|A kidney. (By some guy named Hunter.)|
“Argh! Argh!” He moaned in desperation. “Oh, God! No! Damn it, please.”
Dale Bartok held on as long as he could, then in sheer panic, pulled off the highway. He groaned and gasped his way through the off-ramp, down the two-lane county road, and into the service station. Dale carefully locked the big red cube-van. After a quick and surreptitious glance around, the forty-one year-old bonded courier shuffled towards the rest-rooms. In broad daylight, with a lot of people coming and going, and fuel attendants outside at the pumps, the truck should be okay for a moment or two. He had no choice. He barely made it to the door, despite his embarrassing, butt-clenching shuffle and desperate attempts at sphincter-control. The slightly rotund parent of two barely made it in time.
The Husky station was just outside of London and he knew exactly where the place was. Dale was suffering from diarrhea, and upon opening the package of Imodium in the cupboard this morning, he had discovered that it was empty. Barb or one of the boys must have used the last couple of tablets. He was also late for work, and so he had to dash. Poor Dale had been so tempted, to just pull over by the side of the road, but it simply wasn’t done. It was very exposed, and attention from the cops was bad news. Speed limits were merely advisory numbers for a courier, but it also helped to be as invisible as one possibly could.
The real reason was that he simply didn’t have any tissues or even used paper towels left over from a fast-food lunch in the vehicle. He wasn't able to steel himself to do it. He felt a moment of near-hysteria at the thought that every stall might be occupied…thank Christ, but he spotted an open door. Of course it had to be the one right at the very far end.
Today’s shipment was especially vital. The company was new, this was a new contract, and it was only about the third time they had transported anything for this particular customer. It was a numbered Ontario company, a medical supply and consulting firm working out of the University of Western Ontario’s children’s hospital.
The fact that Dale was supposed to be picking up a certified cheque for four thousand bucks, for a simple little run out of Toronto wouldn’t hurt his boss’s feelings any, and since next Friday was payday, it wouldn’t hurt Dale’s either.
With a sense of relief Dale subsided onto the toilet, just in the nick of time, and he prayed for further good luck. He had a momentary vision of the Vienna Boy’s Choir, or a chorus of angels, singing ‘Hosanna to the highest!”
If anyone should see the vehicle sitting there without a driver, and report him, he would be out of a job in a heartbeat. The courier business was very competitive, and the drivers were horrible gossips, worse than taxi-drivers. The company was just starting up, and Dale was extremely fortunate to have gotten in on the ground floor. It was a good-paying job with a decent benefits package.
Dale had two weeks vacation coming in the fall. He was quite looking forward to it.
“Halleh-luyah,” grunted Dale in sheer, unmitigated, blissful gratitude.
There were some unique thoughts that preyed around at the back of his mind. Possibly these thoughts were guilt or insecurity-driven.
Any other courier driver who saw him out of the vehicle, would be sure to notice. This was a lucrative contract, and his employer had shown a real sharp eye, in order to outbid everybody else. This was a gravy run in every sense of the word. You drove four hundred kilometres, picked up a cheque, dropped off a cooler full of vaccines, or plasma, or maybe experimental pharmaceuticals, and you were home in time for a half-day of short runs around town. By starting his day an hour and a half earlier, he would even get in a bit of overtime on this next cheque and Dale could still be home in time for dinner with Barb and the kids.
Dale did everything in his power to spend as little time in the bathroom as possible, not that his guts needed any prodding. He was back outside in less than four minutes, still queasy, still weak, still feeling a real, live, sweat around the eyes, but at least he was thinking he could make it the rest of the way to the northwest corner of London before the next bowel-explosion.
It was already too late, as he stood there in total shock, staring at the broken glass from the passenger-side window of his van lying all over the parking lot. The stainless-steel cooler box between the seats was gone. Just gone.
“It’s a kidney!” The tall, shaven-headed, biker-mustachioed Kevin Hookstra grunted. “A fucking kidney!”
His steely grey eyes gave a withering glance at the object in the box and its new owner.
The pink and pallid thing, all wrapped-up in some protective layer of semi-transparent plastic film, lay there in a bed of crushed dry ice. Thin vapours rose from it, curious tendrils of steamy white CO2, as if questioning its own reality.
