Henry stopped after a couple paces. The garage was to his left, the doors flung open, cars parked out front. A crowd of men in blue coveralls worked in, under, and around the vehicles. Stephen hadn’t said exactly where he was going to be meeting him in the junkyard. The place was enormous. Henry wasn’t sure if he was supposed to attract the attention of the guys working here, but it didn’t seem like a good idea, especially with the briefcase in hand.
Suddenly, his phone rang.
He plucked it out of his pocket quickly, pressing the accept button, hopefully before anyone in the yard could hear the ringer.
“Walk a little further.”
Henry froze. He turned on the spot, looking around the place. There was no one looking at him. Not that he could see.
“Are you fucking with me?” he hissed.
“Bear with me, Henry,” Stephen said.
“Don’t pull this Taken crap with me, Steph,” Henry seethed, walking towards the stacks of junked cars, as he had been instructed. “This isn’t a game. Where are you?”
“You’re almost there.”
Henry swore profusely under his breath. He dropped the phone by his side and kept walking, onward through the rows of dented, rusted, and bashed in vehicles. His heart pounded in his ears, afraid someone who worked at the junkyard would stop him.
“Where are you?” he snapped again, bringing the phone to his ear.
“You can stop now.”
Henry faltered and stood still. He was in the middle of the junkyard, at a random corner between one row and another. Dust blew up around him, the cold biting through his clothes. He flinched against the wind.
“I don’t see you,” he said.
“Do you see that Volvo?”
Henry’s mouth went dry a beat, speechless.
“That station wagon. That really ugly, beat up, orange station wagon?”
Henry turned on the spot. There was, in fact, an orange station wagon squatting on the ground, huddled in with a host of other crapped Volvo models along the same rack.
“I want you to put the briefcase underneath the back bumper,” Stephen told him.
“Hold on. No. No way.” Henry raked his fingers over his bare, stubbly head, huffing with exasperation. “You fucking… you told me you would be here!”
“I am here, Henry. Just not with you.”
“You fucking prick.”
“What happened to the rental?” Stephen asked curiously.
“What happened to you fucking being here?” Henry screamed.
“No. No fucking way. I’m not leaving your case of… shit, out here in the middle of nowhere so you can come along later and pick it up. If you want it, you can give me a fucking explanation. Or you can kiss my ass.”
“I’m going to give you an explanation, Henry,” Stephen replied tersely. “First, I want to see you place the briefcase under the Volvo.”
Henry paused a beat. He chuckled bitterly.
“You’re such a rotten liar.”
“Why would I lie to you about this?” Stephen asked.
“You can’t be serious.” The amount of times Stephen had lied to him over the past several hours had Henry shaking with rage.
“No, I am. Seriously, Henry, what do you want from me? You want me to explain everything to you, but you’re not listening.”
“I’ve been listening…”
“Good. Then put the briefcase under the fucking car.”
It was the first time, through this whole ordeal, that Henry had heard Stephen genuinely swear. His brother had always been the more level-headed of the two of them. He kept all his anger bottled up inside, prided himself on being “the reasonable one”, but Henry had always known how to push his buttons.
Henry tilted his head back, breathing out sharply through his mouth, cracking his neck with the tension. He looked around himself again, past the iron racks of cars surrounding him towards the brownstone houses and other buildings that stood outside the junkyard on the other side of the street. This was a residential neighborhood, with maybe a few pizza places, bagel shops, and Chinese food restaurants scattered in between.
“How are you seeing me right now anyway?” Henry muttered. “I thought you were in Toronto.”
“This didn’t seem to bother you before,” Stephen replied testily, “when I told you I’d meet you in the middle of Brooklyn.”
“Where the fuck are you? If you’re here, why don’t you just meet me?”
“Are you going to just talk at me?” Stephen snapped. “Or will you put the briefcase there, like I said, so I can answer your questions?”
“Who died and made you king,” Henry growled to himself, stepping towards the orange station wagon. He was fed up with Stephen’s games, but he wasn’t going to stand there arguing semantics. He ducked under the big metal rack that was holding all the cars in place and slid the briefcase carefully under the back of the Volvo.
“I did it.”
“Thank you. You might want to leave the junkyard now, before anyone sees you.”
“We can talk about this –”
“No. Answer me now.”
“This is stupid, Henry.”
“Who are you working for?”
There was a large, terse silence on the other end of the line. Henry raked his eyes across the horizon, looking at all the windows around the block that might have a bird’s eye view of him. There were a lot of windows.
“You take me for a fucking idiot, because I pushed drugs and went to jail for it. Maybe if you didn’t think so highly of yourself, you’d stop getting yourself worked into a corner, Stephen. I know someone put you up to this. So who is it? Is he a con guy? Another block baller like Alby?”
“You’re asking about Xavier,” Stephen said, clearing his throat.
“Yeah, sure, that guy. The one Alby seems to… seemed to think had a lab somewhere in Mexico manufacturing this stuff.”
“So he is dead then.”
He heard his brother sigh, his breath crackling with static. Henry waited, his teeth clenched.
“It really doesn’t concern you, Henry,” Stephen said, a note of irritation in his voice.
“I’m sorry, okay? I shouldn’t have asked you to do it, I could’ve gotten someone else.”
“Because sorry fucking cuts it,” Henry seethed.
“I thought I was doing you a favor.”
“You thought –”
Henry pulled the phone away from his face, his whole body shuddering with rage, unable to contain himself. He kicked the station wagon hard, jarring his foot.
“Please, Henry,” Stephen pleaded.
“No, FUCK YOU! Do you know what I did for you and that fucking case? Do you know how many –”
Henry clapped a hand to his mouth, forcing himself to stop. He could hear his own voice carrying over the stacks of cars, echoing around the desolate yard, and knew it meant the junkers could probably hear him too.
“GOD!” he screamed, muffled by his hand. He held the cell phone tightly, as though he meant to crush it. After a beat he jammed it back under his ear.
“…was wrong, Henry. I was wrong.”
“Don’t. Just don’t.”
His voice cracked with weariness. He rubbed a hand over his face.
“If you give me another fucking half-assed apology, Steph, the next time I see you I’ll blow a hole through your head.”
