Who is Mason Mashburn: And why is everyone in Boston out to see him dead?
Sit back, relax, and enjoy the fact that someone has more troubles than you do. Meet Mason Mashburn, a man with a hefty sackful of diagnoses, a drug problem that he’s just barely managing to manage, a deep desire to be left alone, and a small army of thugs on his heels intent on clubbing him on the head, burning him alive, or gunning him down. All three, actually.
Meanwhile, he’s hiding out from the entire police force of Boston who are convinced he’s a mass murderer. Mason thinks they may be right, but he’d certainly like to find out for sure. He’s running out of friendly doors to knock on for help–never really had that many available to him anyway, and oh yes, and he’s starting to feel dope sick.
How do your problems stack up against that?
He couldn’t figure out—and by he, I mean Mason Mashburn—why someone was choking him to death. He had no idea that there was anyone in the world who cared enough about his existence to single him out that way, but evidently there was. To somebody, he was a person worth murdering, and for a fleeting moment, it made him feel kind of special. That’s not to say he liked what was happening to him though.
Mason fell to the ground, stopped drawing air into his lungs, and began reviewing his life: not his whole life, that was certainly something he didn’t want to relive, but his life for the last hour or so, from seven to eight AM. He was faintly aware that this was commemorative day of sorts. It looked like it was going to be his last.
March 19th was the sixth anniversary of Mason Mashburn’s first arrest for possession of heroin. One moment he was a graduate student closing in on his PhD, and the next he was a junkie. Well no, it wasn’t quite like that, but that’s how Mason liked to frame it in his mind. It wasn’t that way at all though. He’d been an addict for a couple years before his arrest and his chances of grad-uating had already vanished when the cops kicked in the door to his dealer’s apartment, pulled Mason off the couch with a needle still hanging out of his arm, and pumped him full of Narcan. The first dose didn’t do it, so they waited three minutes and gave him another.
He’d been sinking fast for a year or more before the incident, but this made the addiction real and official; thus it was a landmark. It was a landmark because he was classified a junkie at that moment in time—officially classified—Grade-A USDA junkie, which was his own self-imposed politically incorrect title, and he stayed Lord High Junkie ever since then, never relinquishing the crown. This means that for all intents and purposes, the first twenty-three years of Mason’s life and the last six were led by entirely different people. Date of this transformation was March 19th and the transformation was now six years old. Happy anniversary.
The weather in Boston on the sixth anniversary of his arrest was about the same as the weather on that same date six years before: The sky had no color, the trees had no leaves, and the faces of the patients at the methadone clinic were colorless too but everything in Boston mirrors the bitterness of winter when it drags into its last months, so in that regard the patients didn’t look any pastier than the rest of the people in town.
Mason walked eight blocks from his apartment to the clinic and got there around seven in the morning. He stood in line among the people he called the smack hacks and waited his turn. Stupid name, slack hacks. Even Mason wasn’t quite sure what it meant, and he coined it, but essentially, smack hacks were—to Mason’s thinking—lightweight opioid addicts, people who had the luxury of jobs to go to, families to tend to, and lives to live. They dabbled in drugs the way other dilettantes dabble in art or stocks. Smack hacks are the people who got stupidly over their heads by playing with a fast crowd or getting themselves strung out with pain pills prescribed by a clueless doctor. They got more or less inconvenienced by their drug use and ended up as clinic patients. Eventually they’ll taper off methadone and have an experience they can exploit as chic. Mason disliked them even more than he disliked the general population.
Squinting through his long greasy hair, he peeked at the smack hacks who waited in line and he ducked his head when they looked back. Hide and go seek. It was a peculiar game for someone with an IQ of 190. Well, it used to be 190, maybe heroin had cut it down a bit. At the very least, the damned drug had robbed him of the outward appearance of intelligence. But hide and go seek gave Mason a little taste of detachment, and also made it possible for him to cope with the ugly necessity of being around other people. It was of particular use when he had to stand in line for his methadone.
One of the things you may or may not know about methadone is that you need to take it everyday if you want to avoid the tortures of withdrawal. Unless you have take-home privileges, the first thing you want to do every day is show up at the clinic, take your daily dose of the nasty stuff and then of course do the same thing the following day. No holidays, no vacations, no sick leaves. You might be absent minded about paying your cable bill, calling your mother, or picking up milk on the way home from work. You might even forget about eating lunch, sending the kids off to school, or taking a leak every ten hours or so, but you won’t forget your methadone.
