Read Pain Management Online

Authors: Andrew Vachss

Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #(¯`'•.¸//(*_*)\\¸.•'´¯)

Pain Management (2 page)

BOOK: Pain Management
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The city even has outer boroughs. Vancouver is to Portland what Brooklyn is to Manhattan—even has a bridge you have to cross to get there. And they feature plenty of those licensed-to-steal “title loan” shops.

South of Portland, the coastline is an ever-shifting blend of retirees from other states and tourists rolling through in waves of RVs.

Eastern Oregon has a lot of mountains, a lot of small towns. A lot of pots brewing, from Christian Identity to crank.

Disappearing is easy. Connecting is what’s hard.

Gem’s key clacked in the front door’s heavy deadbolt. I didn’t move from where I’d been sitting, staring out the top-floor back window at a thin slice of empty sky.

She walked across the wood-planking floor of the loft, tossing her purse onto the futon, unbuttoning her blouse.

“I thought you were going shopping,” I said, looking at her empty hands.

“I did. For many hours.”

“They were—what—all out or something?”

“Ah,” she said, doing something to the waist of her skirt. It fell to the floor. She stepped out of it, came closer to me. “The word is different for men and women.”

“What word?”

“Shopping. When you say ‘shopping,’ you mean to go out to buy something. A specific thing, yes?”

“Sure.”

“When
I
say ‘shopping,’ I mean to go and look.”

“You mean for bargains and stuff?”

“No. I like the looking. I like to know I
could
buy things. I do not
have
to buy them.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, you are so
very
interested in this, Burke.”

“What difference?”

“I do not understand,” she said, kneeling next to where I was sitting.

I ran my hand through her thick black hair. “What would it matter if I faked like I was interested?”

“You asked me the question.”

“I did. I was just . . . I don’t know . . . maybe being polite. You’re right. That’s not me. I won’t do it again.”

“Huh!” she said, bending forward and nipping at the web of flesh between my thumb and forefinger. Harder than she usually does.

While I was waiting, I looked around for a score. There’s a couple of casinos south of Portland. I borrowed a black Corvette from Flacco and Gordo—Gem’s partners—got into some halfass-flash clothes, kept my sunglasses on inside, playing a two-bit high roller, dropped some random cash. Every con who came up when I did dreamed of knocking over a racetrack or a casino. All that absolutely untraceable cash. I owed it to them to scope it out.

But it turned out to be like most convict’s dreams. Right there . . . but out of reach. I’d been hearing that “It’s not for you” song my whole life.

When I graduated from gunpoint hijacking to stinging and scamming, I realized you need the same things to be successful in either game—a complicated mix of anonymity and rep. In Portland, I was even farther under the radar than I’d been in New York—I didn’t exist. And my name on the street wasn’t worth the quarter any skell would drop in a pay-phone slot if he thought I was worth something to the cops.

I didn’t have Max the Silent at my back. I didn’t have the Prof and Clarence by my side. I didn’t have the Mole mixing his potions in his underground bunker. I didn’t have Michelle, didn’t have Mama.

But even if I risked it and went back to them, I wouldn’t have Wolfe.

And I wouldn’t have Pansy, ever again.

When you’re away—Inside, I mean—your people don’t visit you. Not if they all have priors. That’s not how it’s done. I took a fall for Max and the Mole a long time ago. Well, not in place of them—I was going down anyway. But I held off the other side until they could get gone.

It had been a perfect hijacking. A big fat stash of dope, quick and clean. We didn’t want the dope; we wanted to sell it back to the same mob family we stole it from. Everybody wins. Nobody gets hurt.

I set up the meet in an abandoned subway tunnel. Only, instead of silk suits, the men who showed up were all dressed in blue.

No, the cops hadn’t cracked the case. The mob had sold me to a few of their friends, that was all. Maybe they thought they could get their heroin back from the police evidence locker. Wouldn’t have been the first time.

A bouncing grenade with the pin still in it was enough to convince the law that a frontal assault was out of the question. They knew they had a heavily armed lunatic on their hands, so they decided to do the smart thing and negotiate.

But they only had one end of the tunnel blocked, and the longer we talked, the safer my people got. Everybody made it out. Everybody but me.

