"I thought you guys aren’t supposed to smoke on duty.”
The fat plainclothes cop named Carpino lowered his window an inch.
“You’re a strange one to talk about rules,” he said.
The unmarked police car hissed through deserted Sunday morning streets, wipers flapping greasy drizzle from the windshield, the rattling fan fighting a losing battle against condensation. My father would have had a fit if he’d heard the fan, and launched into a rant about proper maintenance. But, as usual, he wasn’taround.
I sat up front beside the cop. The car was hot and stuffy and smelled of stale coffee, hamburger grease, and tobacco. With the palm of my hand I squeegeed mist from the side window. Outside, the rain brimmed in the curb gutters, pushing dirt and soggy food wrappers toward plugged sewer grates.
My head throbbed and I winced every time the car hit a pothole. I flipped down the visor and examined my face in the vanity mirror. An angry red scab was forming over the split in my swollen upper lip, my nose was puffed and red, and the cheek under one eye was bruised and purple. Disgusted, I pushed the visor back into position.
“Anyway,” I told the cop, “you’re wasting your time. I’ll be back.”
He dropped his cigarette butt out the window, took a left through an orange light, and headed toward the on-ramp for the highway.
“Think about it, Lee,” he replied. “You’ve got no choice here. You’ve burned all your bridges.”
I said nothing. Maybe he was right, maybe he wasn’t. I stared out the side window and let my mind take me back to the night before, to my assignment. I played the scene over and over, searching for clues that would tell me what had gone wrong.
“It’ll be a piece of cake.”
“I’ve heard that one before.”
“No, really. You’ll be in and out in five minutes, ten at the most.”
Classes were in session and the school parking lot was quiet. I was supposed to be in Math class.
“Where is this place?” I asked, zipping my jacket against the frosty breeze.
Vernor opened the driver’s door of his Mustang and pulled a folded map from the door pocket. He spread the map on the hood, tapped a spot with a finger tip.
“Here. On Market Street.”
“Down by the docks. Near the old distillery.”
“Right. You get around back through the alley. It’s an auto supply store, a small one, with an office on the second floor.”
“So it’ll have a burglar alarm.”
“My source says not. Here’s how it will work. Behind the store, there’s a small basement window, almost hidden by a dumpster. It’s broken. You go in, make your way to the second floor. Leave through the back door and down the fire escape. You make sure the door is left unlocked.”
“And then what?”
“And then nothing. You just walk away. We’ll take care of the rest.”
“What’s in there? Cash?”
“Not for you to know.”
“Why don’t I just take what you want while I’m there?”
“Not for you to know.”
“What’s the point of me going in through the window and leaving the door unlocked if–”
“You ask too many questions. That’s always been your problem.”
A gust of wind snatched the map and Vernor lunged to recapture it. He folded it, pushed long, black hair out of his eyes. “This is your last initiation test. Do it right and I won’t say anything about you letting that grade nine kid off the hook. You’ll get your patch. You’ll be a Tarantula.”
As he spoke he opened the front of his denim jacket a little, revealing a small yellow square with a black spider stitched onto it. When the jacket was done up, the tarantula would rest on his heart.
“When?” I asked.
“It has to be tonight. After midnight.”
“Consider it done,” I said.
“Don’t screw up,” he warned, then climbed into the Mustang and peeled out of the parking lot.
The Tarantulas were the best gang in my neighbourhood – the biggest, the most powerful – and if you belonged you didn’t need to worry about anything. They took care of their own. You always had a place to go, someone to turn to. Nobody crossed a Tarantula without the whole crew coming after him.
But it was hard to get in. There were tests to prove your obedience and allegiance, and if you passed you were a member for life. “Like being a Catholic,” Vernor had joked when he was explaining things to me. “You’re expected to return loyalty with loyalty. No exceptions. And you follow orders, even if you don’t like them. Sometimes you gotta do things you don’t want to, but when the shit flies, you got the whole outfit behind you. You’re never alone. It’s like the army.”Two
It was raining when I got to Market Street, and I was numb with cold from my bike ride across town. Teeth chattering, I cruised along the deserted, oily-wet street, steering around potholes and squinting into the dark. The auto parts store was squeezed into the gloom between a decrepit warehouse and the gigantic bulk of the old distillery. A battered Ford slumped at the curb, its hood up, its windows smashed, its wheels long gone. A dented hot dog vendor’s cart lay on its side under one of the few unbroken street lights.
At the end of the block I turned, retraced my route, and rode into the inky dark of the alley, struck by the rank odour of cat piss and motor oil. I decided to leave the bike a few feet in from the street rather than take it farther and risk puncturing the tires on a nail or broken glass.
The dumpster was parked up against the back wall of the store, leaving a narrow gap, and the basement window was broken, just like Vernor had said. I was in and out in no time. At the bottom of the fire escape, I scanned the dark lane for any sign of movement, then stole along the back of the store. The far end of the alley was a lighter shade of dark, where I should have seen the silhouette of my bike.
It wasn’t there.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Blue Helmet by William Bell
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