There was a tense pause on Stephen’s part. Henry could imagine his expression right now, his face scrunched up with bitterness and rage. Stephen didn’t take threats easily.
“Who is this guy?”
“I work for him. He’s a business guy.”
“He made the coke, the stuff in the vials that killed Alby.”
“It’s not coke, Henry.”
Henry’s mouth went dry. He stared at the station wagon, his brows narrowed with confusion.
“What is it then?”
Stephen sighed once more.
“It’s difficult to explain.”
“It’s a long story.”
“I don’t care.”
Henry just barely managed to keep himself from cursing Stephen out again. He could hear his brother’s exasperated breathing on the other side of the line.
“You know… you never even asked.”
Henry blinked in confusion.
“I was gone first. Six years, not five. And when I came back, you didn’t care where I had gone.”
It took Henry a moment to connect the dots. Stephen was talking about the time he had run away, when he was sixteen. He left without hardly a word, and he didn’t come back until Holden was born. Henry had never found out exactly where he went or what he did during those years. He had never asked.
“I thought you didn’t want to talk about it,” Henry said. Though he had no clue what this had to do with anything, he felt a small twinge of guilt.
“You didn’t want to talk about it. You had Carmen and Holden, and you didn’t want to think about what had happened to me after I left.”
“Don’t hold that against me. What was I supposed to do, Steph?” Henry asked, becoming exasperated. “You didn’t leave an address, or a phone number.”
“I didn’t have one.”
“You know what I mean.”
“You still don’t care.”
“Steph. Cut the crap. What’s this got to do with anything?”
“Everything, Henry. And you don’t even get it. You won’t even listen.”
Stephen took a deep breath. Henry needled at his brow, a headache beginning to pound into his forehead.
“All you need to know is, while I was gone, I met Xavier. And now I’m involved in his work.” He chuckled bitterly. “I guess, now you are too.”
“The fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“The vials, Henry. Alby’s so-called ‘coke’. It’s Xavier’s invention. The guys at the lab have nicknamed it ‘ether’.”
Henry just stared ahead blankly.
“Never mind. Actually, I think I can put it into layman’s terms. You know how cancer works? The basics of it?”
Henry said nothing for a moment, completely thrown off-kilter.
“Ether is a kind of… how would I describe it? It basically has this thing, so it’s able to disable the part of normal, healthy cells which allow them to repair mutations. You know, cancer mutations. And because of the ether, the body can tolerate the new mutations that occur because of it.”
Henry’s mouth was hanging slightly ajar.
“I told you it was pointless to explain.”
“So…what you’re telling me, is… the stuff in the test tubes… causes cancer?”
“I… no. I mean it’s not quite cancer… it’s a cancerous virus. First of its kind. But, I guess, for the sake of argument, close enough.”
“Steph, you can’t catch cancer. You can’t get it from sticking a needle up your arm, or ingesting it,” Henry said incredulously.
“You can now.”
Henry laughed, hard and quick, his mind completely boggled.
“C’mon, Steph. You can’t catch cancer.”
“Alby did,” Stephen replied. “Didn’t he?”
Henry’s words trailed off into nothing. Flashes of the night before flew through his thoughts once more. He remembered the way Alby’s skin had begun to yellow and deform. How the blood had come gushing out his mouth, his eyes. How the stench of putrefaction had hit the air in a matter of seconds.
“It’s Xavier’s work,” Stephen said, and Henry could have sworn he said it with pride. “It’s the future, Henry. It’s our future.”
Henry stumbled on the spot. His head had become light. He sat down on the hood of the station wagon, and the entire thing creaked, sagging beneath his weight.
“Does that answer your questions, Henry?” There was fury, barely repressed, buried under the tones of Stephen’s voice.
“Why would you?”
Henry was beside himself. He didn’t know whether to question Stephen’s motives, his sanity, or the impossibility of the claim.
“It’s natural progression, Henry. I had a lot of time to think while I was gone. And I realized something about the way people live nowadays. We’ve been cheating evolution for too long. Coming up with all these ways to keep people with bad genetics alive. Trying to “fight” illness, and yet we’re still not seeing any change. We’ve been thinking too hard into the ‘cure’ for cancer. No one stopped to think, maybe it’s not a cure we need, but a solution. Mutation has always been the motor for evolution. It just needs a little kick start, to get the good genes going again.
“This is the solution. Hiding under our noses this whole time, disguised as a disease. This is what’s going to transform mankind. The poison is the remedy.”
Henry sat there, drinking the words in, staring at the ground aghast.
“I have no idea what you’re saying to me right now,” he snapped at Stephen. “It sounds like something… it sounds insane.”
“I am not crazy, Henry,” Stephen said tersely.
“You don’t sound sane. What are you talking about? Cancer saving mankind?”
“I should have never brought you into this. You didn’t need to know. Just leave me alone, okay? Forget about me. It’s done. It’s over. You win. You have Alby’s money, and you got away. Enjoy your spoils.”
“Woah, woah, woah, woah,” Henry barked at him. “Woah. I win? I don’t fucking think so. They’re looking for me, Steph! They’re gonna fucking hunt me down. They’ve probably already trashed my apartment. They’re probably there right now, waiting for me to come back. I can’t even go home!”
“I don’t have time for your gang problems, Henry,” Stephen said flatly. “Figure it out on your own.”
“What is your problem?” Henry screamed.
There was no reply. He looked down at the phone. The call had been ended.
Henry took a deep breath. He stuffed the phone into his back pocket, putting his hands on top of his head, pulling at his skin in frustration.
“Fuck it,” he said at last, and walked back to the station wagon. He bent down under the car and pulled the briefcase out from under the bumper. The wind blew through him briskly as he walked away. A dull throb pulsed in the arm that he had been shot in. It was beginning to feel swollen again.
The phone in his back pocket rang. Swearing, he stopped, pulled it out, and accepted the call.
“Go fuck yourself.”
“Henry, what’re you doing?”
“What’re you going to do with this thing, huh? Your precious test tubes of the future?”
“Henry, put it –”
“No, no, shut up for a second, because, maybe I’m going off on a limb here, but now, I’m going to guess you didn’t actually know what was going to happen last night.”
