bag·man (băg’mәn) n., pl. –men (mĭn). 1. Slang.

dishonest official; a person who collects, carries, or distributes illegal payoff money.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Bipolar Express Chapter 22

Jack's dead, could things possibly get any worse?                                                Of Course.

Chapter 22

            Luckily for Frosty, we didn’t have to test Wes’s theories on the intricacies of marksmanship. Fact was, by the time I looked out the door you couldn’t even see where Frosty had gone. The sun hid behind clouds, and the smoke escaped from behind us mixing with the charcoal shades of the sky outside.
            Wes stood stationed inside the door, holding it open with his shoulder as he scanned the alley with the rifle’s barrel. The cold wind numbed my fingers in front of me as the snap, crackle and pop of the fire melted my backside. I turned around and by the time my back cooled off, my hands were burning. So I just kept turning, slowly, in complete revolutions to even out the temperature like a hot dog on a spit. As much as I hated slowly roasting, I hated the idea of going back out into the cold even more.
            Just as the gray outside got grayer, something behind us went from pop to POP!  And a wave of hot air blasted the back of my head. I sped up my rotation to see what had caused it. The scattered fires had gradually turned into a mass of flame that was ballooning out in big black bubbles, and the big black bubbles burst into shredded blisters of toxic looking solids. It was like somebody was pumping acetylene into garbage bags till they popped, and the melting remains wafted through the air aimed at our heads. The parts that didn’t stick to you, glazed up into your sinuses.
Before we had to decide between being shot or caramelized, Frosty pulled up in a pickup truck with the engine running—a little, Korean oil-burner with big tires and exhaust that colored the whole alley purple. I exhaled smoke and inhaled wonderfully noxious gas fumes.
“It was in the underground parking lot, still warm,” Frosty said. “Tank’s almost full, batteries seem to be charging.” He looked comfortable with his knuckles wrapped around the steering wheel.
“Anybody else around?” Wes asked.
“Nothing but tire tracks. They must’ve yanked the keys thinking that would stop us.” Frosty smiled.
            “How the hell you get it started?” I said, holding myself up with the door.
“Hotwired it.” Frosty smiled even wider. Fucker.
            Wes threw everything in back while I struggled to get into the cab.
“Nice wheels,” I admitted. “I’ll take the middle, but the dog’s coming with us.”
            “Won’t even let the dog have the bitch seat,” Frosty said, revving the engine. “You are one cold bastard.”
            “Damn right.” I finally put on my gloves, already shivering and still sweating. “This thing got heat?”
            “Oh yeah.”
            I was going to catch cold.
            Wes picked up the sled full of booze that he’d whopped Jack’s Aryan shooter with and threw it in back of the truck. I whistled and Thing climbed onto the seat. It took Wes and me both to shove her onto the floor, but I gave her a jerky treat.
            “We got one problem,” Frosty said.
            “If we only had one problem, we wouldn’t be here.” My head collapsed back on the seat.
            “I mean, where the hell are we going?”
            “Art Institute,” Wes answered, as if nothing had ever happened.
            Not such a crazy idea. We might actually run into Jack’s brother.
            “Yeah, Art Institute,” I said, like Frosty should’ve known all along, “Duh.”
            We took Broadway, when we could, and switched to the side streets when we had to. Even with monster wheels we still had to drive slow, steering around abandoned cars and trying to keep from skidding.
            I thought about getting pulled over. How the hell would we know who was in charge? What were the laws? Real cops used to frown on things like driving around with a stolen truck full of guns, and I was willing to bet Frosty didn’t have a license. Wes popped a cork and immediately violated the open container law.
            I had a feeling he wasn’t going to just toss out the wine if I asked him to, so I decided not to worry about the guns. We were headed for The Loop.
            In case you’ve never been to Chicago, The Loop is the center of the city. It’s where uptown meets downtown; the North Side meets the South Side; the tourists meet the panhandlers, and the jewel dealers meet the homeless. The Ravenswood Brown Line elevated train surrounds almost two square miles of the heart of the city and from that loop of track you can get to the lakefront, numerous museums and theaters, fancy retail shops, City Hall, the Chicago Board of Trade and about a million bars, clubs, restaurants and liquor stores. Michigan Avenue and State Street that great street. Rent is high and life is cheap, and on a good day—if you wear the right clothes—you can walk around and pretend you’re one of the chosen.
