Chapter 2: Out of the Frying Pan

The holding cell was cold, cinderblocks painted white, lit with harsh fluorescent light that stung Pigeon’s eyes and reminded her uncomfortably of the CHEEK. She held her hand in her hands, willing tears to come that she knew never would, running her fingers over her newly shaved head. The first thing they had done when they brought her in was shake her down, before shearing the hair off her head. All of her trinkets, memories twinned into her hair, had been dumped unceremoniously in the incinerator. They had destroyed her identity, turning her into just another number; for a Runner, the ultimate signal of defeat. Her parents had been in that hair, her first Run, Anita…

****

“Remember baby, the sun will always come out”. She pulled back an ear-lobe to reveal the small tattoo on her upper neck. “It always does. Eventually.” Anita was laying on top of her, her bony frame and soft coolness pressing into Pigeon’s chest.

They were both fully clothed, but the tenderness of the moment filled them with warmth. They lay there, in a tiny cot, wrapped up in the sheets for what felt like hours, bodies twinned together like threads of a rope, the feeble air conditioning unit running

“Threads of a noose,” said a small voice in the dark. Pigeon ignored it, pressing her face deeper into Anita’s dirty hair. When she was with Anita, she felt like nothing could touch her. Like she was invincible.

****

Jesus, thought Pigeon. What would Anita think of this situation? What would she say? She always knew exactly what to say.

Her nose had finally stopped bleeding, coagulated blood crusting her lips and chin. Someone had slapped a piece of medical tape across the bridge of her nose to hold it in place. Listening to some of the cops talk amongst themselves, she gathered that she had taken the butt of an assault rifle to the face. Now, facing the prospect of an eternity in custody, Pigeon thought that she would be better off dead.  Better to die free than to live a long, ruined life in the maw of the System.

Pigeon’s contemplation of her inevitable early demise was interrupted by the heavy door swinging open, and then thundering shut as an overweight, balding man in a short sleeve dress shirt and burgundy tie dropped into the seat across from her. Pigeon noticed a stained spot on his tie, about halfway down. It looked like marinara.

“Hullo, Pigeon,” he said in a bored growl, “My name is Detective Pendleton.” Pigeon managed a grimace in response, and he continued speaking without looking her in the eye. “I have better things to do than to fuck around with street-rat Runners, so I’m gonna make this quick and to the point.” Pigeon sat up a little straighter in her seat. This was not what she was expecting.

Pendleton continued, “You did me a solid, clipping that old bastard when you did. So I’m gonna make you a deal, a life for a life. All that cash you had on you? That goes into my retirement fund. Same goes for your pistol, and those hot solid-states. Your mod is gonna get wiped, and we’re gonna dump you out on the street with a twenty-four hour head start. What do you think?”

Pendleton looked up suddenly, examining Pigeon’s face as if he had just realised that they were in the same room. There was a hunger in those baby blue eyes.A hunger that Pigeon recognised, and despised. A hunger that told her she was lucky that Pendleton was not making a deal that exacted a heavier toll. It was a bum deal, totally one sided, and they both knew it. She mulled it over in mind for a few seconds, but she already knew what the answer would be. “Okay,” said Pigeon finally. What choice did she really have? Pendleton grunted in approval and produced what appeared to be a thick ceramic drink-coaster.

“Place your hand here,” he said, with an air of routine.

Pigeon obeyed, and Pendleton depressed a small plastic tab on the side of the device. There was a whir, and then a white hot flash of pain seared its way through Pigeon’s palm and travelled up her arm where it settled in her shoulder as a dull ache. She swore involuntarily, rotating her shoulder in a vain attempt to assuage the pain. Grumbling to herself, Pigeon allowed herself to be escorted out of the room by Pendleton, his hand lingering uncomfortably on the small of her back.

She was halfway out the door when Pendleton called her back. “Hey!” he said. “Don’t forget your personal effects.”

“Personal effects?” repeated Pigeon flatly. What personal effects? They had taken all of her personal effects. Pendleton produced the wire scorpion and pushed it into her hands.

“That’s a cool little toy you’ve got. Good luck out there, kid,” said Pendleton.

Stepping out onto the street, Pigeon felt a lump forming in her throat. Rain splattered onto her bald head, streaming over her face. It felt like tears, the one thing she wanted right now but couldn’t have. Didn’t have, not since Anita had left her. Screwing up her eyes, Pigeon arched her arm back, about to throw the model away in frustration, when she felt the weight shift unexpectedly. Drawing it close to her face, she gave it a little shake and heard a light rattling. Was there something inside of it?

Nunya’s diner was a few blocks away from the police station. Moving quickly to the back, she slipped into the washroom and scrubbed the dry blood off her face and turning her sweater inside out to cover the stains. Coming out of the washroom, she eyed to room and spotted an empty seat with a half-drunk coffee and a mouthful of sandwich on a plate. Sliding into the booth, Pigeon stuffed the food into her mouth and the tip into her pocket. She swirled the coffee mug, trying her best to seem like she belonged.

