been instructed to choose only the absolutely sickest-looking of the junkies.
Near the end of the alley, where the light of the main street glowed like the opening at the end of a tunnel, movement caught Tyler's eye. He turned to see an emaciated woman leaning against a Dumpster. She struggled to push herself upright before staggering out to meet him.
The woman was so gaunt that Tyler couldn't pinpoint her age closer than a range of twenty to forty. She had scruffy jet-black hair and thick chapped lips. Despite the drizzly spring night, she wore a torn black miniskirt and tank top, which exposed a bony sunken abdomen and legs so skinny that they didn't taper from thighs to ankles. The Aztec sun god tattooed on her shoulder appeared asymmetrical like a painting whose canvas had shrunken underneath it. A pink, rhinestone-studded handbag hung off the same shoulder. Studying her large gray eyes and delicate nose, Tyler imagined that once she might have been pretty. Now, with skeletal features and weeping sores on her chin and cheek, he found her repulsive.
Her lips parted into a forced, toothy smile that accentuated the broken incisor on the upper right side of her mouth. "You got anything for me, hon?" she asked in a throaty voice that was meant to sound seductive but struck Tyler as pathetic. He breathed in the scent of her nicotine-rich breath. It mingled with her stale, diseased aroma.
She was the one.
He tilted his head and smiled. "What you looking for, gorgeous?"
"Beggars can't be choosers," she said with a giggle and swayed unsteadily on her feet, like a tree hit by a sudden gust. Then her smile vanished, and resolve hardened into the deep ridges of her face. "If you gotta know, I'm an old-fashioned girl. None of this crystal meth shit. I like eightballs."
An old-fashioned girl. Tyler suppressed a smirk. A month ago, he didn't know what eightballs were, but in the past few weeks he had dispensed several powdery packets of the cocaine and heroin used to concoct the cocktail, which seemed to be a favorite among the most hard-core users. Without a word, he fished in his track suit jacket pocket and pulled out two separate wads of silver foil. They looked as if they had been hastily packaged, but Tyler knew better. He had selected them earlier from the briefcase full of perfectly matching packets that had arrived along with his instructions. Then he had taken the time to grind them with a foot into the hotel bathroom's floor to produce an even more tattered and authentic looking result.
Tyler held the silver foil out in front of him in his open palm. When the woman reached for his hand, he closed it shut around the foil. She jerked her hand back as if it had been slapped. She stared up at Tyler with a look of sudden desperation. Her hand fumbled inside her purse but emerged empty. "I got jack right now for cash, but I got something else ..." Tyler knew where she was heading but he kept his fist closed and watched her expressionlessly.
"We can get a room around the corner." She forced her eyes wider and slowly ran her tongue along her upper lip until it touched the crusting sore at the edge. "And I do everything there. Everything." She pointed to his fist and gyrated her bony hips slightly, causing her to stumble a step. "Know what, baby? I'm going to give you the fuck of the century in trade,'kay?"
The thought intensified Tyler's nausea, but he maintained his poker face. Focus. He opened his fist. "Tonight's your lucky night," he said. "Since I'm new to these parts, I'm offering samplers. This one's on me."
The woman's hand shot out and grabbed the packets with surprising deftness.
Tyler watched as she jammed the foil deep into her handbag. "You got your own rig?" he asked, referring to the syringe and needle she would require.
"Yeah, yeah, in here," she said distractedly, snapping up the purse as if he might revoke his offer at any moment.
"What's your name?"
"Carol," she sniffled. She shuffled on the spot, looking desperate to leave.
"Carol," he repeated, amused by the middle-class blandness of how it sounded under the circumstances. "Next time, you'll know who to see about buying your stuff, right?"
"Oh, absolutely, you're my new man, baby," she said, not bothering to ask his name. Then she swiveled on the spot and lurched on her pumps back to the Dumpster.
Tyler watched until she disappeared into a crack in the building behind the alleyway. He had no idea what was in the packets he had just given her, but he had little doubt that it was more than just heroin and cocaine. And from the substantial deposit to his numbered Grand Cayman account, he inferred that it was going to dramatically shorten what little was left of Carol's pointless life.
