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An excerpt from
Pain Management
by Andrew Vachss

For more information about Pain Management, click here.

The first time you end up Inside, you think serving your sentence is going to take forever. But soon you learn: no matter how much time you have to do, some parts of it never take long.


The Aryan clenched his fists, glancing down at his cartoon-huge forearms as if to reassure himself all that cable-tendoned muscle was real. He was on the downside of steroid burnout, dazed and dangerous.

The Latino wouldn't know a kata from the Koran, but he was an idiot savant of violence, with the kinetic intelligence of a pit bull.

They faced each other in a far corner of the prison yard, screened off from the ground-level guards by the never-intersecting streams of cons flowing around them.

Any experienced gun-tower hack could read the swirls below him, see something was up. But the convicts knew the duty roster better than the warden. They knew the tower closest to the action was manned by a tired old guy with thirty years on the job and a good supply of gash magazines. All they had to do was keep the noise down.

"Only play is to stay away." The Prof spoke low to me.

"Yeah," I said. "Larsen's not built for distance. If Jester gets him tired, he can—"

"Our play, fool!" the Prof hissed at me. "The fuse is lit; it's time to split."

We faded, working our way back through the crowd sneaking glances at the duel. By the time the whistle blew and the first shots sounded from the tower, we were standing on either side of the sally port as the Goon Squad rushed through, hammering wildly at every con within reach.

Larsen didn't run. He was facedown on the filthy asphalt, Jester's shank protruding from the back of his neck. The matador had gone in over the horns.


They locked the whole joint down, tore up everyone's house looking for weapons. But all that did was simmer the pot more, as plots and counterplots festered into a Big House brew of pus and poison. Usually it was black against white, with brown trying to stay out of the crossfire. But this one had rolled out different.

Larsen rode with a motorcycle gang; there were a lot of bikers Inside then. And Jester had been flying colors at sixteen, when he'd taken the life that had bought him a life sentence. The kid he'd killed was another PR, from a rival club, but that didn't matter anymore.

Back then, when it came to prison war, race trumped tribe every time.

You never got a choice about that. The cons had all kinds of names for areas of the prison—Times Square, Blues Alley, D Street—but I never heard of one named Switzerland.

"On the bricks, niggers do the paper-bag trick," the Prof told me. "But Inside, you can't hide."

"What's the paper-bag trick?" I asked him. The Prof had been schooling me for a while, so I didn't even blink at a black man saying "nigger." I knew words were clay—they took their real meaning from the sculptor.

"I ain't talking about passing, now," the Prof cautioned me. "It's a class thing. Motherfuckers'll hold a paper bag next to they faces and look in the mirror, okay? If they darker than the bag, there ain't but so far up the ladder they can climb, understand?"

"I ... guess."

"Nah, you don't get it, son. I'm talking about the colored ladder, see? Mothers want they daughters to marry light. They know high-society niggers don't want no darkies at their parties."

I just nodded, waiting for mine, knowing it was coming.

"Yeah," he said, softly. "It's different with white folks. Color ain't the thing. Boy like you, you was born trash. You could be light as one of them albinos; wouldn't make no difference."

I knew it was true.


By the time they ended the lockdown and we could mix again, the clay had hardened. Larsen's crew called it for personal, put out the word. They weren't going race-hunting. They only wanted Jester.

I guess the hacks wanted him, too. They never binged him for the killing, and they knew Jester would never take a voluntary PC. That section of solitary was marked "Protective Custody," but the road sign was just there to fool the tourists. Cons called it Punk City. Jester, he'd rather swan-dive into hell wearing gasoline swim trunks.

For a lot of the Latin gang kids I knew coming up, it wasn't whether you died that counted, it was how you died.


When Jester hit the yard, he wasn't alone. There was a fan of Latinos behind him, unfurling from his shoulders like a cape in the wind.

"Jester don't mind dying, but he sure mind motherfuckers trying," the Prof said out of the side of his mouth.

The motorcycle guys stood off to one side, watching. Everyone gave the two crews room, measuring the odds. There were a few more of the Latins, but they all looked like they'd come from the same cookie-cutter—short and slim to the point of being feline. The motorcycle guys were carrying a lot more beef. Question was: what else were they carrying?