Kevin guffawed in derision, while the thief, Harry Calvin, of indeterminate age and perfectly non-descript description stared into the cooler, his wishy-washy, watery blue eyes widening in horror.
“Aw, for fuck’s sakes,” he gasped. “And now the fuckin’ box is ruined too!”
He knew a guy who would give him twenty bucks or maybe a couple of grams of pot for that box. Stocky, silent at the best of times, strongman of the neighbourhood all of the time, Mike Gibson just stood there with a big grin on his face.
“Where did you get it?” He thought methodically, patiently. “What kind of vehicle?”
“At the Husky station on the highway,” Harry advised. “Triple-A Bonded Couriers.”
“When did you do this?” Mike Gibson, calm, cool, collected, was the epitome of mellowness, with an air of cucumber-like casuality, grinning at the crimes, misfortunes and follies of man, and especially of speedos.
“I grabbed it and came right here. I figured it’s a hot day and you guys would know how to open it…”
The box had the words in big red letters; ‘Keep Refrigerated,’ the stickers were on the top and on both sides of it. Harry stared at the box and the grinder on the workbench that Hookstra had used to open the lock. Gibson just grinned and slapped him on the shoulder.
Harry was counting on a big load of industrial-grade heroin or cocaine or something.
“Tell you what. I’ll give you twenty units. No, make that thirty. It’ll keep you going until tomorrow.”
“Huh?” Kevin and Harry spoke in unison.
“What?” His compadre Kevin was puzzled.
“It’s okay,” Gibson assured Hookstra. “He’s good for it, and we all have a bad day once in a while.”
His glittering coal-black eyes were burning with the humour of the moment, the corners of the sensuous, intelligent mouth tugging insistently downwards if to deny the futility of it all.
Turning to the thief, he had a suggestion.
“Tell you what. We can always use more cell-phones. You’ll just owe me a couple or maybe a half-dozen phones, new ones, like last time. If you can do it.”
Harry nodded cautiously in agreement, unable to meet Gibson’s eyes, unwilling to ask too many questions. Unable to comprehend his luck.
Gibson looked at Hookstra.
“Can you get him a little jug, Kev?” Hookstra blinked, nodded, and then wandered off up to the house to round it up.
They stood in the garage looking at the box. Mike snapped the lid down, and nodded at Harry.
“This thing will go bad in a day or two, and then there’ll be one hell of a stink. We’ll have to dump it someplace real good. I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
Harry just nodded dumbly, astounded by his good fortune. Mike wasn’t known for cheerful fronts, and Harry still owed him forty bucks from a week or ten days ago. But Mike, uncharacteristically for him, seemed to have forgotten all about it. Harry knew better than to think he might have forgiven the debt.
“I suppose we could always feed it to the dogs or something.” The dealer muttered absently. “Really, it’s the box that’s the problem.”
Harry didn’t want to know.
Hookstra returned and handed Harry a glass vial with a generous quantity of a milky-white solution inside of it. Gibson looked on approvingly.
“Be careful,” Kevin advised. “It’s really good. I mean it.”
“Okay, thanks, guys.” Harry practically bolted out the door as Mike grinned at Kevin.
“What was all that about?” It was total mystery to Kevin.
“It’s a fucking kidney, my good friend and confidante.” Mike Gibson was in a rough good humour now.
“Hah!” He marveled. “A kidney!”
You could always tell when Mike was in a good mood, he became articulate as someone once observed, causing a paroxysm of glee to go through the gathered denizens in the basement of Mike’s flop. Mike laughed harder than all the rest of them, at that little joke.
“So! What are you going to do, make steak and kidney pie?” Kevin, ‘not the brightest light in the firmament,’ as Mike once said, was at least unquestioningly loyal, and real stubborn as far as talking to cops and the like was concerned.
“Get me one of them phones fuck-head brought us yesterday,” asked Mike. “Where are them things hidden, anyway?”
“One of the fag-pink ones?”
“I don’t give a shit what colour it is. We’re going to make ourselves a few grand this afternoon.”
“How are we going to do that?”
“We’re going to sell a kidney,” said Gibson. “I guess that is kind of a first, for us, but what the hell, what the hell…welcome to the twenty-first century!”
Kevin was in a kind of shock, but then burst out laughing at his boss and mentor.
“Hah! Hah! Hah! Where in the fucking hell are you going to find some guy who wants to buy a fucking kidney?”
