They Walk Among Us, Chapter Thirty-Five: The Sting

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My butt had barely found the stool when Jack Hill started in.

“He’s got a–”

I shook my head and a gloved fist to shut him up, spitting out the mouthpiece at the same time. Sixty seconds is an eternity during a round, but it’s not even an eyeblink between rounds. I needed every one of those seconds to go over my plan, make sure I had the pieces properly in place.

Tim Larrimer had tagged me hard with that first punch, scoring a knockdown that came close to launching me clear out of the ring. But except for a couple of nasty body shots he’d managed before I could clinch during the one and only time he’d gotten inside my guard after I was back on my feet, that was it.

My eidetic memory was scanning and rescanning. I couldn’t afford any more rookie mistakes.

Thanks be, Hill and I’d partnered long enough for him to know when his input wasn’t needed.

By the numbers, then.

1. Yeah, Larrimer’s right was every bit as dangerous as advertised, but

2. Once my adrenaline had fired up and I’d pulled my head out of my rectum, I really was faster, and by a significant margin at that.

3. He was a one trick pony, no doubt the reason he’d never gone all the way. All the man knew how to do was just keep coming at you, hammer hammer hammer.

4. Which was good enough to blast lesser opponents into smithereens, but the real boxers likely tattooed him left and right and no doubt accounted for those 12 losses on his record.

5. The guy could move his head, roll his shoulders, slip punches with the best of them…but he was still open up the middle as often as not.

Mouthpiece back in. No time left. Out of the corner of my mouth, I told Jack quietly, “Yell at me if I don’t have this bozo out at a minute thirty.”

“Done,” he replied, and the bell rang.

Round Two.

I went into my act, endeavoring to convince everybody in the gym that my left side ribs were seriously bothering me. No obvious grimaces, just being a touch more tentative with my left jab, keeping that elbow tucked over those ribs a bit more closely, and…

…and he bought it. One thing the scarred brawler owned big time was the fabled killer instinct. The guy must have had a past life as a great off-white shark; he could smell blood in the water. His steady forward progress picked up speed. Once, backing up, I stumbled just a teensy weensy bit. On purpose, but he didn’t know that.

On he came.

Three different times, I stopped retreating and circling, stood toe to toe and slugged it out–but never for long. Half a dozen swings, and then I’d break it off, backing up again, circling to his left, protecting my own left side, working moment by moment to build the image of a fighter who’s realized he is never going to be able to stand against the steady, grinding juggernaut coming at him.

There was a fair sized audience, fifty or so, people seriously interested in the sport plus a few with nothing better to do on a Wednesday evening…and at least one high level bureaucrat cruising for guy on guy action. All of those folks were no doubt shaking their heads in disgust, disappointed but not surprised to see yet another wannabe fall to the Grizzly Bear of Wurzie’s Gym.

Not that I thought about that. I had my game face on now; there was only me and Tim.

The execution of any trap is all about timing, and that timing is all about intuition. There’s science to it, but it’s mostly art…and Art said it was time.

Larrimer was pressing hard, not quite running after me but almost, trying to cut off the ring but having no success at that; my Mama didn’t raise no fool.

I turned and ran.

Now, I’ve seen that happen, watched overmatched boxers in the ring who couldn’t take it any longer and literally turned their backs on their opponents to run away. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen, and it’s always a sickening thing to see.

Larrimer followed, as I’d known he would. I’d made a real run of it, nearly from one corner to its opposite, all the way across the ring. I bent over as I ran, not moving too fast, but clearly counting on the rules of the sport to keep the mean old bully from pounding on me from behind.

He’s yellow! That thought would be running through the crowd.

Two steps away from the far corner, with Larrimer way too close on my heels for comfort, I tripped over my own feet. Stumbled forward, reaching out with a gloved right hand to catch myself…

…planted my right foot…

…leaned down over it as my left knee tucked up under me so that I looked like some kind of bent-over, 200 pound black stork, balanced just for that one split second on the right foot, right glove near but definitely not touching the canvas…

…and shot the left foot back the way it had come, slamming down, my body pivoting back around in a cross-body lunge toward the still-incoming Larrimer, the right fist accelerating in a swooping uppercut.

Even with my long arms, even with my right leg so fully extended behind me that only the toes were still planted, it was close. Had Larrimer been a couple of inches taller, or a couple degrees less a creature of habit, I’d have missed him clean and looked silly at best.