"Only steel is real," the Prof said, summing it up.

The yard buzzed with its life-force: rumor. Was it true that the hacks had looked the other way, let the whites rearm? Had the search squad really found a few live .22 rounds during the shakedown? What about the word that they were going to transfer a new bunch of bikers in from Attica and Dannemora to swell the ranks?

Jester turned and faced his crew, deliberately offering his back to the whites. One of them started forward; stopped when their leader held up his hand.

It wasn't going to be today.

And the next three weeks went by quiet.


The motorcycle guys trapped me in a corridor near the license plate shop. My fault—I should have been race-war alert, but I'd let the quiet lull me.

"How much?" their leader, a guy named Vestry, asked me.

"How much for what?" I said, stalling, but honestly puzzled, too.

"For the piece, man. Don't be playing dumb with us. You're all alone here."

"I don't know what you're—"

"Your boy, Oz, he's the guy what makes all the best shanks. So we figure he's got—"

"The Man shut him down. You know that. Oz don't keep a stash. Makes them to order and hands them over soon as they're done."

"We're not talking about no fucking pig-stickers, Burke. We want the piece. If the hacks found bullets, there's got to be a gun. And, word is, it's yours."

"The word is bullshit."

"Look, man, we're willing to pay. Or did the spics get to you first?"

"I'm not in this," I told him. "If I had a piece, I'd sell it to you. You know I'm short—you think I'd bag my go-home behind getting caught with a fucking gun?"

"We know you got it," Vestry said, stubborn-stupid, stepping closer. A sound came from the men behind him—the trilling of a pod of orcas who'd spotted a sea-lion pup far from the herd.

One of them said "Oh!" just as I heard a sound like a popgun and saw his hands go to his face. He stumbled to one knee, said, "I'm ... ," and fell over.

Another popgun sound. Vestry grabbed at his neck like a bee stung him. But blood spurted out between his fingers.

Everybody ran. Everybody that could.


"It just came out of the shadows," I told them. "Like it was a ghost or something."

"At least two ghosts, then," Oz said. "Vestry made it to the hospital in time; the other guy didn't. But there were two shots."

"So—not a zip," the Prof said, thoughtfully. "Ain't no way to reload one of those suckers that fast."

"Or two zips. And two shooters," Darryl said.

Everyone went quiet for a while. Then the Prof said, "I think Schoolboy nailed it the first time."

We all looked at him.

"It was a ghost," the little man said. "And we all know his name."


The Prof was on the money. So, by the time Vestry came up to me on the yard—alone, with his hands held away from his body—to ask his question, I had the answer ready.

"Five hundred dollars?" he said, stunned. He patted the yellowing tape around his neck that held the stitches in place, as if that would make his ears work better.

"Soft money," I told him. "No smokes, no trades, no favors. Folding cash."

"There ain't that much soft in this whole—"

"You got chapters on the bricks," I said quietly. "Take up a collection."


I guess they raised the money. When they racked the bars for the morning count a couple of weeks later, Jester didn't move. Died in his sleep, word was. Maybe something he ate.


"I already paid half," Vestry said the next day. "In front. How do I know he did that spic? I heard the docs don't know what killed him."

"You know who you're dealing with," I told him. "You don't come up with the other half, that's what they'll be saying about you."


The prison library was always full of guys working on their own appeals. And jailhouse lawyers working for cigarettes, or dope, or the use of some wolf's punk. It was the DMZ, neutral turf, off-limits for violence. Any problems there, the Man would be only too happy to close it down. So it stayed peaceful.

I spent a lot of time there, reading with my thick little pocketbook-sized dictionary next to me. You could make steady scores writing letters for guys, especially to pen-pal women they were trying to pull. I was known to be pretty good at it, even as young as I was.

I never saw him coming. Nobody ever did. One minute I was all alone. The next it was as if a cold wind had blown past, and then Wesley was sitting beside me.

"They paid," is all he said.

And then he was gone.


I was cut loose before Wesley was. I went back to thieving. When Wesley got out, he went back to what he did.

One time, they didn't pay him.

Wesley settled accounts with them all, and then he was gone again.

Dead and gone, people said.