“Because if Alby hadn’t sampled the coke,” Henry went on, plowing over Stephen’s words, “this stuff would have went through distribution. Which was supposed to happen anyway. Which would mean more people would have used it.”
“Henry, put the case –”
“And more people would have died. Which doesn’t seem to bother you. You seem to think that’s the idea here.”
“Henry! WOULD YOU SHUT THE FUCK –”
“What’s the matter, Steph? Things not going according to plan?”
Pressing the end call button at that moment was one of the most satisfying things Henry had done since this whole thing started. The moment he put it back into pocket, it began ringing again. But Henry ignored it. He squared his shoulders, the briefcase still in his hand, and walked out the same way he had come in.
Henry lingered a moment under the awning of a dumpling shop, digging into his pocket once more and pulling out a slip of paper. Water dripped down his beard and across his shirt front like a steady fountain. The back of his neck was slick with rain. Overhead, the sky rumbled.
He had just come from the subway station, about two blocks away. He was in Chinatown now, not too far from the Buddhist Temple. Pedestrians and tourists walked past him hurriedly, crowding close to the walls of shop fronts, huddling under umbrellas, or jumping from underneath awning to awning to avoid the rain. The sky had gone completely dark with the storm. It was strange to think that, only several hours ago, Henry had been playing with Holden in the park.
By the light of the fairy lights and paper lanterns now being lit by shop owners, all across the block, Henry squinted down at the address he had written down. The ink had become smudged with rain, and he was having difficulty remembering the place off the top of his head. He had scribbled the address down half an hour ago, back at the public library. It must have started to rain while he was still inside. It was pouring now.
The apartment number he had written down, though lost to the elements, belonged to Shane Chon, an ex-forensics lab technician. And though he wasn’t sure what door would be his, he knew the guy lived in one of the apartments above a restaurant called Atari.
Henry looked up, glancing around. The street was swarming with people, pushing through the crowds of shop keepers who were calling out deals to passerby, and street vendors trying to hustle their goods. The air was layered thickly with the scent of muggy sewer water and frying pork. Voices bellowed out from all corners, speaking Mandarin and Cantonese chiefly, but plenty of other languages as well. He didn’t bother to ask for directions.
He knew it was somewhere around Essex Street. He remembered seeing it on the map. He set out in that direction.
He had been in this part of the city only a couple times in his life. He had never had much cause at all to come up to Manhattan. Though he did remember coming here once with Carmen, to buy one dollar dumplings. It had been a rainy day, just like this, and she had still been in college. He had wanted to take her to Chinatown. To have an excuse to crowd in close to each other on a busy subway car, their thighs just barely touching. They had stood beneath an awning of a toy store as they ate pork dumplings with plastic sporks, and talked about how, if they ever became teachers, they would do things differently. Better. That was back when Henry still had faint aspirations of going to college.
Chinatown felt completely different, in comparison with his memory. And he certainly didn’t know his way around it. As he walked from block to block, he became completely drenched with rain, the soles of his sneakers sucking at his wet feet like suction cups as he trod along. The briefcase handle was slick in his fingers. He hefted it from hand to hand, having given up a long time ago on not getting it wet.
His sense of direction wound up being completely off. It was only when he wandered onto Division that the streets began to look familiar. At least in contrast with what he had seen on Google maps. He came upon a narrow little street that was nearly flooded, the cobbled road amassing with puddles of mud and refuse. He walked lightly, avoiding the eye of shop keepers who stood outside their own doors, trying to get the attention of anyone who walked by. Up ahead, he saw a series of old, antique bridges connecting the buildings on either side of the street. An entanglement of scaffolding surrounded the bridges, lit with glowing paper lanterns, no doubt trying to restore the structures to their former glory. Food wrappers and paper cartons littered the gutters, flattened into soggy pancakes by the footsteps of passing pedestrians, and the whole place smelled faintly of burnt frying oils and excrement.
Henry walked on, his stamina slowing. For as long as he had been walking, his bad ankle had been weighing him down, throbbing morbidly, until he could barely feel it. The pain made him feel sick to his stomach. He took a moment, underneath one of the bridges, to kneel down and catch his breath, pretending to tie one of his shoes.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a man coming towards him, calling out something about a great deal, vegetables, and loitering. Henry straightened up, but his eyes slid past the man.
There, in the distance, just before the next bridge, a neon sign glowed dully through the rain and fog. It said Atari.
Henry stood and walked right past the vendor who was speaking to him, sprinting as he drew near the building. Steam billowed out the open doorway of the restaurant, and all the fried smells that came with it. An uproar of people could be heard as he stood on the front stoop. He looked inside. There was a cramped kitchen, bustling with workers, shouting at each other gruffly, slaving over greasy grills and enormous pans of meat and vegetables. People crowded around the tiny tables crammed within, hunched over their food by candlelight and dim fluorescent.
Henry stepped back. There was a fence with a metal door by Atari’s main entrance, and beside it a panel of buttons with numbers on them. He squinted through the driving rain at them. This was where he knew he would get lost. He stepped once more inside the doorway of Atari to take out his slip of paper again, and try to read the address. There was a number one, and a letter B, but the number in between could have been a seven or another one. Crinkling the paper, he went back to panel and buzzed apartment 11B.
He wanted for a good solid minute in the pouring rain, the aroma from the Chinese restaurant next door making his head swim, before the pressed the button again. He had his finger on 17B when the intercom buzzed back.
The voice on the intercom crackled horribly, and Henry could barely make it out through the splatter of raindrops.
“Hello. Is this Shane Chon?” he screamed into the speaker, holding the button down.
“What was that?” the voice on the intercom spat back.
“Shane Chon?” Henry yelled. He could see the vendors on the opposite side of the street, in their yellow ponchos and umbrellas, eyeing him warily from beside their carts of produce.
“I… I can’t hear you.”
“Shane Chon!” Henry hollered.
“This is Henry Martin!”
“I’m sorry, I missed that last part.”
From the way the intercom crackled and broke up loudly, Henry had a feeling his voice hadn’t gotten through.
“I… I’m sorry, I don’t…”
“We knew each other from Lincoln,” Henry interrupted, uttering each word with as much clarity as he could force while shouting. “From Lincoln.”