“Why, at the hospital, of course.” Mike grinned. “That courier company must be shitting their pants right about now. I have one or two thoughts on the subject.”
“The…the hospital?” Kevin gasped. “Oh, man, I don’t want to know!”
“Somebody must have ordered it.” Gibson was adamant. “I’m thinking they might want that thing back real bad. Real fucking bad. Now run and get me that phone. Warm up that heap of junk, that old Aerostar of Pokey’s…he won’t be back for a while anyhow. We got work to do.”
Pokey was in the bucket for the next three months, and still owed Gibson about sixteen-hundred bucks. This was about eight times what the vehicle was actually worth. Kevin understood that much.
The ownership was in the glove-box, all signed, sealed and delivered—but not legally re-registered in Mike’s name. There was still insurance on it. The sticker was good, the air conditioning worked. He had a few pre-paid phone cards that didn’t cost him too much.
Mike was a bit of a philosopher.
“How much gas is in that thing?” He was trying to think of every possible hazard.
“Three-quarters, I think.” Kevin turned and went up to the house to get a handful of hot phones.
Mike Gibson stood there in front of the garage in the warm spring sunshine. This might all work out for the best. Ask ten grand and don’t get too emotionally involved in the price. Hell, even a couple grand for a few arm-pokes of amphetamines was a good day’s work.
The key thing in this kind of operation was speed. Don’t give them time to think. Otherwise the drop was sure to be monitored, and then you were fucked. The world was full of stupid people, but that seemed fair enough to Mike Gibson. He was just grateful that he wasn’t one of them.
The old maroon and cream-coloured Ford minivan chuffed to a halt beside Mike.
“I got your laptop.” His minion, his churl, his oafish henchman awaited. His droog, his villein.
“Thank you. Take us over to Scary Mary’s place. She’s going to make a couple or three phone calls for us.” Kevin put the vehicle into gear and moved off. “For a fifty, it’s worth it.”
“She’ll give you a blow-job for twenty.”
“Huh!” Mike remembered all too clearly what she looked like.
“I’ll give her thirty bucks not to,” he decided. “And twenty for a few phone calls.”
Mike was already busy with the lap-top, searching for available information regarding Triple-A. They had the codes for every wireless network in the city, so that part was easy enough. All it took was a little patience.
It was the best place to start. For one thing, the driver might not have called the cops first—he would have been in a right fucking panic. For another thing, they wouldn’t want it getting around that they lost a kidney under their care. It would be on all the news reports. It would make all the papers, and the company would be a laughing stock. They might find it hard to get their insurance renewed. It was a place to start…and the day was still young.
The people at the hospital or wherever might not even know it was missing. If the cops didn’t know yet, that was just a bonus. But one way or another, he would work it out. He always did. That was the power of positive thinking. A man could do anything, if he applied his mind to it. Again, speed was of the essence.
“Huh. Triple-A has only been in business for eight months.” He read further, then sat back to watch the scenery go by. “All right. That’s what we’ll do then.”
Kevin fiddled with the knobs on the radio.
“What?” Kevin asked absently, as advanced theory was beyond his ken.
Mike was the one with all the people skills.
“We call up the courier company and ask if they’ve lost a kidney!”
“Really? Are you nuts?”
“Not really, but it’s a nice touch. I’ll see what I can do.” Gibson thought about it. “It might help, actually. Mary can act a little schizoid on the phone and keep asking about a reward. She’ll say she found the box. It was open, in a park, right beside some bushes…her kid found it. Her kid was scared half to death…freaking out, thought it was murder…yeah, that might do.”
Kevin’s jaw dropped and he stared at his idol for the moment.
“I wish I knew what you were on sometimes.”
“Don’t you worry, buddy. I got it all figured out. It’s the deeper side of human psychology.”
And it was true. While no plan was truly foolproof, Mike Gibson really did have it all figured out.
Exactly one hour and forty-two minutes after the kidney went missing, it was delivered to a certain very busy department at the University Hospital. A form was signed, and a certified cheque to the tune of $4,000.00 made out in the name of Triple-A Bonded Couriers was turned over to Scary Mary, who brought it to Gibson and Hookstra out in the parking lot. She climbed in and Mike handed her a fifty. They drove the Aerostar to a wooded area just outside of the city.