Placing the metal scorpion on the formica tabletop, she pushed it around with her fingertips for a few moments while a waitress drifted over and refilled her coffee from a carbon-fibre carafe.Sipping at her piping hot beverage, she rolled the figurine over in the palm of her hand. The filament was intricate, hand woven from a single strand of copper, folded over and into itself. Someone had put a lot of time into this single, ornate trinket.

Pigeon pushed the tail flat with the palm of her hand and twirled it counter-clockwise, the complicated weave unravelling easily. She peeled the claws apart, and the whole sculpture came undone in her hands, a small chunk of copper and plastic tumbling onto the table with a clatter. She picked the thing up and twirled it between her fingertips. It appeared to be some sort of digital storage, but she had never seen anything quite like it. Luckily, she knew of a way to explore its contents. First, though, she needed work.

Slipping the copper coil and its contents into her pocket, she fed the quarters from the stolen tip into the payphone just outside the diner. She dialled the number that she had committed to memory, casting a quick glance over her shoulder.

“You’re stupid,” said the voice over her shoulder. “You’re worthless. You’re gonna get caught.”

“Hey,” said Pigeon into the receiver. “It’s me. I got picked up by the System. They took my cash and my mod.”

“Shit. I’m lucky to be hearing your voice,” said Maria.

“Tell me about it,” replied Pigeon.

“You need work?” responded Maria.

“You’re stupid and worthless. You got caught once. It’s gonna happen again,” said the voice.

“Yes,” said Pigeon.

“I know a guy, my uncle” replied Maria. “Let me give you his information really quick.”

****

        Street lights reflected against the black sky and wet asphalt, desaturating the night and bleaching it a sickly, chemical orange. The storm had passed, but not before staining the ground with a cold, glassy sheen.The sounds of the city echoed across the night: the grinding of the dockyards, the elevated SkyTrain clattering along the track, the cyclical hum of a power transformer, wailing sirens, car alarms, a distant jet plane. This was Surrey, across the River, Vancouver’s ugly step-sister.

Pigeon’s shoes fell with wet, empty slaps against the dirty sidewalk, her breath hanging in the damp air. She had been walking these streets for hours, head down, hands balled into fists in her coat pockets, scanning the cars parked against the curb with her peripheral vision.

She was looking for an early model sedan, foreign made and neutral toned. A quick glance over her shoulder to make sure she wasn’t being followed; her eyes flitted along the roof tops, checking for silhouettes. When she finally what she had been looking for, she breathed a small sigh of relief: she wasn’t paid by the hour, and she had already been out here for far too long. As she approached the passenger side door, two voices started whispering to each other:

“What’s she doing?”

“She’s committing a crime.”

“She’s a criminal.”

“She’s a bad person.”

“She’s going to get caught.”

“She deserves to be caught.”

Pigeon ignored them, fishing out a small ring of rough-cut brass keys from inside her coat. She inserted the first bump key into the lock, jiggling it roughly while applying light pressure. After a few moments without results she tried the second, and then the third. It wasn’t until the fourth attempt that she heard the tell-tale thunk of the car door unlocking.

“She did it.”

“I didn’t think she could.”

She slid into the driver’s seat, swearing as she passed gracelessly over the centre console. One of the voices snickered.

“Shut up,” Pigeon growled to herself, inserting into the ignition switch the same key that she had used to open the door. The engine turned over and she dropped the handbrake, pulling away from the curb. She rolled down the driver’s side window and turned up the heat, letting the cold night roll across her face as she turned onto King George Boulevard. The whispers were still there, but she could no longer make out what they were saying, distinction lost in the rush of moving air.

At the intersection of King George and 104th she had to stop at a red-light, pulling up next to a white-and-royal blue RCMP cruiser. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, and a tightness in her throat. Luckily for her, the officer was distracted by a group of four or five teenagers in oversized down jackets standing on the street corner.

They were passing a bottle in a brown paper bag between them, laughing and shouting expletives at one another. The light turned green and the police officer peeled off, letting her continue on her way. As she neared the water, the acrid scent of chemically treated wood filled her lungs, the mills that skirted the shoreline venting their waste. Lime green rectangles flitted by overhead, signage for Downtown, and the boroughs of Burnaby, Port Coquitlam, and New Westminster.

Her destination was the latter: steep hills and claustrophobic quays, brick tenements and highways cantilevered over narrow one-way streets, packed with neon lit dive-bars. She accelerated, pretending to race the SkyTrain that ran parallel to the Patullo Bridge. The train never slept; neither did the city and neither did she. On the Vancouver side of the Fraser River, the trains veered off to the left, sinking underneath the ground. Pigeon had the sudden, unsettling vision of a fat worm, burrowing into a sandy beach. She turned in the opposite direction, navigating a series of looping switchbacks that eventually brought her down to within a few blocks of the waterfront.

Maria had set her up with a guy named Gerry, a local who operated a chop shop out of his brother’s legitimate dealership. Maria said he was always willing to pay cash for cars, no questions asked.