There was a beat of silence across the com.
“What did you say… name was again?”
Henry dropped his forehead against the door in exasperation.
“Could you please just let me in from the rain?” he pleaded.
“Let me in! Please!”
There was another moment of quiet, with no response, and Henry’s heart picked up a little, worried he’d gotten too frustrated too soon. He wasn’t even sure if Shane would remember him. They had only known each other a month in prison before Shane had been released on parole.
The door buzzed loudly, and Henry heard a bolt slide out of place. He tried the handle of the door, and it opened. He ducked inside. There was a short alleyway, filled to the brim with trash, leading up to a door that was not locked. Henry shouldered his way inside.
After he closed the door behind him, he took a moment by the stairs, wiping the water off his face. The air inside was cloistered and stale. The only light streamed in from the window from the second landing, illuminating all the motes of dust which hung thickly around the gloom of the narrow stairway. He was leaving a puddle on the concrete, staining the floor a darker shade of grey.
Just as he began to mount the stairs, groaning a bit about the pressure it put on his injuries, he heard steps coming quickly from below. He stopped and turned.
A fairly big man huffed up the steps, from a basement stairway Henry hadn’t seen. The man stopped, jamming his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose so that he could stare at Henry, and brushed his long hair out of his face. Henry looked back at him, unsure what to say.
“Who are you again?” he asked breathlessly.
Henry waited, as realization dawned over Shane’s face.
“From Lincoln Correctional?”
Henry nodded. Befuddlement still clouded over Shane’s face, as though he hadn’t quite placed him yet. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers.
“You were that guy!”
Henry just stared back at him blankly as Shane struggled to find the right words.
“That one guy… the one who bit off a chunk of what’s-his-name’s ear!”
Henry felt a sinking in his stomach that churned like acid, not related to the fact that he hadn’t eaten in over six hours. He really didn’t want to be reminded of the ear-incident right now, of all times.
Shane wheezed a laugh.
“I remember! Yeah… yeah, because I told you that fucking story about pretending to be a schizo during my ten years. Never thought you’d take it so close to heart.”
Henry shrugged, his eyes downcast, his face turning red.
Shane laughed again, wiping at the corner of his eyes.
“Awh, man. What’re doing back in the world of the living?”
“I’m on parole,” Henry answered.
“No, I think you missed my real question,” Shane said, leaning heavily on the rail to the staircase, so that it sagged beneath his weight. “What’re doing here?”
Shane stared at him with a raised brow, the geniality now clearly gone.
“I, uh… I wanted to ask you something.”
“Ask away,” Shane said, spreading his hands out wide.
“I, ah, was wondering… if you could…”
“Well, hold on now,” Shane interrupted him, his look sly. “This is sounding less like a question and more like a favor.”
Henry stared back at him, flustered.
“Well… kind of, yeah…”
Shane made a tch-tching noise at him.
“What’s in it for me?”
Henry sighed in exasperation. Shane just looked back at him, the corners of lips curled up smugly.
“Do you want money?” he snapped. “Is that what you want?”
“Well, you’re not going to repay me in sexual favors, are you?”
“Shane, please.” Henry rolled his eyes.
Shane just cackled.
“What do you plan on paying me for, anyway?”
Reluctantly, Henry held up the briefcase.
“I need you to analyze this.”
Shane stared at the case for a moment, his brow furrowed.
“Well, it looks expensive…”
Henry felt his spirits drop.
“What? For your rate?”
“No, I mean your briefcase.”
Henry gave him another feebly disgusted look. Shane wheezed another laugh.
“Very funny, Shane. You’re a very funny man.”
“Don’t look so amused,” Shane teased. He beckoned Henry forward and began walking down the stairs. Henry trailed behind him, feeling even more wary than he had when he initially walked through the door. After all, he knew very little about Shane’s skills as a forensics expert. All he really knew was that he’d been nabbed for stealing forensic evidence in the first place.
But it wasn’t as though Henry had another friend with the ability to analyze poisonous chemicals.
They stopped at the bottom floor. There was a narrow, concrete passageway, lit greenly by a single malfunctioning fluorescent fixture. Shane led him down the hall, squeezing in between the walls. Behind the doors he passed along the way, Henry could hear a television blasting, a baby crying, and a bed creaking, back and forth and back and forth, while a man moaned with pleasure. He wondered if all the noises could be coming from the same apartment.
Shane stopped at a door at the end of the hall and jiggled his keys into the lock.
“Watch your step,” he said, as he wedged himself inside. Henry followed suit. The apartment within had to be, without a doubt, the smallest he had yet to see. The main room was as narrow as a grocery aisle, and packed to the brim with electrical appliances, computer monitors, a refrigerator, desks and chairs, a television and a sofa chair. Every surface was covered with papers, porno magazines, ash trays, dirty brandy glasses, lab equipment, and paraphernalia. At the back of the room, Henry could see a bedroom about as wide as an elevator shaft, littered with dirty dishes, takeout containers, and old clothes. A bed sheet hung ajar in the doorway, partitioning the one room from the next.
Shane fell into a swivel chair, rolling back up to his desk – which sat only inches away from the door – and plucked up a container of takeout.
“So what exactly do you want me to ‘analyze’?” he asked, taking his chopsticks in hand and stuffing his face with fried rice.
Tentatively, Henry lifted up the briefcase and placed it on Shane’s desk. The surface bucked underneath him and gave a displeasured yowl.
“Hey, hey, hey, be careful,” Shane said as Henry recoiled, shocked. Shane reached forward and grabbed a rather large tom cat out from under where Henry had been about to place Stephen’s briefcase, pulling the mangy creature onto his lap and scratching it under the chin.
“You’re okay, Horatio,” Shane cooed at him.
Shane looked up at him expectantly. The tom cat eyed him with disdain. Henry was still a little too thrown off to know what to say.
He put the briefcase down and undid the clasps. Just as he was about to open it up, he stopped himself. He stared at his hands for a moment, his muscles locked into place. He hadn’t really thought this through. But now that the vials were practically beneath his fingers, he could imagine the radiation leaking out of them.