            At least that’s how it used to be.
            When we hit the tracks at Clark and Lake, Frosty slammed on the brakes, and I stopped worrying about the cops.
            Those guys back at the store who’d called this The New Ice Age? They must have seen The Loop.
            The ice hanging from the El tracks had just looked like more blurry scenery before. Now it looked like a different planet. Huge, stalactite icicles—some bigger around than the truck we were in—hung down from the tracks, framing the entire center of the city like the walls of an arctic fortress built forty-feet in the air. Above us it was white and sleek, almost glowing, with the gray skies framing it from behind.
            For a moment it was stunning, damnright awe-inspiring. An ice sculpture fantasy landscape right out of a Feature Mediacom Production. You know, the scene where mere earthlings tread into some brave new world and become tiny pinpricks, while the view pans out and beyond, to show you how small they’ve become.
            Back on earth, though, this was still supposed to be Chicago. And it not only made you feel small, it made you feel empty. Even the vast expanse of the plains can make you feel small, but if you ever really want to feel of no consequence whatsoever, go to what was once the biggest life force you’ve ever witnessed, to a place that used to make you feel of no consequence—and take a long look at it when it’s devoid of the living. Remember the lifeblood. Remember the resentment you had. Then feel the inside of its cold, empty, dead heart. Without people there’s no context. No feeling. Just the emptiness.
            At ground level it was gray and black. The railway’s vertical support beams had transformed into metal-cored shafts of ice. Iron icicles descended into frozen, polluted, mud puddles. Snowdrifts were soiled with tar and tire tracks. The buildings and rails cut through even the brightest gray—and three tiny little earthlings stared into the caverns at the glacier’s edge.
            Nobody said anything for a long time. We all just sat there and stared at it. Finally, Thing made a whining sound and we all looked at one another.
            “Go,” Wes said, and Frosty hit the gas.
            The icicles hanging overhead waited patiently deciding whether or not to crush us as the truck bounced under the tracks. Once inside, the shafts of ice seemed to shoot up from the ground like the bars of a cage. 
            The place was a wreck. Unlike the North Side, it looked like there had been a riot. Store fronts had been broken into. Cartons were broken open in the street. Snow banks in the alleys tried to soften the brick edges of buildings that had once stood like proud monuments to the corporate culture of the world. But a single frozen human leg stuck out of a slush-pile and ruined the effect. Every iced-covered hill was a potential burial mound.
            Wes and Frosty had gotten out with the dog to look around when I suddenly realized it wasn’t dusk; it was morning. I’d stayed in that bathroom, freezing my ass off, all night. I stayed in the truck and nursed my leg, loosening and tightening the tourniquet. It was still bleeding. I couldn’t see the wound through the overalls, but it looked like the bullet had gone completely through. Now that I had time to think about it, it hurt. 
            We stayed on Clark Street for awhile, slowly climbing back and forth down the street. The ice hanging on the tracks over Wabash closed off entire city blocks, creating a wall that sometimes broke into the opaque bars of a prison. Nobody said a word, purposely ignoring the possibility that we might be trapped. The frozen barrier kept paralleling our trail.
            We dug through the terrain for about an hour, hoping we’d find a gate at Jefferson, the south wall. We didn’t. We pitched and moaned inside the cab for another half-hour, backtracking to Washington before we found an exit two blocks west.
            We stopped and stared some more.
            Frosty hit the gas.
            Even then, we still had to circle around the outside of the frozen walls, back up Michigan Avenue. We’d known all along any road by the lakeshore was going to be layered with ice, and it was. So was the lake. Frozen.
            Headed back towards Jefferson again, Frosty vowed to kill any future president who had the balls to name a street after himself.
            Finally, we pulled up across the street from The Art Institute. We were early.
            We waited.
            Nobody ever showed.
            “Ya wanna try breakin’ in?”
            “Wes, I don’t think we could get into The Art Institute on a day they were open.”
            Frosty laughed. “You guys don’t get out a lot, do you?”
            “What now?” I said; my new catch phrase.
            “I don’t know…” Frosty revved the engine. “This is why we can’t have nice things. I can’t take you boys anywhere.” I think he was imitating his wife, or his mom or something. He kept going on until Wes interrupted him.
            “Get out of town. No, wait. Find a place to go to the bathroom and then get out of town.” It was angry, but still matter of fact, resigned. Dissociated.
            “I’m in,” I said.