But I didn’t miss.

Until that moment, he’d never been knocked off his feet–but then again, until that moment, the bottom side of his chin had never been on the receiving end of what was essentially a karate lunge punch traveling nearly eight feet and delivered by a welder who’d been literally lifting iron for a living for years.

I heard the punch hit. The shock ran through my arm.

Larrimer was lifted off his feet, all 220 bull-beef pounds of him, his forward momentum reversed so that he crashed over on his back, nothing but dead weight. The canvas felt it when he landed, but the boxer did not.

I held the pose for a few seconds before straightening up. Not intentionally, just making sure of my follow through…but somebody got a picture of it. Fortunately, the photographer caught my right side, with my head tucked down behind the upraised shoulder and arm. It wouldn’t work to ID me, and yay rah for that.

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The photo made it into Thursday morning’s Washington Post under a rather splashy heading.

UTAH BOXER ONE-PUNCHES LOCAL LEGEND

A slow news day for the Post, no doubt, and a wee bit of exaggeration about Larrimer being a “local legend”. The article described the fight pretty accurately, though, including spelling Solomon “Black Lightning” Grimes correctly and mentioning “Jeffrey Schock”, the eccentric old white trainer who held up traffic during roadwork runs and wore his “lucky shoes”–one white, one black–whenever his fighter stepped into the ring.

He did? I hadn’t even noticed.

“We were lucky,” Jack observed, thoughtfully pouring more half and half into his coffee. Our waffles were up on the warmer, but the IHOP waittress hadn’t gotten around to bringing them to our table.

“The fight?” My query had bit of testy in it. “I had that in the bag. Once I got around to paying attention, that is.”

He shook his head. “No, Tree; you did fine in the ring. I’m talking about that photo making it into the papers. It’s one helluva photograph. Coulda gotten picked up nationally, or some kid with a cell phone could have gotten one or both of us on video and posted the vid to YouTube.”

“Ah.” He had a point. It wasn’t like we hadn’t used YouTube to whack Wolf Management, Inc., in the chops a time or two. Turnaround may be fair play, but who wants to play fair? “You’re right about that. No paparazzi so far, anyway.”

“But.”

“But?”

“It can’t last, Tree. I had a workable idea, having us pretend to be a young aspiring boxer with his quirky old trainer in tow. The thing is, every battle plan is good until the first shot is fired. We didn’t know about Wurzie’s Gym being used to scout real ring prospects on a regular basis, and you were just too damned good. Nobody who was there is going to forget Black Lightning Grimes.”

“Unh.” I was only paying half attention; the waffles were on the way. “Chow call.”

One thing about Jack and me; we’re always willing to table a discussion till after the meal is down and we’re kicked back with that third cup of coffee. I’ve come to believe that’s one of the deeper bonds between us, minor as it might sound to some.

Something about triple caffeine jolts gets us going. Whoever invented decaf should be shot.

Jack took up where he left off. “We’re kind of like Bigfoot.”

“Huh?”

“Well, nobody had ever put Larrimer on the canvas, let alone put his lights out. Likewise, nobody’s ever produced a proven photo of a Yeti, let alone brought in a specimen.”

“Okay…bit of a stretch, but I’m following so far.”

“Bear with me. I ain’t done. There’s nothing more titillating to lots of folks than the possibility of encountering a real live Bigfoot. And in boxing, there’s nothing more titillating to fans of the sport than the one punch knockout.”

“Hm. Go on.”

“There are lots of photos out there that claim to show Bigfoot on the move, but they’re mostly just the other side of clear enough to be sure about it. That photo of your arm in the air, fist out there where it met Larrimer’s chin, is claimed as evidence of the knockout–but except for the people in the gym that night, nobody seems to be buying it. The photographer did not click the shutter in time to catch Larrimer in the frame. It’s awesome. You got some serious shoulder and biceps and dang near Popeye forearm there, but it’s not conclusive by itself.”

I considered this. “So…what’s your point?”

“Simple, Tree. We gotta do what Bigfoot does.”

“Finish our business and get outa Dodge before the Bigfoot Boxing Enthusiasts can pin us down and prove we’re real…or not?”

“Yep. Exactly that.”