“What?” Shane demanded around a mouthful of Chinese food. The cat leaped from his lap with a scornful growl.
Henry glanced at Shane out of the corner of his eye.
“Nothing,” he said. But there was something more he wanted to say, at the tip of his tongue. It had just occurred to him that he was asking Shane, someone he barely knew, to take a pretty big risk. “You should know, I think these chemicals are really, really lethal.”
Shane looked up at him curiously, more intrigued than perturbed. Henry swallowed.
“I think they may be some kind of contagion.”
“What makes you think that?”
Henry’s throat was rough as sandpaper. When he chuckled nervously, his voice rattled.
“I saw someone ingest it,” he said.
Shane shook his head.
“If you watched someone take it, it probably wouldn’t be a contagion. Doesn’t work that fast. And you’d as likely be sick too, bub.”
“No,” Henry said, shaking his head as well. He opened up the briefcase, showing Shane the vials. “You don’t understand. They injected it into themselves. They didn’t unstopper the vial.”
Shane leaned in close, staring down the length of his nose at the vials in their Styrofoam molds, reflecting amber light back into his face. He pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose.
“Which one was it?” Shane asked.
Henry looked down at the rows of vials blankly. One corner of the foam was still stained dark with Alby’s blood.
Shane sniggered at him.
“You don’t know.”
“No,” Henry admitted, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Why?”
“Why? Does it matter?”
“Well no, not really, but it would be good to know which one it was. There might be a hole in the cork that’s a little bigger now. Don’t want a leak.”
As Shane leaned in and began to tug one of the vials loose, Henry felt his heart clench as though a hand was holding it in a fist. He had never thought of that. He had been carrying the case around all this time, even had it right next to his son, and he had never thought of that.
“I mean… I think it was on this side,” he said, pointing at the vials on the left side of the case. He gnawed at the inside of his cheek, staring at Shane anxiously as he lifted the vial up to the light. “What did you mean by…? I mean, d’you think… I mean, if I was in the same room, as they guy that injected this stuff, do you think I could be sick as well?”
“Dunno,” Shane said distractedly. He shook the vial between his thumb and his forefinger, splashing the liquid inside around. Henry nearly had a heart attack. He glanced back at Henry. “It depends on how this stuff travels. Air, spit, blood. You want me to test you for it?”
“Yeah, sure,” Henry flustered. He watched as Shane dragged a magnifying glass over and held the vial underneath it.
“It’ll cost you extra,” Shane said, squinting with one eye. Henry didn’t really know what to say. He only had a couple hundred left from the money he had taken from Alby. He didn’t even know if it would be enough. He had never done anything like this before.
Shane placed the vial on his desk, and the chink of the glass made Henry wince.
“So what is it exactly you want me to look for in my analysis?” he asked.
“Well… what can you… do?”
Shane gave him a slightly patronizing look.
“Well, I can run a regularly tox screen on it, Henry, but if it’s really something as lethal as you think it is, chances are it wouldn’t come up. So what did you come to me for, specifically?”
“I don’t… I mean, I’m trying to figure out how to get rid of it.”
Shane raised a brow at him.
“You want to get rid of it?” he asked.
“And you’re here because…?”
“I think it might be, like, radioactive, or something. Or contagious, or whatever. And before I toss it in a dumpster, or burn it, or whatever, I want to be sure I’m not going to cause another Black Plague, or something. Or some kind of nuclear wasteland.”
Shane cackled at him once again, rubbing his brow incredulously as he grinned. Henry just stood there awkwardly, a pit forming in the bottom of his stomach.
“Alright,” he said at last, once he’d had his laugh. “I’ll see if I can identify it for you. And if you give me a blood sample, I’ll test to see if there are any traces in you as well.”
“Alright, thank you,” Henry said, wiping the sweat off his face. It was much muggier within Shane’s apartment than it had been outside.
Shane beckoned at him silently. Henry stared at him dumbly, taking a step forward, not sure what he was miming.
“I want half, please,” Shane said, his eyes shifting towards Henry’s pockets.
“Oh!” Henry began to skim his pockets for his wallet, frowning at Shane curiously. “Well, I mean, how much do you want for it?”
“I’ll take a hundred right now,” he said, still beckoning impatiently with his fingers. Henry took out his wallet and counted out five twenty-dollar bills. “Thank you,” Shane said as he handed them over, counting them out himself. He crumpled the bills and threw them into a little mason jar already full to brim with pennies and other spare change. “And I expect that other hundred when I’m done,” he went on, “maybe even a little more, depending on what it takes to ID your vials. Roll up your sleeve.”
Shane kicked out a chair for Henry, and he hastily plopped onto it. As he pushed up his sleeve, Shane rummaged around his desk, until he found what looked to be a first aid kit buried under a pile of pornos.
“I know it might burn a hole in your pocket, but I’ve been out of work, you know, since I was kicked from NYPD,” he continued as he thumbed through the kit, pulling out gauze.
“You don’t work here?” Henry asked, as Shane tore through his desk again, coming up with a length of plastic tubing and a syringe, which Henry eyed warily.
“What?” Shane replied, holding the end of the syringe in his mouth as he got up, walking across the room to search for something else. “At the place upstairs?”
“I’m Korean, you asshole.”
Henry laughed. Shane came back with a lighter in hand, and two bottles of alcohol and hydrogen peroxide tucked in his arms. As he sat down, he began to sterilize the needle.
“Not even Korean. A quarter Korean. My grandmother barely even spoke the language.”
“Sorry man,” Henry smiled.
Shane chuffed, bowed over his preparations.
“Not that I couldn’t get a job there but… other arm would be better… I mean, c’mon dude,” he scoffed.
Henry began to pull up his other sleeve hesitantly, exposing the blood-stained gauze.
“I don’t think…”
“Well that doesn’t look good.”
Shane had caught sight of the wound out of the corner of his eye, and leaned forward now to inspect it. Henry squirmed a little as he probed around the dirtied gauze with his finger. He glanced up at Henry, his glasses slipping down to the tip of his nose.
“You want me to look at it?” he asked.
Henry shook his head.
“It could be getting infected.”
Henry just shook his head more firmly, giving an awkward smile.
“It’s good. Thanks though.”
