“Dang, man, ain’t we done yet?” I huffed the words out, gasping between ragged gulps of only moderately smoggy D.C. air. My lungs were burning, there was lactic acid making itself felt in body parts I never knew had lactic acid, and if Jack Hill didn’t give me the word to wrap it up soon, I was going to barf bile all over his rented blue Dodge Intrepid.
Okay, so I was getting into some kind of shape. No denying that. But running seventeen miles nonstop was just freaking ridiculous.
“Getting there, kid,” he called out, sitting on his old white butt in that cushy car, idling along while commuters heading home from work honked their horns, went around him with middle fingers extended, and sometimes–I had to admit it–stared with obvious interest at the sweaty dude pounding down the sidewalk like some handsome young black Rocky Balboa.
Except this weren’t no movie. I–what?
Oh. Yeah. Guess I should explain how we got here, looking like this and doing roadwork and all.
It kind of just happend, deciding to play wannabe boxer in training. It had taken Jack and me just under a month to get things squared away enough with Rodeo Iron so we could leave Montana on this mission without having the welding business go down the tubes in our absence. For two weeks of that time, we ran the roads like a couple of bats out of Hell, hitting every single one of our established customers and a fair sprinkling of the better prospects. By the time we were done, we felt qualifed to parody the old Johnny Cash hit, I’ve Been Everywhere. The names of the towns even started running through my dreams.
Malta Choteau Missoula Billings Deer Lodge Philipsburg Wolf Point Harlem Chinook Augusta Glendive Sidney Fort Benton Lincoln White Sulphur Springs Williston Scobey Conrad Browning Havre Park City Livingston…and more. All in two weeks, we managed that.
Which paid off. Uncle B.J. would have his hands full while we were gone, filling orders and shipping out some of them, the ones that couldn’t wait till we got back…whenever that happened.
There were plenty of other details to tend to, of course, one being the reworking of our favorite carry pistols. One .22 caliber bullet from each gun, Jack’s Colt Challenger and my Walther, was no doubt being hoarded by the Missoula PD. Them boys would be wishin’ and a-hopin’ for a someday match after the coroner dug the bullets out of the late and mostly unlamented Mervin Minske’s cranium.
However, we really didn’t want to trash our shooters…and Jack informed me we didn’t have to. “Let me borrow your Walther overnight,” he suggested, “then you and Sissy come on over to our place for breakfast. You’re gonna want to see this.”
Sounded like he was figuring to pull an all nighter, doing what I had no clue, but what the hey. Breakfast without either me or my gal having to cook was a good thing. We hit the hay early, not long after the full moon rose and started dancing behind a veil of clouds.
By dawn, we’d been up for an hour and had chowed down heartily–Carolyn West and Wayne Bruce never disappointed in the grub department–and then Jack had us follow him out to his workshop. When he handed me my pistol, I noticed the difference immediately.
“What’s this? The front of the barrel looks all…chromed or something.”
“Check out the inside,” he advised.
I racked the slide back and peered down the barrel, using a piece of white paper to reflect light up through the riflings from the receiver end.
“What the–?” The entire length of the barrel looked awfully shiny in there, except for the last inch or so at the receiver end. I handed the pistol and paper over to Sissy, who took a look for herself. Her eyebrows climbed her forehead like they were independent entities. She was just as surprised as I was.
“I’ll explain in a minute.” Hill opened a wall cupboard, taking out a small, hinged plastic box. Inside, six bullets rested on a folded blue cloth, three rounds from his handgun, three from mine. “Muff up.”
Questions later, apparently.
We all donned protective earmuffs. Jack then aimed his Colt at the BRF–what he called a Bullet Retention Facility–and fired three rounds into multiple layers of cardboard. It wasn’t exactly fancy schmancy ballistic gelatin, but served well enough to catch and hold the lead for scientific study.
Figuring he wanted me to do the same, I slipped a loaded magazine into my piece and fired an identical three rounds at the BRF. Not the same spot he’d shot at; we’d want to know for sure whose bullets were whose.