We sat in companionable silence for several minutes, Hill letting me absorb the implications of the situation. There was plenty he wasn’t saying, because he didn’t need to say it. As we’d first conceived it, our original mission included taking down both Curly and Moe in a way that would ensure they’d come up dirty on the wolf management program which–as we knew all too well from personal experience–was itself about as dirty as they come. Having DoD bureaucrats pretty much owned by the Sinaloa Cartel, pushing more and more funding toward a program that was secretly manipulating wolf DNA to produce canine warriors for the Mexican drug kingpins…that really sucked, and we needed to expose it.

But we couldn’t accomplish all of that. Not right now, we couldn’t.

“We’ve got to scale back,” I said finally.

“That’s the way I see it.”

“Take down Moe if we can–the hook is set, with him having watched me take down Larrimer the other night–without worrying about the wolf connection. We don’t have time to set that up, unless maybe if we get the right video, we could jack around with that a bit before we leak it. And forget about Curly altogether.”

“For now,” he nodded, “and one more thing.”

I waited.

“Time limit. We’ve got to put a stop watch on this thing. My gut is saying three days, not an hour more, and we get on the road. Put this gigantic pool of pus behind us.”

I thought about that, taking a deep breath, centering, going inside myself. What did my gut say?

Jack waited.

A minute or so later, I took another deep breath. “I agree. Three days, max.”

He shoved back his chair. “Let’s get to work.”

Everybody at Wurzie’s knew us now, and I mean everybody. I kept to light workouts, still too soon after a fight to go back at it hardcore. Some fighters did that, but some didn’t…and the easier approach appealed to every bit of me. Larrimer really had bruised a rib or three, even with just those two body shots he’d managed in that first round.

No headaches or sign of concussion, but then I’ve always had a hard head. Mom insists that came from my absentee (and entirely unknown to me) biological father.

Tim Larrimer himself, seemingly no worse for having been one punched to dreamland, would have kissed my ring if I’d worn one. I never did understand how guys like that think. If I’d been whupped, I wouldn’t have been impolite, but I’d have been working 24/7 to make sure it didn’t happen the next time around.

Reggie Wurzie himself started trying to drive a wedge between me and Jack “Jeffrey Schock” Hill, implying that the old man was never going to be able to get me trained properly.

“You got real potential, kid,” he told me one day, “but you’re missing a few basic fundamentals. I got contacts, know people, if you decide you want to get serious. Five years from now, I could see you going for the title.”

Yeah, right. If a man felt like this after winning a fight, who in his right mind would ever box for a living?

Besides, he’d made the fatal error of calling me “kid”. Uncle B.J. could do that, and Jack Hill did it as a joke when we were in public, playing our roles as young black boxer and old white mentor…but Wurzie like to got himself clocked for that one.

As anybody who knows me knows, I wasn’t a kid even when I was a kid.

There was talk of matching me up with Dave Logan, the top amateur training regularly at Wurzie’s. Dave had fought Jim Larrimer twice, once when they were both kids in Golden Gloves competition and once right here in D.C. Larrimer had knocked Logan out in the first round the first time but lost a unanimous decison the second.

Most significantly, our target started showing up regularly, coming through the doors between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m…and the other guys, the real aspiring boxers, began talking to me like I’d been one of them forever.

Apparently, it helps to thump the Bully of the Mountain. Gives you gym cred.

My best contact was Gene Thickens, eighteen years of age, at this point a middleweight with blinding hand speed and decent defensive skills. He might, I thought, have a real future in the ring if a shark like Reggie Wurzie didn’t get his hooks into him.

The evening after Jack and I’d decided we were running out of time, Gene and I happened to hit the showers at the same time after our workouts. As we were getting dressed, I opened the conversation.

“By the way, Gene, who’s that creepy white dude, the one that hangs out over on the north side of the ring whenever anybody’s sparring?”

“Him?” The young boxer chuckled. “Calls himself Frank.”

“Calls himself?”

“Fake name no doubt. Should call himself John.”

“John? Oh….”

“Yeah.”

“My trainer and I been wondering about him. Never saw him till the night Larrimer and I got in the ring, but he’s been here every evening since. We took to calling him Moe. From The Three Stooges?”

“Hah! That’s a good one! My Mom loves The Three Stooges, so I know who you mean. He does kinda fit the part. He’s good for a hundred, though, any time you’re shy on pocket money.”

“Oh yeah? Keep a guy in chump change, will he?”