Shane looked at him doubtfully, shaking his head in reproach.
Despite how sketchy Shane’s equipment looked, he extracted a sample of blood from Henry’s arm rather painlessly. When it was done, he set the syringe down on the table and shooed him away.
“Go… sit over there, or something. Or get some takeout upstairs, I don’t care. Just don’t crowd me in at my desk.”
“Okay,” Henry replied, getting awkwardly to his feet. He scanned his eyes quickly over the narrow landscape of molding furniture and rotting food containers, and spied a roach climbing up the arm of Shane’s sofa. He quickly made the decision to wait upstairs.
Out in the hallway, he counted out what cash he had left. He had another hundred dollars for Shane, plus an extra seventy. It didn’t leave him much spare change for food, but luckily when he surfaced back into the storming evening, he found that Atari was actually rather inexpensive. He got an eggroll for one buck and stood near the doorway with it. All the tables were full.
He tapped his foot anxiously. He had an itching to get Stephen back on the phone. To ask him again about all of this. But he knew it was too late now. If he had wanted to ask more questions, it would have had to have been before he made his decision to keep the briefcase. Now there wasn’t any turning back.
But honestly, Henry just wasn’t sure of what he was doing. He’d always played things very close to the chest, even running with Alby’s crew, making most of his choices with uncertainty, but never quite to this extent. He had never been in over his head to this degree.
He just couldn’t believe this. It was crazy. It didn’t seem real. He wanted to think it wasn’t real. He wanted to think that his brother was just a nutter. As much as that, itself, pained him to brood on, he wanted to believe that Stephen had simply become delusional. That, at least, seemed manageable in comparison. At least then his brother would be retrievable.
But there was a problem with that theory, which was why Henry was here, asking for Shane’s help, in the first place. The liquid coke – Stephen’s “ether” – was very real. It wasn’t a figment of a deranged man’s imagination, or a bottle of piss hallucinated into something more. Henry had seen this chemical, in a matter of seconds, completely destroy a healthy man. And the more he thought of cancer – some sort of viral, ingestible cancer – stewed in his brain, the more ill he felt at the notion.
Before he had left the public library, after writing down Shane Chon’s address, he had taken a moment to Google a couple of things. First, of course, he had wanted to know if it was possible: could cancer go viral? As far as he could tell, skimming through the titles of articles in his search results, there was no evidence of it. But he did find out a lot about cancer. How it killed. The way in which it shut down the body.
He had heard of a plot, or so he thought he remembered, some years ago, to try and release the bubonic plague again, as a sort of weapon of mass destruction over in a completely different part of the world. A terrorist attack. It had sounded like a fiction at the time, and seemed even more so now, in hindsight. But it was all Henry had thought about since talking to Stephen on the phone.
Was that what this was? Terrorism?
He was halfway through his eggroll when his cell began to ring. He scrambled to get it, wondering if Stephen was trying him again, and whether he should answer this time.
“Shit,” he snapped, swallowing his food quickly as he looked down at the caller ID. He lifted the phone up to his ear. “Officer Saar?”
“Henry, how are you?”
He could already feel the beads of sweat building up along the small of his neck. It was Eric Saar, his parole officer. He knew that Saar liked to call randomly, during the middle of the month to check in, but he had not expected to hear from him on a day like this.
“That’s good. How’s the job search been?”
Henry listened to him pause, as though to write something down. These check-ins were a part of his parole. He was supposed to be showing some progression since his release. He could feel his face reddening.
“I’m still waiting to hear back from a couple of places. But I don’t like my chances.”
“That’s to be expected, it’s only been, what, a month?”
“That’s right, sir.”
“Yeah. Don’t let it discourage you.” There was a beat. “Where are you right now, I can barely hear you.”
“Oh, I’m at a restaurant,” Henry said, raising his voice over the hubbub of customers chatting and workers calling at one another.
“Where was that?”
“A Chinese restaurant,” Henry repeated louder.
“No, uh, in Brooklyn. I went to visit Holden today.”
Henry’s throat felt dry. He coughed to clear his throat.
“Oh, nice, your son. How was that?”
“It was good,” he said awkwardly. “Yeah. We, uh, played soccer in the park.”
“Good, very good. You know, my son is only a couple years older than Holden, and all he does all day long is play, uh, what’s it called… Pokémon, I think that’s the one, on his little controller.”
Henry scratched at his beard nervously.
“That’s nice,” he said, wincing. He felt awful brushing him off, but just now, he couldn’t focus on his parole. Eric Saar was a good man. He honestly couldn’t have asked more from a parole officer. The guy was sincere, patient, and a good judge of character. After Henry had been approved for parole, the two of them had a very long and deep conversation about the nature of Henry’s arrest – about his family, his ties with MacAwley, and all the things he regretted. And Saar got it. He really did. That was all a part of his job, but there weren’t many officers, Henry knew, who actually felt it was their responsibility to help the criminals in their charge. Henry honestly felt Saar wanted to help him.
Today just wasn’t a day that he could appreciate that easily.
“Is your son like that?” Saar asked him, continuing on the conversation.
“Well, uh… I don’t think so, I mean, Carmen doesn’t really let him play video games much.”
“Ah. How do you feel about that, personally?”
“Well, uh… I mean, she’s right. I think its good he plays, you know, outside more, and he plays with friends. He doesn’t watch TV too much. Though I don’t think a few more games would hurt him.”
“Has it been tough lately?” Saar asked, his tone gentle. “Not being with your son?”
Henry was silent for a beat.
After a moment, Saar sighed, clearing his throat.
“Well, actually, I just called to see whether or not you’re home. I was planning on doing a check-in today.”
Henry felt himself flush from head to toe. His pulse skyrocketed. He couldn’t believe this. The luck he was having.
“What time do you expect you’ll be home?”
Henry glanced around himself frantically, as if he expected the answer to be given to him from somewhere around the room.
Saar waited patiently on the other side of the line. Henry swallowed heavily.
“Well, I, ah, I was just stopping for lunch real quick, so… though, actually, it’s about dinner time now, isn’t it?”
“Yup, I’m just heading out of the office now.”
Henry chuckled painfully.