When Jack got out his microscope, we took turns inspecting the lead we’d just fired, comparing them against those from the plastic box.
Sissy spoke first, her dark eyes sparkling. “There’s no similarity. Jack, you’ve just–that’s like changing somebody’s fingerprints. What did you do? How does it work?”
The old Protector chuckled. “I took up electroplating as a hobby some…oh, must be forty, fifty years ago now. There used to be all these ads wanting to teach you how to bronze baby shoes or chrome bumpers or whatever. I never did any of that except for practice, but nine, ten years back, it hit me: What if I could electroplate the inside of a gun barrel? Well, I got it figured out how to do that, but of course there were problems.”
“Duh,” I nodded. “The barrel diameter was now too small for the bullet to pass through easily, and besides, as thin as electroplating flows onto a steel surface, it likely followed the contours that were already there. The identifying striations from the rifling would be muted, maybe, but still there.”
He grinned his toothless grin at me. “You learn quick, Tree. Ain’t no grass growing under your clodhoppers. That’s exactly what happened. So I figured I needed a step two. Lookit this.”
Pulling open a wide drawer, he lifted out a thin, spiral-flanged rod.
“What the–oh, I get it.” I stared at the tool, fascinated. “You made yourself a rifling rod in .22 caliber. But you couldn’t reproduce factory conditions for firearms barrel production. How–”
“Not that hard, actually. This rod is a bit undersized. It would slide through the electroplated barrel all night long with no visible result…except for one thing. Fairy dust.”
“Fairy dust?” I grinned back at him, only my grin still has teeth in it. “You’re Tinker Bell?”
“Close enough. It’s a fine-grit diamond dust. I–”
“I got it!” Sissy couldn’t contain herself. “You grind the electroplated riflings down. And when you’re done, the high points in the barrel that made before-plating marks have been pretty much flattened. The new pattern will never match the original, or at least not close enough for positive identification.”
“Give the girl a gold star.”
That left just one question remaining, one that had to be answered before we headed off to Washington: How were we going to take down a major DoD employee? The solution–or what we hoped would end up being a solution–produced the road trip.
Having a stock of alternate identities available at all times, Jack would rent the Intrepid under an assumed name; we didn’t want anything tracing back to us in case the feds were more effective inside the Beltway than they seemed to be. I’d drop him off a couple of blocks from Rent-A-Wreck in Billings, then head on out to the airport, depositing my Grand Prix in the long term parking next to the terminal.
He’d pick me up there once the rental paperwork was taken care of, and we’d be off to the races. Heading to the nation’s capitol to take down a couple of corrupt Department of Defense employees, moles who were being well paid by Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel to push the wolf mutation program. Or at least one of them, if that’s all we could get this time. A man’s got to know his limitations.
Out of our element? Yeah, you could say that. I’d spent years in Hartford, but the District ain’t hardly Connecticut.
Naturally, it was my 250 year old white man partner who came up with the idea of the hunky young black dude doing all the heavy lifting, running my butt off while he trailed me in the car, even shouting encouragement from outside the ring while I sparred at Wurzie’s Gym with real boxing aspirants.
I’d given him the patented cocked eyebrow routine, but he’d merely shrugged. “Look, Treemin, I can be invisible in the city. People won’t even notice; they’ll look right through me. You remember how it was, the first time you ever saw me, back in Hartford, just mumbling and fumbling down the street, ancient, senile, and feeble.”
“Yeah.” I had to admit that much; Jack is as deadly as they come, but he can look as harmless as a little ol’ bunny wabbit. “But–”
“But nothing. Jackson, you exude charisma. You’re a hot young stud, big enough to throw your weight around and good looking enough to make the girls pant and the men think twice. You stand out, my friend, and you always will.”
“Ngh. Um. Well. I ain’t sure I’m all that, but assuming you’re right, what do we do about it?”
“Not we, black man,” he twinkled. “You.”
“O-o-okay. What do I do about it?”
“Hide in plain sight.”