Running his hand along the sharp and ridiculous spikes of his highlighted hair, all traces of Carol vanished from his consciousness. He turned and headed back for his car.
A job is a job, he said to himself. The money is right. Focus.
Five more minutes and then I'm gone, Thomas Mallek promised himself for the third time since arriving. Feeling exposed in the flimsy blue hospital gown, the forty-year-old had sat on the same narrow stretcher for almost two hours without anyone paying him an iota of attention. Mallek figured his swollen knee could wait until he saw his family physician Monday morning; no doubt Dr. Ng would squeeze him in sometime. The busy lawyer, father of three, and dedicated marathoner did not have an evening to spare. Especially not at the emergency room of St. Michael's Hospital.
The place was a zoo, complete with sights, sounds, and smells foreign to Mallek. Drunks, street people, and various eccentrics filled the waiting room and paced the hallway; some looking bored, others menacing. The page for "security, stat" to this location or that seemed to crackle over the loudspeaker continuously. The antiseptic smell mingled unpleasantly with urine, vomit, and body odor that permeated the area.
Just as Mallek gingerly eased his leg over the side of the bed to leave, a voice spoke to him. "Mr. Mallek? I'm Dr. Gayle."
Mallek looked up at the young doctor who, with his hair tied back in a ponytail, wore green scrubs and a haggard expression. "Tom," Mallek said, stretching out a hand.
The doctor met Mallek's handshake, then waved a hand at the chaos around them. "Friday night," Gayle said by way of explaining all the problems in this corner of the world.
Mallek chuckled. "Don't know how you do it, Dr. Gayle."
"My fault. I wasn't smart enough to get into an ophthalmology residency" Gayle shrugged. A hint of a grin broke through his exasperated frown. "What's up with your knee?"
"I was out for a ten-K tune-up run earlier," Mallek said. "The toe of my shoe caught a crack in the pavement. About a block later I realized my foot was still stuck in the crack."
Gayle smiled. "Did you feel a pop?"
"Not only felt it, I heard it!" Mallek said. "My knee swelled right away. Now I'm having a hell of a time bending it."
Gayle nodded. "Can you lie back on the bed? I want to have a look."
Lifting his foot back onto the bed hurt Mallek even more than before. He expected Gayle to reach for his knee, but instead the doctor stood back a step and stared from the uninjured knee to the sore one. With a satisfied grunt, he bent over and gently rested the back of his hand on the knee, feeling, Mallek assumed, for warmth. Then the doctor put him through a series of mildly painful manipulations, the worst of which was when he held Mallek's thigh with one hand and tried to pull his calf forward with the other as if opening a drawer.
Gayle straightened up and folded his arms across his chest. "Hate to be the bearer of bad news, Tom, but I'm concerned you might have torn your ACL. That stands for —"
"Anterior cruciate ligament," Mallek finished the sentence with a heavy sigh. "I know. It's a big fear among runners."
"All athletes," Gayle said.
"We should get an x-ray tonight," Gayle said. "Then we'll set you up with crutches —"
Before Gayle could finish, a series of unintelligible screams erupted from a flailing drunk in the waiting room, followed immediately by the familiar hiss of the loudspeaker; "Security, stat!"
Gayle smiled sympathetically at Mallek. "It won't take too long, Tom. Promise."
Mallek chuckled. "Any chance security could x-ray me? They seem pretty available."
Fifteen minutes later, Mallek had begun to doubt Gayle's word. No one had come to get him for an x-ray. Instead, the action had moved closer to him. In the stretcher beside his, the paramedics had unloaded a skinny teenage girl with dyed blue hair and wearing a tattered T-shirt, tartan skirt, and torn stockings. Though the curtain was drawn between their stretchers, one of the two flaps had peeled back giving Mallek a clear view of the girl. Her eyes were half shut and her words were garbled. Mallek assumed she was stoned, but from the way she moaned and thrashed on her bed, he recognized her agony. And the source of her pain — a a swollen, fiery red thigh with a central bull's-eye-like whitehead about the size of a dollar coin — stared back at him through the curtains' gap.