I did the time without visitors. But never without backup. Between people on the street who would do anything—
anything
—for me, and a steady stream of money on the books, I was golden.

Besides, I was young then. Going back to prison was like an alumni reunion. If it was some college, I guess they’d be checking the parking lot, see what kind of car you drove up in. Inside, you got your status from the crime that brought you there. That, and from coming back by yourself.

That was me, back then. I wanted to be a con’s con. High-status. Good crime, good time.

I remembered some of those good times. The manic rush of high-risk scheming for a little more territory, the gambling coups, making home-brew, handball, story-swapping, boxing, lie-telling, concocting elaborate escape plots that you were never going to try . . .

When you start getting nostalgic for prison, you’re never far from going back.

“I can’t stay here,” I told Gem the next morning.

“I know.”

“Then why didn’t you—?”

She gave me one of her eloquent shrugs.

I expected her to say she’d follow me anywhere, like she had before. Tried to beat her to the punch by telling her I’d send for her when I found a place that was safe.

“No,” she said, soft but flat. “There is no place for me where you are going.”

“Not yet, maybe. But when I’m—”

“Ah, you will never be at peace, Burke. You’re not just restless and bored, you are depressed.”

“Sad. Not depressed. Sad.”

“As you say.”

“Gem . . . I just can’t . . . work here.”

“You did those . . . jobs I found for you.”

“There isn’t enough of it. I need a score. A big one. And I couldn’t even put a string together here. I don’t know anyone.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but I put two fingers across her lips, said: “No, I couldn’t bring my own people out here. They’d be as lost as I am.”

“A bank is a bank,” she said, a deep vein of stubbornness inside her precise voice.

“A bank? Little girl, bank jobs are for dope fiends and morons. There’s no money in them anymore. Not in the tellers’ drawers, anyway. Anything else takes an inside man. And out here, I could never—”

“You went down to the casino . . .”

“And crapped out. There is no way you could hit a place like that. It’s way out in the sticks. It’d have to be a goddamn commando raid—helicopter on the roof, a dozen men, all that. Cost a fortune just to put it together, and the take wouldn’t be worth it. It’s a nice little operation, but it’s not carrying the kind of action worth that investment.”

“Where is the money, then?”

“Armored cars are the best, if you’re talking pure rough-off. But the deal with them is, you’ve got to be ready to kill a couple of people, minimum.”

“Oh,” is all Gem said. But I knew what she was thinking.

“Not for nothing,” I told her.

She just nodded.

“What I’ve got to do is put together a scam. A big one. Or go back to grifting, a little piece at a time.”

“You could do that here.”

“I could. Maybe. What’s wrong with that little-piece-at-a-time thing is that you’re going to be dropped, sooner or later. I’m a two-time loser, both for what they call ‘armed-violent’ felonies today. I get tapped for even some little nonsense, I’d pull the same time I’d get for homicide. They’d bitch me for sure.”

“Bitch you?”

“Ha
bitch
ual offender. That’s a life-top in most states. Even without that, it’s double figures, guaranteed. Time I got out, I’d be ready for Social Security—”

“—only you are not eligible,” she finished for me.

She didn’t drop it easy. Never thought she would; that’s not Gem.

“I have a goal,” she said. “A certain sum of money. When I have it, I will stop what . . . I do. Is it the same for you?”

I caught her depth-charge eyes on me, didn’t even make the effort to lie. “No, child. I’ve
had
money. Not now, but once.” Thinking of the fortune I’d spent tracking the humans who’d killed Pansy. Down here, where I live, people don’t save their money for a rainy day. They save it for revenge. “And it didn’t make any difference,” I told her.

Days passed. I felt like I’d spent the night on a bench in a Greyhound terminal . . . and woke up without the cash for a ticket to anyplace else.

Gem found some occasional work for me. You’d think you have to know a city real well to do what I do, but that’s not true. Take New York—you can’t ever really know it. Sure, some of the old-time cabbies can find addresses City Hall doesn’t even know exist—although most of the new ones can’t find any street above Ninety-sixth or below Fourteenth. But that’s not the same as going
into
the buildings. Or, worse, into their basements.