“Think of it this way. You can’t hide, so you flaunt your bad self. There’s a boxing facility called Wurzie’s in D.C. It’s even respectable; at least three trainers who’ve gotten young boxers to the pros hang out there from time to time. It’s only about three miles from the DoD, and even better–”
I remembered. “Oh, crap. The report on our targets. Wurzie’s is one of the places gay Moe the twisted bureaucrat is known to go for action with strangers in the restrooms. He favors hooking up with hot, sweaty young dudes, the stinkier the better. The hackers weren’t positive but were giving three to one that he pays for a lot of it…and the recipients of his Jerry Sandusky attentions are all either black or Latino. Jack Hill, you dirty dog, you want to use me as bait for this yahoo!”
Hill looked entirely unrepentant. “Hey, Tree, I’d do it, but, you know, I’m not really his type.”
“And I am.”
“One hundred percent.”
I sighed, already seeing the sense of it. Didn’t have to like it, but yeah, it could work.
Maybe. Trouble was, so far it hadn’t. Not that I was in any hurry to flush my innocence—uh, poor choice of words, considering Moe’s favorite location was a restroom stall and all.
But I really really really wanted to get this over with, and Moe had not showed up at Wurzie’s even once.
If all went according to plan–yeah, right–my minaturized helmet cam, hidden in my buffalo-curly hair, would record the Wolfer’s incriminating conversation without me having to commit beyond a certain non-prosecutable point.
I didn’t know if I was more concerned that the plan might not work…or that it would.
The 17 miles of roadwork happened on Monday. On Wednesday, I had a boxing match to face. A real one, no money involved but a lot on the line nonetheless. We’d put me out there as Solomon “Black Lightning” Grimes from Utah, known mostly as B.L., an up-and-coming heavyweight with fleet feet and 100,000 volts of electricity in his fists.
No way to tell if anybody was buying all that, especially since I had no record in the ring that anyone could check. Mostly, they wrote me off as one more young loudmouth punk…but at Wurzie’s, they had a longstanding practice of putting you in the ring at least once, just to see what they could see.
Wouldn’t want to pass up the next Heavyweight Champion just ’cause he was a talker, now would they?
What, the Intrepid? No, Jack had stuffed the Montana plates in the trunk. I never asked where he got the Utah version the car wore currently. Stole ’em, most likely.
My opponent was a scarred veteran, sorta black but even lighter than Obama, who’d been around long enough to worry me considerably. Hill, playing Burgess Meredith to my overly tanned Sylvester Stallone, found out enough about the man to consider my nervousness justified.
“His name is Tim Larrimer,” he reported, “and he’s dangerous. Five ten, goes at least two-twenty. Solid barrel of a man, granite jaw, 32 years of age. Eighteen wins, twelve losses, going back to Golden Gloves. Been outpointed, but never been knocked off his feet. Not super fast, but he’s got a right like Rocky Marciano–”
“Rock–never mind. He’s got one helluva right, okay? If he tags you on the chin with that, you’ll find out what you’re made of in a hurry. Keep your hands up, your chin down, and your elbows tucked. You don’t need either a concussion or a batch of busted ribs.”
“I’m serious, Tree.”
The time had come. The ref–at least they had a real ref–called us to the center of the ring, read us the usual blah blah blah. Larrimer stared impassively into my eyes while I looked down at his heavily muscled chest, we went to our corners, the bell dinged, and–
“Shit.” I whispered, but Hill heard me.
“Fight!” He urged, as near frantic as I’d ever heard him.
“I will. But when you get a chance, look around the ring to your left. I think that’s our Moe, right there in the front row.”
Then I paid the price for losing my focus. While I was flapping my lips, Tim Larrimer had slipped right on across the ring. I hadn’t made but two steps away from the corner when he caught up to me. That right hand came smoking in–lack of speed, my left cojone–and I was blasted clear back into the ropes, finding my self sitting, tweety birds and stars chasing each other around the overhead lights.
“Crap!” I thought, rolling to my left, coming back up in a hurry like any street fighter knows he has to do if he’s going to see another sunrise, “This is going to be a long three rounds!”