“So yeah, I guess I’ll be heading home right about… now…”
Henry didn’t know what else to say. He didn’t have time for a home visit, but he could hardly refuse Saar, especially when he had no good excuse.
“Great,” Saar replied, a smile in his voice. “I’ll stop by your place on my way home. Rush hour traffic, so it should give you a chance to tidy the place up if you need to.”
Henry forced an uncomfortable laugh.
“Don’t worry, Henry,” Saar said, sensing a touch of Henry’s unease. “It’s just a routine visit. I won’t stay long.”
“Look forward to… having you. Over,” Henry concluded awkwardly. Saar hung up the phone. Henry stood a minute, staring ahead into the restaurant, flabbergasted. Then he stuffed the rest of his eggroll into his mouth and ran out the door, plunging through the rain.
It took him quite a while to finally reach his stop. He raced all the way home, grateful the rain was letting up, uncaring about the mobs of people crowding around the sidewalk as he shoved on through the city streets. He got a lot of dirty looks, but he couldn’t think about that now.
He cut across a dirt lot to get to his apartment quicker, passing junked up old cars, soiled mattresses, and oil drums stacked with burnt wood from a previous night’s fire. When he saw his building in the distance, he put on more speed, careful to jog around the clusters of homeless people taking shelter in the shadows of car hulls and old sofas.
As he was mounting the guard rail, between him and the parking lot of his apartment building, he stopped. By the stairs, a white van was parked. A cluster of men stood around it, smoking languidly, and talking in small voices. Amongst them, Henry recognized the boy Donahue had bitten on the ear. He was lounging on the bottom step, dragging on a joint.
“Fuck,” he whispered, landing on the other side of the guard rail. He looked up the steps at the balcony walk on the second floor. He saw Saar leaned against Henry’s door, a middle-aged man with ash blonde hair, and a kind, wrinkled face. There was a backpack slung over his shoulder. He was pretty underdressed, for a cop. Whenever Henry met with him, he was almost never in uniform. He liked to dress in his civi’s. Otherwise, Alby’s men would have recognized him by now.
Henry didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to stand there any longer. Any second, they were bound to look across the lot and see him there, faltering like an idiot. He walked forward slowly, eyeing the Saints as he drew near. It was hard to tell if they were concealing guns, but he wouldn’t put it past them. Their van was an old food truck, and it was pretty safe to bet that there could be more of them inside. Suddenly, he was very glad he’d left the briefcase back at Shane’s after all.
The boy on the stairs was the first to notice him. He called out to the others and nodded his head Henry’s way. As they spotted him, they rose slowly to their feet, uncoiling, squinting at him across the lot with steely eyes. Henry felt his pulse thrumming in his throat. He saw one of them remove a sheaved pocket knife from their jacket. Henry’s heart skipped a beat.
Up on the second floor, Saar looked up. Alby’s men followed his line of sight. Henry walked a little faster, doing his utmost to look right past the men around the van.
“Ah, there you are Henry,” Saar called down. “I really didn’t expect to beat you here.”
As Henry came to the bottom of the steps, he met the eyes of the man with the pocket knife. A smile slid onto his face fluidly, and the man reacted with a hardy scowl.
“The subway got stopped.”
“Ah, I see,” Saar replied.
Henry stepped in front of the boy guarding the steps. The kid breathed smoke up into his face. Henry patted him on the back, stepping over him.
“Excuse me,” he said. He could feel the eyes of the Saints boring into him as he jogged up the steps to meet Saar, and his voice shook breathlessly as he went on. “I think it’s ‘cause they’re still doing construction on some of the lines.”
“Can’t wait until that’s finished,” Saar said empathetically. His eyes, too, glazed over the men loitering at the bottom of the steps as Henry hurried to stick his keys into his door. His expression creased cautiously as he looked away. He hoped Saar wasn’t catching on. “It’s been quite a pain.”
“Yeah.” Henry opened up the door and held it ajar for him. Once Saar was inside, he looked down at the man with the pocket knife again, and didn’t break eye contact with him until the door was shut.
“I like it.”
Henry turned around, taking a deep breath. Saar had his arms crossed, and was surveying his apartment with an appraising look.
“Truly. These places they find for our parolees are shit. It’s pretty impressive what you’ve been able to do with it since I was here last.”
Henry glanced around the place uncomfortably. There really wasn’t much to it. He had shoved a futon up against the right wall, and a coffee table opposite. On the far wall across from where Henry stood, the refrigerator, stove, microwave, and kitchen cabinets had been built into a little notch, from ceiling to floor. To the right of that setup was another door, ajar. Saar walked up to it now, prodding it open. Henry had a mattress on the floor, made-up, a small nightstand beneath the window, and a suitcase in front of the closet. He hadn’t really even bothered to unpack since he had moved in. He wasn’t sure why.
“Did you find all these in the same place?” Saar was pointing at the art prints that Henry had scattered about the place. Henry shook his head.
“They kinda came with the furniture. I found them at the same garage sale. Well, I mean, Carmen did.”
Saar chuckled. He was standing in front of Henry’s kitchenette, looking at the fridge.
“I love this,” he said. Henry craned his neck to see what he was poking at. It was one of Holden’s crayon drawings. “What’s that say?” Saar asked Henry.
Saar smiled, looking over the other crayon drawings from Holden’s preschool days. Henry stood to the side awkwardly, rubbing at the back of his neck. Although Henry felt red-faced, as though he was supposed to be talking up the place more than he was, he knew Saar understood. He had kids of his own, a family. He loved to talk about them almost as much as Henry felt uncomfortable talking about his. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of Carmen and Holden, or his mother and sisters – but talking about them forced him to agonize over the fact that he knew so little about them since going to prison. Five years was a long time, when you were talking about kids. Too often, he felt as though he had missed out on some of the best years of his son’s life. He was never going to get that back. It hurt him.
“How old was he when he drew this?” Saar asked.
Henry looked at the drawing a little closer. There was him and Carmen, rendered crudely in little gingerbread men-like figures, holding hands. Holden was standing next to a tiger.
“He might have been three,” Henry said, scratching his beard thoughtfully. “I dunno. We took him to the zoo a lot. He used to want to be a safari guy when he was older. Or a veterinarian.”