“Here’s the cheque.” A shaken but still grateful Dale Bartok waited in forlorn misery. “Don’t be so down-hearted, you were only an hour late. The patient is going to be fine, incidentally.”
“Thank you…and here’s the keys to the cube-van.” Bartok responded reluctantly enough, but he didn’t pretend to understand what sort of a crazy deal that his boss had struck with these characters.
“And you understand what you’re supposed to do?” Hookstra poked him in the chest. “Tell me!”
“Um, um, I drive the old van to Toronto, and drop it off, right where you said.” Bartok was momentarily mesmerized by the sight of a dark, stocky man with a laptop computer and a gym bag, and a scruffy-looking, straggly-haired woman in dirty pink stretch-pants, wearing what looked like a Tim Horton’s blouse and a funny little brown beret getting out of the Ford and climbing into his cube-van.
“I’ve got the place written down.” Hookstra stuck the paper in Dale’s shirt pocket.
“Tell him I said so. He knows what to do with it. Eat the paper. My friend is going to watch you do it.”
Dale didn’t know if he was kidding or not, at this point. He just nodded.
The passenger side door of his beloved vehicle, his customary workplace, his home away from home thudded closed in some kind of counterpoint to his thoughts, driving them home with a vengeance. He stared at the man in the right seat in dumb, sheep-like shock.
The van was this year’s model, brand-new, and so shiny and red. He loved that van.
“Then all I do is call the cops, and stick to my story?”
“Right.” Hookstra terrified Bartos with his hard grey eyes and stern looks and especially those bulging biceps, liberally covered with tattoos of a most antisocial nature. “The cube van’s leased, right? No skin off your nose, right? The insurance will take care of it, right?”
“After I drop it…then I wait a couple of hours…get a few miles away…and call the cops…”
“And you tell them you were car-jacked right there in Toronto, right there in your own little neighbourhood.” Hookstra insisted. “Right there by the service drive, right where I told you! Before you set out on your next run. You can claim a bunch of parcels got stolen, your boss can claim that on the insurance. Stick it to ’em good.”
“Yes, sir.” Dale had tears in his eyes. “I know, I know! I was blindfolded and stuff. Young black men, three or four of them. They jumped in while I was just leaving, behind the building, they-they-they had guns, we-we-we, um, drove around for a while, I know, I know!”
“You’re doing the right thing.” Hookstra stared at Dale. “If you had been really, really stupid and called the cops, we never could have saved your ass…right?
Dale just stared into those eyes with his heart palpitating in his chest and all his thoughts dried up at the source. For a moment, he was convinced that his blood ran cold—literally cold in his veins. He felt a wave of dread wash over him, and his knees were knocking so loud he thought the other man would hear it.
“By the way, the recipient is an eleven year old girl.” Hookstra told him all about it. “Her name is Janet and I think she’ll be real happy with her new body-parts.”
Dale stood there licking his lips and trying to suck enough oxygen into his lungs, but his diaphragm wasn’t working properly. The big man held his eyes locked solid for a long moment.
“My people are everywhere. They see everything, they hear everything.”
Whenever he spoke, something deep inside of Dale Bartos rattled or trembled in sympathetic vibration.
“Trust me, it really is better this way.” Hookstra abruptly turned and walked away.
He slithered up into the driver’s side door of the cube van and drove the thing away without so much as a backward glance. Neither did he seem to be in too much of a hurry.
“I know, I know!” Dale Bartos groaned, feeling another kind of spiritual desolation sweep over him as he realized that he had just shit himself. “Oh God, how I know!”
Notes: I don't have a problem publishing this short story on my blog because it was previously published on another blog of mine, which is now defunct. Most editors wouldn't be too interested, and it doesn't even qualify for a half-price reprint. This way we can still get some use out of it. One of the reasons to write new material is because there are only so many magazines out there and this was rejected several times. It's good enough not to give it away for free. (In my humble opinion. -ed.)
In this story, I have ruthlessly suppressed dialogue tags, adverbs, and yes, those pesky semi-colons which dot my early stories with depressing regularity--or perhaps I should say frequency out of respect for Mr. Bartok and his employer. Interestingly enough the Bartok character was originally gay, and his spouse's name was 'Brucie.' In a technical sense it made no difference to the story and dragged up extraneous issues in the minds of the reader. Taking the story as it is, there was no good reason to do it.