Mason’s daily clinic pilgrimage was to Stenhouse College: more exactly, to the rear edge of the campus of Stenhouse College where the bungalow that was the methadone clinic could be kept out of sight and out of mind from the academics. Stenhouse College took up a lot of real estate in Boston. It cranked out a lot of four-year students over the decades who went on to Harvard or Yale to become rich lawyers and doctors. It had an impressive history and wanted you to know it. Endowment shrines were everywhere. It was a pompous school, but in fairness it had earned a measure of pomposity, at least in some arenas. Four-year students who survived Stenhouse could generally coast halfway through even the best graduate schools. The school had a good reputation.
The methadone clinic, on the other hand, had a lousy reputation, but it was the feeder program for dozens of grant-funded studies that the professors at Stenhouse craved. Nobody had any interest in overseeing the actual medical services at the clinic, but the college had enough clout and prestige in the state to keep the thing open and they could assign professors to sign off on prescriptions and walk through the minimum supervision requirements. It was a convenient resource for some, like the smack hacks, and lenient with others who were sort of across the board non-compliant, like Mason. He would have his good spells where he’d show up and take his medication and keep away from drugs, and his naughty ones where, well, where he wouldn’t do any of that. On March nineteenth he was a few weeks into a good spell.
As he entered the clinic and took his place in line, Mason drew a couple deep breaths and replaced the frigid outdoor air in his lungs with warm, sour clinic air. Three minutes went by and his hypomania kicked in. He rocked back and forth, nodding his head nonsensically, making quiet putter sounds with his lips. After two more minutes, a song entered his head, not any tune in particular, but a jazz-blues riff of some sort with a saxophone lead. Mason used to play saxophone in the college band the first year he was in school. That was a decade ago, though it seemed ten times longer ago than that.
The line moved slower than usual. Four people stood in front of Mason. He peered around them and got a glimpse of the dosing nurse. It was Mary. “Shit,” Mason said out loud. People in front of him turned around. He shrugged them off and went back to his blues riff. Things slip out when you’re hypomanic.
Oh well, so it was Mary on duty today. Mary-Quite-Contrary, the back-up nurse who always seemed to show up when Mason least needed to see her. Every clinic has someone like her on staff, a person no one likes, who shows up just often enough to remind you that life sucks solely because people like Mary make it suck.
Mason had tried to explain to people who didn’t know Mary what his problem was with her. As he explained it, she looked like somebody’s grandmother. When you stepped up to the window, she looked all sweet and maternal. But then she’d lift her head and look at you with ugly blue eyes, eyes that were a too-pale shade of blue, eyes that told you there was no human soul connected to them. They stared at you like you were meat on a hook, waiting to be drained and diced up. That’s the way he explained it to his brother, Leo, who should have understood that poor Mason was defenseless against her and unable to keep from saying what was on his mind most of the time. His brother’s advice was simple and basic: “Just don’t fuck with her.” Easy to say, impossible for Mason to do.
When it was Mason’s turn at the window Mary looked up at him slowly. “Morning, Mason,” she said. “Little jittery this morning, are we?”
Mason shook his head no. He was swaying left and right. He’d be perfectly willing to stop swaying as soon as the riff was done, in eight more bars or so.
“What are you coming off of today?” Mary asked.
“Nothing. Honest to God, Mary. This is just pure me.”
Mary nodded wearily. “Try again,” she said.
“Mary, I’m not shitting you. I’m clean as a bone, but I’m bipolar, you know that. I get things…” He waved his hands in circles around his head. “…spinning, you know? But honest to God, I swear to you…”
Mary reached under the counter.
“Aw c’mon, Mary. Don’t do that.”
She pulled up a plastic cup.
“I’m clean, Mary. Don’t make me do that.”
“Just pee in the cup, and meet with your counselor first, Mason. Then you can have your dose.”
There was no point arguing, none at all. Mason knew that. He released a loud, tired sigh, took the cup, and headed to the men’s room. He latched the door and began singing to the camera that watched over him. He always sang to the camera. This day it was, “You Ought To Be In Pictures.” Last week it was, “All of Me…Why Not Take All of Me?” The week before, what was it? I think it was, “I Want To Be Sedated.” But you get the idea.