“Luckily,” she muttered to herself, “I can get cars and need the cash.”

Turning into the car lot, she drove around back and parked in an empty space beside one of the service bays.

Killing the engine and retrieving her ring of skeleton keys, she got out of the car and lit a cigarette. Smoke trailing from her hand, she kicked the shuttered garage door, and then a second time for good measure.

After a few minutes, the small security door cracked open and a middle-aged man- Pigeon thought that maybe his name was Dave, could definitely have started with the letter D, at any rate- stuck his head out of the doorway, looking around the poorly lit lot somewhat blearily before spotting her and giving a heavy grunt.

“Oh,” he said. “It’s you. We were wondering what took you so long. Were you followed?”

“No,” replied Pigeon.

He grunted again in response. “Come in,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a hand.”

Pigeon flicked aside the butt and followed May-Be-Dave through the doorway, letting the heavy door swing shut behind her with an ominous finality, and following close behind him as they snaked their way through the darkened garage, between cars propped up on hydraulic lifts or lying dead with their guts pulled out onto the floor.

They went through another door, and Pigeon was confronted with group of guys huddled around a table. Each person at the table was surrounded by a small clutter of cards, poker chips, and beers. An elderly sound system rested on a set of rusted metal shelves and pumped the sound of classic rock into the room.

Blueish smoke hung in a low haze around the ceiling. Someone had just told a joke, and everyone was still laughing. A pornographic calendar was tacked up on the wall above a CRT monitor and daisywheel printer. Next to that was a sign which read “Jesus wore a crown of thorns; ALL OTHERS, REMOVE HATS”. Gerry absolutely despised people who wore hats in doors.

Remembering this fact, Pigeon begrudgingly peeled off her knit touque, a cold chill settling over her bald head.

“Gerry, it’s your girl,” said May-Be-Dave gruffly, throwing himself into the seat in front of the smallest pile of chips, obviously disconsolate at his luck tonight.

“Thanks, Don,” replied Gerry. He was a stocky man with a shaved head, no neck, and a short temper. Without looking up from his cards, he said, “It took you long enough. You weren’t smoking in the car again, were you?”

“No,” she said. “And I told you, that wasn’t me. It was a smoker car.”

“I don’t want to hear excuses,” he replied, adding “Okay, I’m up two hands, let’s make this quick. You got what I sent you to get?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“No complications?”

“No.”

He squinted at her, as if trying to silently coax a confession of mendaciousness from her. She stared back at him, stony faced. After a few moments he nodded, seemingly convinced that she was telling the truth. He placed his cards face down on the table and leaned to the side, reaching into his jeans pocket to pull out a thick wad of cash.

He peeled off a small stack of bills and slipped the rest of the wad of cash back into his pocket. As she approached to take it from his hand, she noticed a few jealous eyes around the table fixating on the spot where the bank roll had disappeared. Pigeon wondered how much of the money that she was about to collect was being paid to her by the men sitting in the room now.

Taking the small stack of money into her hands, she riffled through it while the game resumed. When she reached the bottom of the pile, she felt a small sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“I must have made a mistake,” Pigeon muttered to herself, shuffling through it again. But no, she came up with the same number. She counted a third time, just to be sure.

“What the hell, Gerry?” she asked, perhaps a little more aggressively than she had intended. “Are you trying to lowball me?”

“No,” Gerry replied without looking up from the game. “That’s the going rate.”

“This is almost half of what you paid for the last one,” Pigeon responded indignantly.

“Older models are easy to get; the market is flooded with them, and they’re cheap to begin with. What good are they? Parts, scrap, two-bit hoods that need a getaway for a stick-up job. The newer models have chip readers in the key-fobs; tools won’t start ‘em. Real Flash Gordon shit. That’s where the money is nowadays: high end, wholesale, shipping overseas. The wall came down, and now those commie bastards can’t get their hands on enough luxury cars.”

“So what are you telling me?” asked Pigeon flatly.

“I’m telling you to count your blessings and be grateful for what you’ve got,” said Gerry.

“There has to be a way to get at those newer cars,” she said.

“You have to get someone to clone the chip. I can do it, I don’t think you could afford it.”

“So I’m paying for the privilege of working for you now?”

“High end isn’t my racket. I’m not looking to expand, and I’m not interested in taking on the extra risk.”

“You don’t trust me?”

“I just gave you cash for a job well done, sight-unseen. That’s what trust looks like.”

“There’s nothing you can do for me?”

Gerry sighed, and said, “I tell you what: if you can get the cash together, give me a call and I’ll see what I can do. Now fuck off, Bird.”

He used her nickname, a thing he knew that she absolutely hated. She turned on her heel and stormed out of the back room, jamming her touque around her ears as she burst out into the cold night air. Thin droplets of rain were starting to fall, caught in a halo of sodium light, glinting like shards of broken needles. She reached into her pocket and withdrew a cigarette and lighter. The storm may have passed, but it never stopped raining in Vancouver.

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