            “Let’s do it then. South?” Frosty revved the engine.
            “Bathroom first.” Wes pointed to an Arby’s down the street. I think we’d all had our fill of pissing out in the cold.
“Hold it,” I said. There was a Visionwear Optical store next door, and I was still looking through one cracked lens. It was the only place on the street that hadn’t been broken into. I might not have been the first one on my block, but I definitely wanted to keep up with the Jones’s. I limped on over to the store with the dog.
            It was the first time I had ever broken into a place by simply smashing the window. With my luck I figured a cop would pull up and bust me as soon as I broke it.  I emptied the shotgun into the glass and kicked the splintered remains out of the way. It felt pretty good. It also wound up being the only time I ever wore three-hundred-dollar eyeglasses. Sport frames, too.
I had to hop on one leg to get behind the counter, and started to just grab an armful of optics and run. Then I realized I didn’t have to. My luck had finally changed. Never mind that I probably couldn’t run anyway.
Sure enough, they were right on top of the pile with the prescription written under the name: Ackles, Leslie, 20-40. Leslie turned out to be a guy, which was good, because even with no one around I didn’t want to look too fruity. And unless GQ had gone and made guns a fashion accessory, they were the most expensive part of my wardrobe.
Even covered in blood, mud and soot, I still looked like Buddy Holly in the damn things. For a second I thought about how Jack and I were probably the only people on the planet that still knew who Buddy Holly was. Then I remembered it was just me. My brain was getting all foggy.  
I followed Wes’s trail into Arby’s, took a piss and then ran back to the truck so Frosty could go. He and Wes came out with a bag of those mutant, roast beef burgers and woke me up. I had no idea how long we’d been there.
We headed back down Wabash for the Dan Ryan Expressway doing about ten miles and hour. Other than “South” and “out of the city,” I don’t think we cared where we were headed.
“Oh, man! We forgot the sauce,” Frosty yelled. I woke up again.
“Horseradish or barbecue?” Wes said.
Everybody looked at each other, except for the dog who was eyeing the bag of mutant meat.
“It’s not really barbecue sauce,” I said, coming out of it. “Hell, it’s not even real meat. I mean, I like the stuff and all, but it’s not really roast beef. It’s more like an alien kind of—“
“It doesn’t matter!” Frosty said. “We forgot the sauce!” We were flying down the road at about 18 mph.
“I got Horseradish,” Wes said.
“Shit, I wanted the barbecue—”
Then the truck ran into a wall of Jell-O.
You couldn’t see it, but that’s what it felt like. Frosty’s head almost bounced off the steering wheel, the sandwich squishing in his palm as he tried to grab the steering wheel with both hands. Everything in the cab rocked forward and the truck congealed to a stop about five yards later. The engine clicked and whirred. Everything stuttered while Frosty pumped the pedal, but the thing just died. Wes pulled his smashed hand out of the glove compartment where he’d been stashing the burgers. The lights went out, and every meter on the dash went to zero. The truck sat wedged in a piece of solid air.
            The three of us started playing with the dashboard, and yelling every obscure rumor we’d ever heard about the workings of the internal combustion engine.
“Outta gas?” Wes yelled. “How the hell can we be outta gas? Damn thing had a full tank.”
            “It’s not the gas, it’s the batteries. Or the battery,” Frosty said, remembering how old the truck was.
            “Batteries don’t just die in mid-flight,” I said.
            I turned on the radio, and heard something outside the truck go Kschischk-Shuk. I hit the off-on button one more time, praying the sound had come from the speakers. But I knew it hadn’t.
It’s a hard, dry, but efficiently mechanical sound that’s somehow both smooth and rough at the same time. I hate that sound.
            Kschischk-Shuk. I heard it two or three more times before I looked out and saw maybe a dozen armed men in black Kevlar, all standing in an arc around the front of the truck. Some of them had on helmets and had taken cover behind the junked cars and brick buildings on the edge of the alley in front of us. Most of them hadn’t even bothered to do that. They were wearing ski-masks like terrorists or something, but I could tell some of them were smiling.
            I reached for a pistol.
The man in black directly in front of us pumped a twelve-gauge shotgun, one-handed, demonstratively holding it up in the air, and then pointed it at the middle of the windshield. A few more of them cocked various rifles, pistols, and semi-automatic weapons just for our benefit.  
            I opened the door and stuck my empty hands out into the cold.