He set the cup of pee on a ledge and exited the toilet. He knew the routine: You pee and then you go to the waiting room and have a seat and wait for the urine to be tested.
Ten minutes went by before his counselor came to the door and smiled at Mason. “How we doing today?”
Mason rose to his feet and led the counselor down the hall. “You know, Gil, I come in here first thing in the morning and just want to get my goddamned dose and get on with my day, and you’ve got a bunch of nurses here who don’t know the fucking difference between substance abuse and bipolar disorder. Don’t they ever look at the charts? Shouldn’t someone here at the clinic offer them a fucking in-service or something, Client Problems 101, maybe? Is decent help that hard to get?”
The counselor followed silently behind Mason. He was Gil Porter, a recovering alcoholic who liked to compare his battle with booze with his patients’ opiate addiction. Mason found that ploy gratuitous and revolting. But that was just one isolated loathsome trait of Gil’s. Mason had plenty of other things to hate about him and plenty of opportunities from session to session to cultivate his hate. Mason hated that Gil never listened well, that he didn’t seem very bright, that he had bad teeth—they looked like little popcorn kernels—and especially he hated that Gil had a thin, nasally voice that invariably delivered a disappointing message.
“Mary was concerned about how you looked at the dosing window,” Gil said in his thin, nasally voice.
“I’m a goddamned bipolar, Gil. And on top of that, I’m a poster boy for ADHD. Does it look like I’m overdosed on my methadone?” He threw his hands out to his side and stuck his chest out to dramatize his appearance. “Is that what it looks like to you?”
Gil shook his head no. “But I couldn’t say for sure that you’re not on meth or coke.”
“Oh shit, Gil. I’ve got enough endogenous speed flowing through my veins right now to propel a steamship. Why the hell would I be doing cocaine?”
“You tell me. Three weeks ago it came up in your lab test.”
“Six weeks, it’s been six weeks, and I wasn’t hypomanic then. I was fucking depressed, like I’m going to be if I don’t get out of this place in the next two minutes. Why don’t you call them up in the office and ask them what the lab results are? It’s been twenty minutes already. How long does it take to dip a goddamned stick in a cup of piss?”
The phone in Gil’s office rang at that moment as if on cue, and the lab tech told Gil the urine was “clean.” Gil told Mason. Mason gave Gil an I-told-you-so shrug. “While I’m here,” Mason said, “why don’t you give me the go ahead on a take-home?”
“Not yet,” Gil said.
“Why not? I’ve been coming to the clinic for two years now. You got people out there who’ve been coming here just three months and you give them take-home doses every week. Just one dose a week would save me a hell of a lot of subway fare over the course of a year. Come on, Gil. I’ve never sold drugs in my life. Give me a chance to prove myself.”
“Stay straight three months in a row and we’ll talk,” Gil said. “You’re halfway there already.”
Mason stood up. “This is messed up. This is really messed up. How do you expect a guy to get straightened out with a system like this? It can’t be done.”
“Six more weeks,” Gil said. “Unless…”
He picked up a piece of paper from his desk and held it out for Mason. Mason didn’t reach for it. “Unless what?” he asked scornfully.
“Unless you want to sign up for a clinical trial. Do a good job with that and we would be willing to shave a week off, possibly two.”
“I’m not jumping through any hoops for your fucking amusement,” Mason told him. “I guess you’ve forgotten, we’ve played that game before.”
Gil shrugged. “You’d have to stay straight this time around,” he said. He took a quick look at the paper and said out loud, pretending to be talking to himself, “Oh wait. Never mind.” He dropped the paper back on the desk. “You don’t qualify for this one anyway. It’s only for clinic patients who are students here at the college. I forgot you’re not a student anymore. Sorry ‘bout that.” The smile he gave Mason was a smug, nasty smile, full of popcorn kernels.
Mason muttered something under his breath, scraped the floor with his chair when he stood up, then shoved it out of his way. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and stomped back to the dosing window. Mary watched him toss the methadone into the back of his throat. He crushed the cup and flung it into the trash. She smiled triumphantly. He ignored it.
