A black panel van pulled into the lot and stopped some distance away from the few workers that were left huddled under the overhang of the store’s roof. After a couple minutes--and just as Jack had decided he wasn’t going to have much luck that day--it turned out of the parking spot and drove over to where he stood.
“Hey, you want some work loading some boxes?” the man on the passenger side--blond hair, blue eyes, stocky build--asked, rolling down his window. “We’ll pay ten bucks an hour.”
Jack hesitated for a moment, something niggling at him about the offer. Was it that the pay was a dollar or two more than most employers offered? Something in the guy’s expression?
He couldn’t pinpoint just what it was, couldn’t decide if it was something real or if it was just his paranoia playing up. The uncertainty on that point was enough to get him to nod his reply. “Sure.”
“Hop in,” Blondie said, jerking his thumb toward the van’s rear doors.
Jack glanced at it, his stomach tightening at the thought of being in an enclosed space, driven away from the one area of San Antonio that he knew by two strange men. They could be anyone. They could be from the government, having tracked him down and using this ruse to get him somewhere secluded.
But again, he ignored his instincts. Employers usually drove the workers to the site and back; this was no different. Climbing in the back, he peered out one of the small windows as they drove off, mentally tracking every turn and landmark.
They reached the warehouse about thirty minutes later, driving straight in through large hangar doors. A mid-sized moving van was parked in the warehouse, not far from a couple pallets of boxes..
“Basically we’ve got to move those boxes there onto that truck,” Blondie said, pointing.. They didn’t look anywhere near enough to fill the truck, which seemed to beg the question why they were using one so large, but Jack kept any curiosity on that score to himself.
There was no equipment to move the boxes except for a couple dollies, so Jack and the other man--dark-haired, bearded, hadn’t said a word the entire time--got down to work while the blond man went into what appeared to be an office.
For a couple hours, they simply worked in silence, loading boxes onto the dollies, taking them up a ramp onto the truck, and then stacking them at the back of the truck. It wasn’t until Jack was on his second-last run that his instincts proved him right.
While he was bringing in another load of boxes, his dolly slipped, puncturing the side of one of the boxes he’d just unloaded. Kneeling down to inspect the damage, Jack saw plastic and something brown and granular inside the box.
A feeling of cold washed over him from head to toe. Glancing quickly at the open end of the truck, he couldn’t see the pallets, but he could hear the dark-haired man stop beside them and start to shift another box. There was no sight line from the back of the truck to the office.
Watching the truck doors and listening for any movement of the other two men, he pulled out his pocketknife and made a tiny slit in the plastic. When he pulled it out, there were a few grains of brown powder on the end, and he carefully licked it off.
The taste--slightly burnt, slightly vinegary--confirmed it: black tar heroin.
Jack looked at the other boxes, wondering just how much was in each box, and how much was filler to fool customs agents. If even half of the boxes were half full, the street value of the shipment would be enormous.
Jack turned the box around to hide the hole just seconds before he heard the dark-haired man approaching.
“Hey, you taking a break or something?” he said in a low, smoker’s rasp.
“Just had to move a couple boxes so this one would fit,” Jack said, lifting another box onto the pile.
The dark-haired man grunted. “Well come on, we’re almost done.”
As they went back to moving boxes, Jack could feel his hands sweating inside his work gloves, and not from the physical exertion. He kept listening for any sign that they’d figured out that he knew what they were transporting, but there wasn’t any way he could be sure. Blondie came out of the office to talk to his partner a few times, and one of those times they’d glanced over at Jack, but was that because they suspected he knew, or to make sure that Jack was out of earshot or wasn’t slacking off?
Another hour later, they’d moved the last of the boxes into the truck and braced them so they didn’t shift during transport. Blondie looked at the work, then at his watch.
“Finished earlier than I thought. Don’t worry, you’ll get paid for the day; you deserve it for working so fast. Come on into the office. Ed, you close up the truck.”
Jack fell into step behind Blondie, his gut tightening with apprehension. Was he really just going to be able to walk away? Did they really not know what he’d seen?
The back of his neck prickled for just a split second before something hit him in the back of the head, sending him to his knees. Too stunned to move, Jack didn’t see the kick to the chest coming until it was too late, his reflexes blunted by the fog in his head. Ed’s foot hit Jack square in the chest, the air rushing out of his lungs, and Jack curled into himself with the pain.
A hand grabbed him by the hair, lifting his head, pulling him upright. Blondie leaned over him, his blue eyes cold.
“You tell anyone about this place,” he said, his voice rough, “and you’ll be sorry. My pal here’s going to give you an idea just how sorry.”
Blondie was still holding onto Jack’s hair as Ed gave him another kick to the ribs, and this time Jack felt something snap. The hand in his hair was gone, and Jack’s hands hit the concrete, stray pieces of gravel digging into his palms.