New York’s a shape-shifting demon, never letting you get your bearings before it morphs again. A slum block turns into six-figure co-ops overnight. A neighborhood vanishes like a migrant laborer moving on to the next harvest. A mini-city rises out of the river, built on landfill. Times Square still sucks tourist dollars, but now they come to
take
pictures, not to buy them.

Don’t get me wrong. New York is still one place where you can buy or sell anything that exists on this planet. But the trading posts keep moving around, and the maps are useless before their ink dries. You’re always starting from scratch.

And always scratching.

I had tracked the Russian couple whose kid had been kidnapped—the one I was supposed to exchange the cash for—from Chicago to a mail drop in Vancouver. But I needed a note written in Russian to spook them into the open. And someone fluent enough to dialogue with them if the trick worked.

I found Gem through Mama’s network. She signed on. Did the job. But instead of walking away, she’d stayed with me all the way to the end . . . out past the twelve-mile limit.

Somewhere along the trail, Gem decided she was my wife. I’d never heard that word from a woman before. Love, yes. Two women had died for my love, and another had taken it with her when she went back to Japan. Even babies, women I’d been with had talked about. But I can’t make babies. Had myself fixed a long time ago.

Gem knew I wasn’t going anywhere near
any
license. I’d been registered since birth. Born a suspect, then tracked by the fucking State until I learned how to live under its radar. Gem didn’t care. Sometimes she called me Burke, sometimes “husband.”

The ID I have says I’m Wayne Askew. I’ve got a full set—passport, driver’s license, Social Security, credit cards . . . all perfect. I’ve never used them around here. Got them from Wolfe, the beautiful ex-prosecutor with white wings in her long dark hair and gray gunfighter’s eyes. She’d gone outlaw when her ethics got in the way of the DA’s ass-kissing. Now she was an info-trafficker, with some of the best contacts in the business.

What she’d never been was mine. I’d had my chance there. And, being myself, killed it.

Another reason not to go back to New York.

Gem had her own business, and I stayed out of it. I never worried about her. She’d survived the Khmer Rouge when she was a little girl, learning Russian from the strange men visiting the opium warlord, who’d kept her alive because she was so good at math. Making her plans, waiting. When the window opened a crack, Gem slid through like smoke, made her way here, and did . . . whatever she did . . . ever since.

I don’t know where Gem found customers for the kind of stuff I got hired for. Like Kitty, the stripper whose boyfriend wanted her to work a different circuit. Harder work. More money. Kitty wasn’t a genius, but she was smart enough to be scared.

Gem was the cutout. The stripper never met me. And the boyfriend probably thought it was a random mugging that hospitalized him—if he could think at all; those head injuries are tricky things.

The cops wouldn’t spend a lot of time on the case. The victim was such a nothing, who’d hire muscle just to fuck him up? Besides, the guy
was
black. With a white girlfriend. And with those roving gangs of skinheads in certain parts of town . . .

By the time the hospital kicked him loose, his property was long gone.

Gem found other work for me, and I did it. But when she first told me about the runaway, I pulled up short. They’re a different game, runaways. One of the things I did—a thousand years ago, when I still believed I could be something more than what I am—was find people. When someone pays you to do that kind of work, you have a lot of choices. You can take the money and never look—just make up some nice stories for your “progress reports” until the mark calls it off. Or you can find the target, ask him what it’s worth for you to go Stevie Wonder on whoever asked you to look.

Hell, you can even do the job, straight.

With kids, I always looked for real. I was young myself—still didn’t get it, how things worked. People who hired me, they had nice homes, nice cars, nice lives. I knew why I’d run away myself when I was a kid. It’s a POW’s duty to escape. And to keep trying when they recapture you.

But, the way I figured it at first, kids from the nice homes, they ran away for the adventure. Their parents were worried about them. The streets were ugly. Things could happen. So I really looked.

When I found the kids, some were happy to see me. Relieved. They’d made their statement. Things would be different when I brought them back, they told me. But other kids, they told me different things.

Those kids I didn’t bring back.

I found other places I could bring them. Some of the kids stayed. Some of them testified. And some of them went back to The Life.

BOOK: Pain Management
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