“What does he want to be now?”
Henry stared at the crayon drawing blankly, his eyes glazing over their smiling faces.
Saar was silent. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw him glance down at his shoes awkwardly. Henry stood back, clearing his throat.
“Can I get you something?” Henry asked. “Water, or…?”
Henry opened up his cabinets. They were practically barren. He ate out a lot, when he ate at all. What dishes he had were at the bottom of the sink.
“Do you mind drinking out of a coffee cup?”
“Not at all.”
As Henry was pulling one down, he caught sight of his arm. There was a small red spot just above the elbow of his sweater, where the gunshot was. He dropped his arm quickly by his side, taking the mug and filling it with tap water.
“Thank you,” Saar said, taking the cup and sipping from it.
“Excuse me just a sec,” Henry said, walking away from the kitchenette.
Henry ducked into his bedroom. He threw open his suitcase and began rummaging through it, pulling out a fresh change of clothes – shirt, sweatshirt, jeans, and a hat. He strode quickly into the adjoined bathroom, closing the door behind him. It was about as big as a broom closet, if not a little smaller. There was enough room to stand in front of the toilet, and there was no sink, just a shower stall that smelt of mold and sewage, no matter how many times he tried to clean it. He undressed with stiff movements. When he pulled off his sweater, he stared at the gauze. He was nervous to even touch it. And he didn’t think he had anything else to replace it with. But slowly, he peeled it back.
He hissed painfully, dropping the gauze to the floor. The skin around the bullet hole had puckered, the raised flesh looking wet and white. Moaning soundlessly, Henry turned on the showerhead, waited for the water to clear up, and then dipped his arm under.
He shoved his fist into his mouth, smothering a cry of agony. He had never had an injury that stung quite so bad. He wasn’t sure if it was because of the water, or because he hadn’t changed the dressing, but he left it under the running water.
Henry didn’t have enough time for this. Saar was just standing out there, probably already satisfied with the state of Henry’s apartment, while the Sons of Saints waited outside for him. He had absolutely no idea how to get past them a second time.
He looked in the cabinet above the sink, and found a bottle of ibuprofen along with a box of band-aids. He took two pills, and after the wound had dried a bit, began layering the band-aids over his wound. They barely covered the circumference of it, and didn’t seem to want to stick. But Henry didn’t know what else to do.
He had his t-shirt pulled up to his chin, about to rip it off, when he stopped. He looked down at the band name on the front, Murder the Muse, and rubbed thoughtfully at the bleach stain Carmen had gotten on it. He pressed the fabric against his nose and inhaled deeply. It smelled like her house. Like dryer sheets and lavender. He kept it on.
The wound now concealed beneath his sweatshirt, he stuffed the pill bottle and the band-aids into his pocket and walked back into the living room. Saar was sitting on his couch, cradling the coffee cup in his hands. He stood when he saw Henry, handing back the mug.
“Thanks,” Henry said, taking it and tossing it into the sink along with the other dishes.
“Thank you,” Saar said. “I should get going now. I was glad to see you though, Henry. I know it may seem like shit, but I really think you’re doing quite well.”
Henry could feel himself blanching, just a bit. His eyes glanced instinctively towards the door, behind which Alby’s men waited impatiently to jump him.
Saar clapped a hand on his shoulder.
“You’ll get back on your feet,” he said encouragingly. “You’ve got good things going for you, a family that loves you, things’ll turn around.”
Henry wasn’t sure how he should react to that. If he should smile or shake his hand, or what. He just stared at him blankly.
“See you around,” Saar said, turning. Henry felt himself stiffen with fear.
Saar looked back at him. Henry backed up, towards his bedroom, fetching his sneakers.
“I’ll walk you out. I wanted to stop by the corner store anyway, I need to get something.”
“Alright,” Saar said. He waited for Henry to put on his shoes and held the door open for him. Outside, the boy with the joint was leaning just by the door, against the railing at the top of the stairs. Henry felt his heart skip in his chest.
Saar wafted the cloud of marijuana smoke away from his face impatiently.
“Jesus,” he grumbled, walking past him. Henry stayed close on his tail, avoiding the kid’s eye. The boy poked Henry on the shoulder as he went past, hissing something unintelligible at him. Henry just kept his eyes forward, following Saar to his car.
Just as he stepped down onto the parking lot, the man from before stepped in front of him, coming in between him and Saar. He held the pocket knife, still sheathed, between his body and Henry’s. He had a round face, sunken in and pale. His adam’s apple bobbed with anticipation. He glared at Henry with crusty, bruised eyes.
He didn’t take his eye off the pocket knife. The man’s thumb caressed the switch almost lovingly.
“Do you mind if I grab a ride?”
Henry stepped around the man stiffly, watching him out of the corner of his eye. As he walked past, he caught sight of Saar, his hand on the car door, his eyes flicking back and forth from Henry to the Saints on the steps warily. As Henry approached, walking fast, he motioned for him to take shotgun silently, a knowing look in his eyes.
He pulled out of the lot before Henry even had time to put on his seatbelt.
The two of them were silent as Saar drove onto the road. They passed through the Projects wordlessly, but Henry caught sight of Saar glancing at the rearview mirror, as though he expected to see the white food van tailing them at any second. His pulse began to thrum once again.
“Were those MacAwley’s guys?” Saar asked after a while.
Henry paused a beat. He nodded quietly. Saar looked over at him, his brows knitted.
“Do you know what they want with you?”
Revenge, Henry thought, but he swallowed thickly and just shook his head.
“I think they’ve been looking for me,” he said softly.
“Since you got out?”
Henry nodded. He was getting real tired of telling half-truths, and to people whom he loved or respected.
He could feel Saar’s eyes digging into him, probing his expression curiously. Henry sunk a little in his seat. They stopped at a red light.
“Do you want to go back to them, Henry?”
Henry thought of the previous night. He thought about Donahue hissing into his ear, Alby’s scornful frown. His skin crawled with the memory of bone popping, as he snapped Donahue’s neck.
“That’s the last place I want to be,” he said thickly. He glanced at Saar out of the corner of his eye. He was nodding sympathetically.
“So where was it you wanted to go?”