As soon as he stepped outside the clinic, Mason shook a cigarette out of the pack, put it to his lips, and struggled with two matches. The first match flared quickly and went out in the wind. The second one wore itself out with five or six tries. Nothing comes easy to some people.
Across the campus—while Mason struggled with his matches—Gerald P. Cannella staggered out of the Psychology building. He was still wearing his college custodian uniform.
He made his way around a row of hedges on the other side of the walkway and stood smiling in front of a bench where a young woman was sitting with an impatient scowl on her face.
“I got them,” Cannella said, pulling a fistful of foil-backed bubble wrapped pill sheets out of his coat pocket, more than twenty of them. In all, there were over two hundred pills, beautiful sky-blue pills.
“Where the hell have you been?” the woman asked.
“You’ve been in there nearly an hour. I thought you got caught.”
Cannella grinned, fished a computer flash drive out of his pocket and waved it in front of her face as though that would provide her with a satisfactory answer. It didn’t. She frowned more deeply. Her large brown eyes narrowed.
“It’s your memory stick, Traci, the one that you put in the computer to back up your term papers,” he said.
“I know what it is.”
“I downloaded all the names off the computer in Dr. Siefro’s office into it,” he said.
“You’re a moron, you know that? A fucking moron. You were told take one goddamned file out with names on it of the desk drawer, not download everything in the doctor’s computer onto a flash drive. No wonder it took you so long.”
“It’s got the names of the patients who are taking this stuff, I guess,” Cannella said, ignoring Traci’s comment and studying the flash drive with an unsteady gaze. “The file names all have the name of the drug, hydro-chloroform or something. I loaded them off Dr. Siefro’s computer,” he explained.
“We just needed the file,” Traci said mournfully. “And that’s the one thing you left behind.”
“They’re going to be needing these pills pretty soon, and we’ve got them all right here.” He shook the bubble wrapped pills in her face playfully. “It only took a minute. They left the goddamned computer on in the doctor’s office. The whole list was just sitting there. Names and phone numbers and some kind of notes or something about each one of them. When they need their next fix they’ll have to come to us.”
“You idiot. Those pills aren’t addicting.”
“Really?” Cannella said with a broad grin. “I don’t know. They’re pretty cool.”
“You’re fucking nuts. Give me the stick,” Traci demanded. “It’s got my term paper on it. I sure the fuck don’t want to lose that.”
Cannella continued to stare at the flash drive with a silly fascination.
“You’re high, aren’t you? What did you do? You took one of those goddamned pills, didn’t you?”
“A couple, maybe three. I had to try them out sooner or later. They work a lot quicker than I thought they would. And they’re great. What are they for?”
“You fucking idiot.” She snatched the stack of pills away from Cannella and he complained.
Traci looked at the foil backing. Some had an “X” on the back, printed with a black marking pen, and some had a “P.” She gave Cannella all the pills marked “P” and said, “There. We’ll share them.”
“Ah, don’t be mad at me, babe,” Cannella said and his voice was starting to slur noticeably. He fumbled around in his shirt pocket and pulled out a woman’s watch. “Look here what I got for you.”
“Now where the hell did you get that?” Traci demanded.
“Dr. Jamison’s office,” Cannella said, thrusting the watch at Traci but she didn’t take it. “Dr. J left it on her desk, right out in the open.”
“Oh, Christ. So you’ve been ransacking all the offices in there for the past hour, is that what you’ve been doing?”
Cannella grinned and jangled his keys up in the air. “I got all the keys,” he said. The keys caught the early sunlight and glimmered like little stars in his hand. Cannella felt like he was holding up the whole universe. The drugs he’d taken were dragging him further away from reality by the minute.
“You’ve messed up everything, you stupid, stupid moron,” Traci said.
Cannella heard footsteps running out of the Psychology building. Two campus cops came racing out. One hollered, “There he is.” Instinctively, Traci ducked down. Instinctively, Cannella bolted. He headed in the direction of the methadone clinic.
By this time, Mason had struck a third match and finally got his cigarette lit. He took a long drag off it and launched into his standard morning performance, hunching his shoulders and falling into his gotta-go, gotta-go pace to show all the smack hacks that he had important things to do just like they did.
He pumped his pace up, crossed the parking lot, and got up to full throttle near the back gate of the college.
That’s when he got nailed: when a fierce, fat, thrusting weight struck him from behind and toppled him forward. It was the full weight of a body plowing into him.