But the whisper-stream still vibrated at the sound of his name. Odds on dead? Pretty good. On gone? No takers.

Homicides still happened. And when they happened to certain people, in certain ways, when no one ever got popped for them ...


I wondered what they whispered about me now. I'd been dead and gone myself for a couple of years. Gunned down in the abandoned flatlands of Hunts Point, dumped in front of the ER unconscious, in a coma for ... a long time. When I'd finally come around, the cops were there. My prints had marked me. They knew who I was. Only problem was, I didn't know who I was.

One of the bullets had scored my brain when I took one in the head—the one that broke the binocular connection between my eyes—and my memory was gone. I kept telling them that, anyway.

I'll never know if they believed me. Whether they thought I'd finally escaped that hospital, or had just wandered off in a brain-damaged sleepwalk one night.


Later on, a Russian gangster got himself blown away right in his own restaurant. Maybe the police knew something then, provided they knew he was the same guy who'd hired me to middleman a swap: a bag of cash for a kidnapped kid.

The swap had turned out to be an ambush. The only thing exchanged was gunfire. I took some of it. My partner Pansy took the rest of it. Died with my enemy's blood in her mouth.

As soon as I got myself into good enough shape to get around, I met Dmitri in his restaurant. I told him I needed the names of the people who'd hired him. He told me that would be bad for business. Took a professional's stance—he'd been paid; he did a job. Had no idea the whole thing was a hit. He was sorry about it; but, after all, I'd survived, so what was the beef?

"They killed my dog," I told him.

"Your ... dog?" he said.

I didn't—couldn't—try to explain Pansy to him. Just told him I was ready to kill him, right then and there, if he didn't give me the names. He told me I was bluffing. His last words.

But, considering the power struggle going on in that section of Little Odessa back then, the cops could never be sure.

Even later, they found a severed hand at the bottom of a Dumpster. Just the bones, actually, not the flesh. And, in the same place, a pistol with my thumbprint on it. That was enough for the cops. They figured my string had run out and I'd ended up the same place I'd started from.

By that time, I was on the move. Somebody had wanted me dead. Went to a lot of trouble, spent a lot of coin. Maybe they thought they'd gotten the job done, maybe not. I only had two choices: hide or hunt.

If it hadn't been for what they'd done to Pansy, I might have stayed invisible.


When the hunt was finished, so was I. Even Mama wasn't pressing me to come back ... not for a while. My face wasn't the same—bullets and the surgery it takes to save you from them will do that—but my prints were.

Maybe NYPD bought the severed-hand story. They should—it was one of their own who had pulled my thumbprint from inside Mama's, transferred it to the pistol. But that didn't matter, really. I wasn't a fugitive. My people checked. No wants, no warrants, no BOLOs, federal or state.

Probably safe to go back, they told me. But maybe better to stay where I was for a while. Rest and rebuild.



Oregon's a good place to hide. People don't expect you to be born local. None of that "You ain't from around here" stuff you get in some other places.

In Oregon, they bitch about the California money vamping north and buying up all the good real estate, but they come all over themselves when they think about how much their houses are worth now. They correct you when you pronounce their state "Are-a-gon." They want you to say "Origun," or something like that. But the city—Portland—is just like New York. Or Chicago, or L.A., or Atlanta. It rains a little more ... although they have a lot more weather reports than they have weather. The people are a touch more polite, the buildings don't climb quite as high. There's plenty of traffic, but a whole lot less rage in the drivers.

Still, they got gangbangers, dope fiends, skinheads, homeless, hookers, and hustlers right alongside all the upscale restaurants and cultural opportunities. And probably more strip joints per square mile than any place outside of Bangkok.

The city even has outer boroughs. Vancouver is to Portland what Brooklyn is to Manhattan—even has a bridge you have to cross to get there. And they feature plenty of those licensed-to-steal "title loan" shops.

South of Portland, the coastline is an ever-shifting blend of retirees from other states and tourists rolling through in waves of RVs.

Eastern Oregon has a lot of mountains, a lot of small towns. A lot of pots brewing, from Christian Identity to crank.

Disappearing is easy. Connecting is what's hard.


© 2001 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

For more information about Pain Management, click here.


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