The pain blocked everything else out, every breath feeling like a stab to the chest. His blood pounded in his ears. He could smell blood, taste it, and his head swam as a hand clamped down on his shoulder.
Concrete walls, concrete floors, lights on, always lights on, no windows, no sound but the other prisoners, screaming, crying--
Don’t talk. Don’t fight. Whatever they do to you, don’t talk.
A voice yelled at him, muffled by the noise in his ears, a language he didn’t recognise, but had learned the meaning through context: get up.
The hand pulled him up on his knees again, and he blinked. The face swimming in front of his eyes wasn’t what he’d expected. Not Cheng or one of the guards. Dark hair, round face, “The Muscle” straight out of Central Casting. Jack blinked again, the other world fading away, more recent memory slowly taking its place. San Antonio, the job, Blondie and Ed, the warehouse. The heroin. He had to tell someone about the heroin.
This time, he didn’t just have to take it.
“You had enough?” Ed asked, bending over.
Jack wrapped an arm around his ribs, closing his eyes in pain, but not before he’d noted that Blondie didn’t seem to be anywhere in sight. He mumbled something in a wheezing voice. Oldest trick in the book, though at the moment it wasn’t all an act.
“What was that?” Ed asked, leaning closer, his head not quite even with Jack’s. So much the better.
Jack whipped his head forward, his forehead connecting with Ed’s nose with the crunch of cartilage and a warm spray of blood.
“Motherfucking son-of-a-bitch!” Ed grabbed his now bleeding nose, and Jack tried to shake off the dizziness from the headbutt. The moment of distraction was all Jack needed to ball his fist and send it flying straight into Ed’s teeth. Ed’s head snapped backward, the rest of his body following the momentum and sending him sprawling.
Jack was just about to get to his feet when he saw something out of the corner of his eye and turned, but too late. Something hit him hard on the right side of his head, and he caught a glimpse of Blondie as he fell again.
Jack hit the concrete, head swimming. Instinctively, he raised his arm to protect himself, but it was no use. Another blow to the head, and the world winked out.
For a moment he had a feeling of floating in darkness, before something seemed to pull him upward. The higher he got, the more he began to feel the pain all over him and the more he wanted to sink back down, but something kept pulling him to the surface all the same.
He wasn’t sure where he was, couldn’t remember why he hurt so much, his mind foggy and sluggish. But still there was that slight rocking feeling, and it slowly dawned on him that he was moving.
He cracked open one eye, seeing only a dark space broken by a couple patches of light that blurred and swam and made his head hurt more when he tried to focus on them. Everything around him was a deafening rumble, nearly drowned out by the pounding in his head.
He closed his eyes, feeling as though he was being sucked back down again, and he welcomed it.
He couldn’t be sure how long he kept floating up and down, the world blinking in and out, but at some point, the movement stopped. Something slammed not far from his head, the noise and vibration making him wince with the increased pain.
Light--dim, grey--spilled in, hands grabbed him, pulled at him, and then he was falling onto cold, wet concrete. Something slammed again, a loud rumble, then he was alone.
For a moment Jack just lay there, not wanting to move with the pain that throbbed all over his body as well as the dizziness in his head. Soon, though, he realized it wasn’t just the concrete beneath him that was wet; water was dripping on him from above, soaking into his shirt and jeans.
Jack opened his eyes, or tried to. One opened, but the other seemed only to open to a slit, and even that movement hurt. It took a moment for his vision to clear enough to get his bearings: he was in an alley, water dripping off the roofs of the adjacent buildings, rain slanting in from the street.
Summoning what energy he could, he forced himself first to his knees, then slowly to his feet. His stomach swirled and heaved as he got to his feet, and he reached out to brace himself against the wall as he retched. His chest burned with pain with every spasm, and even after he stopped vomiting, he leaned against the building for support, his head swimming.
Finally, his head cleared and the pain subsided, or at least as much as he figured they were going to. Still leaning on the wall, he approached the mouth of the alley with shuffling footsteps.
He looked around, trying to place his surroundings. Luck seemed to be with him, at least in a small measure: he was only a few blocks from his rooming house. A few blocks felt more like a few miles at the moment, however.
Looking to his left, though, he spotted the sign for a bar he knew only a few doors down. It would be dark enough inside that it was likely no one would take any notice of him, and he could clean up in the bathroom and wait until his head was clearer before making the rest of the way home. And considering the kind of clientele it had, if anyone did take notice of him they’d probably think twice before even offering to call the cops.
The rain had driven most people inside, so there was hardly anyone to see Jack’s slow progress down the street. It wasn’t long before his shirt was soaked through and his jeans getting damp and clammy but Jack ignored it as best he could, his eyes focused on his goal.
Reaching the bar, he pulled the door open, light and warmth spilling toward him. It took him a moment to realize it was too much light, and a different sort of noise that greeted him..
This wasn’t quite the bar he’d been looking for.