Mason sprawled onto the ground and struggled to get to his feet. He couldn’t make it.
Iron-strong hands gripped his shoulder and spun him around. Inches away a crazed terrified face glared at him, looking through him. He didn’t recognize the guy at first, his face was so close and contorted. “Listen!” the man hollered. “Listen to that!”
Mason struggled to get the man’s hands off him, but the grip was adrenaline-charged. “You can hear it, can’t you?” The man threw his head back and let out a scream. It echoed off the Hancock Building.
Mason pushed against the man’s chest. A crowd gathered around, but nobody wanted to dive into the fray. They stood back thirty feet and watched. Thanks a lot, you bastards.
Mason worked to pry away the man’s grip by digging at the fingers. He arched his back and flailed his arms. The man lowered his head and pulled his face away from Mason. It was Gerald P. Cannella, one of Mason’s dealers, actually a backup dealer Mason had used on occasion. It had been at least a year since he’d seen him. Mason recognized Cannella, but Cannella seemed to have no idea who or what Mason was. Mason called his name out. “Cannella, what the hell are you doing? Let go of me. Let go!”
“They’re coming out of the ground,” Cannella said.
“What the fuck are you talking about, Cannella?”
“Drums? There are no fucking drums coming out of the ground. Let go of me.”
“Jungle drums. Natives, can’t you hear them? Do you see them? Red eyes. Look at them. Eyes like targets. Black rims and yellow centers. See them? Close your eyes, you’ll see them better.”
Mason had been coasting into a manic phase the past week or two, so he could appreciate the hallucination, but he didn’t appreciate being tackled and mauled. “Let go of me, you fucking lunatic” he said.
“Everyone’s black,” Cannella said vacantly. His mouth was thick with saliva. It dripped onto Mason’s shirt. “They’ve got red eyes. They could cure me if they wanted to, you know that? But I think they’re going to kill me.”
“I said let go of me.” Mason growled.
Cannella’s hands slid up to Mason’s throat.
“No, no. Cut that out. Let go!”
The hands tightened. Mason felt a strange rush surging from his neck to the top of his head. His air was cut off, and it wasn’t that he cared so much about that, but the discomfort was intolerable. Mason tried to call out again, but nothing came out. He lifted his knee and gave a quick shove to Cannella’s chest. Cannella’s hands sprung loose. He took a couple staggering steps backward and looked at Mason with a faint sad smile that suddenly seemed lucid. “Keep your head down, Mashburn,” he said softly, as though he was imparting sagely advice. “You’re the only guy in the world I could ever trust, man.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Mason asked. “You’re bat shit crazy.”
The two campus guards that had been pursuing Cannella for the past couple minutes were just now closing in. They circled around him, but when they were only a few yards away, he turned to look at the crowd and saw them coming. He spun out of the way, dancing backward several steps and laughing. They told him to stay put but he didn’t. They were glad he didn’t. He was a pretty big guy and crazy enough to do almost anything. He took off toward the front entrance of the college. The guards followed behind, but didn’t run as fast as they could have because they knew their job was done if Cannella ran off the campus and disappeared into a crowded street.
Cannella did in fact run off campus, and ran to the edge of the road, spilling sheets of pills along the way. Mason sat up and watched him. Cannella continued to step backward into the traffic, laughing, looking down at his feet and shaking his head, sadly. Laughing and wincing. He clutched at his hair and yanked at it as though he wanted to pull it all out by the root. The guards continued to move cautiously forward. Cannella shrugged, threw his arms out to his side and gave them a sad smile. They kept coming forward. Cannella reached into his jacket, grabbed a gun that was tucked into the back of his belt and pulled it out for them to see. He leveled it at them. They saw it and froze in their tracks like synchronized dancers. They had nothing to shoot back with, and the same thought raced through both of their brains at the same instant: this isn’t a job worth dying for. It turned out not to be an issue though. A van skidded to a halt right behind Cannella, and two guys jumped out. One grabbed Cannella by the throat, the other smacked the gun from his hand, and they dragged him into the backseat of the van. One of the abductors scooped up the gun from the ground and lunged into the van on top of Cannella. The vehicle drove off before Mason or anyone else could register what had happened. There went Gerald P. Cannella, snatched away by demons.