When the girl tried to bolt off the bed, the call for security broke again over the loudspeaker.
The team scrambled around her. The three burly security guards, looking like white-shirted cops, barked at her to stay still. The order struck Mallek as redundant because they pinned each of her arms to the bed while they secured thick black belted restraints around her wrists and ankles. A nurse fumbled with IV tubing at her arm. The girl's moans evolved into screams of indignant outrage.
Someone dressed from head to toe in mask and gown walked up to her bedside. Only when he spoke did Mallek recognize him as the ponytailed doctor. "Angie, we've got to drain your abscess," Gayle explained to the teenager but got only yelps in response.
Gayle instructed a similarly garbed nurse to inject two different drugs, which Mallek assumed were sedatives, because the patient stilled within a minute and only the odd groan emerged from her lips. Then Dr. Gayle prepared a surgical tray by the girl's knee.
None of the staff noticed the gap between the curtains. Mallek was too riveted by the unfolding drama to mention anything. When Gayle pulled a stool up to the girl's knee, Mallek realized he would have a bird's-eye view of the impending procedure on her thigh.
Forgetting all his earlier impatience, Mallek — a devout fan of the Operationshow on The Health Network — watched transfixed as Dr. Gayle swabbed at the swollen thigh. Gently bending his painful knee, Mallek shuffled himself sideways on the stretcher and leaned forward for a better view.
Mallek flinched when Gayle buried the long needle into the top edge of the girl's abscess. The injection provoked a muted cry and a twitch from her before she fell back on the bed. Then the doctor reached for a gray scalpel that looked to Mallek like a box cutter. Holding the scalpel as if it were a pen, Gayle placed it against the skin over the center of the bull's-eye and pressed down.
The moment the blade sliced the skin, the abscess erupted. Yellow pus shot out from the wound and sprayed like a water fountain with a thumb pressed over its nozzle.
Mallek was so stunned by the unexpected jet of pus and the way the doctor jerked back and almost fell off his stool that he didn't immediately notice he'd been sprayed. It wasn't until he felt the wetness at his cheek that he realized a drop of pus was running down his face.
From the forty-sixth floor of the forty-seven-story building, Dr. Ellen Horton stared out the floor-to-ceiling windows. Had she squinted, she might have been able to make out the figures of the rush-hour crowds scurrying along Walnut Street below. But her gaze never shifted from the tinted windows of the matching monstrosity across the street, as she forced herself to think of anything but her impending presentation to SeptoMed's board of directors.
I don't belong here, Horton thought as she smoothed the front of her pinstriped jacket and matching skirt. Fondly, she recalled the casualness of university meetings. At those functions, she would have been far more likely to see T-shirts and track pants than the ties and jackets that were the rule at SeptoMed. The indifference to fashion was only one of many things she missed about the academic world she had left behind.
Nothing felt the same since Horton had "jumped ship to the dark side" as her former colleagues had half joked about her move to the pharmaceutical giant, SeptoMed. Despite their teasing, the exponential rise in her salary had nothing to do with her choice. Even after the six-figure checks began to roll in, Horton maintained the same lifestyle — an obliviousness to material comfort that bordered on the Spartan — with which her parents, both college professors, had raised her. She still showed up to work every day in her '92 brown Ford Taurus sedan, carrying a bag lunch and the same tattered briefcase she'd owned since her postgraduate days.
What Horton needed from SeptoMed was the state-of-the-art lab and the limitless resources that came with their generous offer. Without that support, she might never have had the chance to see her life's work come to fruition. And she had sacrificed too much — childless and single at forty, her closest companion was a temperamental eight-year-old cat — to tolerate failure. But the prize was close. She felt it. In spite of the setbacks of the past two months, her drug would come to market. "Just don't screw this up, Ellen!" she warned herself under her breath. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Resistance by Daniel Kalla. Copyright © 2006 Daniel Kalla. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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