“Uh-huh. Matter of fact, B.L., I gotta head over to the west side restrooms right now.” He knotted the laces on his shoes, then stood up and spun the dial on his locker. Ready to boogie.

“Moe?”

“Yep. Moe loves to blow, and he’ll keep you in blow. Later, bro; I gotta go.”

“Later.”

Ew-w-w-w!

Better than the Jerry Sandusky thing, though, come to think of it. Way better.

The next day, timing my weight workout so that Gene Thickens–oh man. Thickens. What a name for, you know, a guy who was making side money by–

No. Not even gonna go there.

Uh…where was I?

Oh yeah. Weight workout. Gene and I were spotting each other on the bench presses. I mentioned casually, “Ain’t never tried that before.”

“What?”

“Side money. Blow for snow or whatever. Guess you could say I’m a virgin in that regard.”

“There’s a first time for everybody.”

“There’s a first time for everybody.”

Man. This guy is seven years my junior, and he’s counseling me? Well. Heart in the right place, anyway.

“He’s been asking ’bout you.”

“Who? Moe?”

“Yeah.” The teenager grunted, popping 250 pounds of iron into the air like it was nothing. Five reps, then let the barbell rest a bit. “Not surprising. He watched you drop Jim Larrimer like a bad habit, and that sort of decisive result always turns him on. He sees a studly young man of color triumph like a Roman gladiator of old, and automatically he wants him some of that.”

Ew-w-w-w-w.

I danced around the issue, trying to sound interested (not!) and apprehensive (not an act!) at the same time.

By the end of our time together, Gene and I had an understanding. First chance, he’d let Creepy Moe know I was maybe interested…and also a nervous virgin.

“That’ll get him hot to trot for sure,” the young hustler explained. “He’ll pay more if he thinks he’s getting a first-timer. I got $500 out of him for the first go-round.”

“It was your first time?”

“He thought it was.”

“Ah.”

“You, I’ll bet we can get him to go for a grand.”

“We?”

“Well, hey, if I’m your contact, I deserve a cut, right? Say, 20 percent?”

Later, when I told Jack Hill about the arrangement, the old Protector like to laughed his skinny white butt off.

“Pimped out by an 18 year old!” My partner hooted like an insane owl. “That’s priceless!”

“You can laugh. It ain’t your bidness doing the bidness.”

He sobered, albeit slowly. We were on the way back to the hotel for the night. It wouldn’t do for the doorman to wonder what was so funny, now would it?

THE STING

It was happening.

My watch said 6:15 p.m…eleven hours and 45 minutes before the get-outa-Dodge deadline Jack and I had set for ourselves. The Dodge Intrepid was packed. We’d checked out of the hotel. Hill was out in the gym somewhere, shooting the breeze with whoever.

I was seated on the toilet in the far stall, pants still up and firmly zipped.

The stall door opened, and I jumped up in pure reflex, terrified, horrified, and enraged all at the same time. Yo mama didn’t raise you like this!

Still, raising both hands is if to smooth my hair back, I did remember to move the toggle switch that turned on the Afro cam.

Live from a D.C. restroom…it’s Saturday night!

Oh, crap–and I almost did.

Moe slipped inside the Handicapped stall–more room, better lock, and at the far end of the row, Gene had explained. Up close, the man was even creepier than he’d seemed at a distance. Soft, flabby, sweating in what I supposed must be anticipation. His eyes were fixed on my crotch, never once rising to my face.

Which was a good thing. There was a sick hunger in the man, lust I guess, but not like normal lust. I don’t think I could have maintained if I’d had to look directly into those eyes.

He was drooling!

“It’s okay, baby,” he whispered. “Daddy’s here.”

Oh, for–

“Here’s the candy for my sweetheart.”

Huh? Oh. The cash, presumably 10 crisp $100 bills fresh off the make-your-own federal press, folded and handed over in advance. I took the money, making sure to keep my palm down and my thumb tucked under so that the camera would not pick up any identifying fingerprint whorls.

“Thanks,” I managed to whisper back, “but I’m–I’m new at this.” No shit, Sherlock.

“It’s okay. It’s okay. Just unzip. Then sit down, lean back, and I’ll take it from there–“

All right, you readers out there. No more details. It’s not like the words really registered anyway; my Taboo Overload Regulator was blowing a fuse.

I do remember a few things.

1. Keeping my eyes pointed at his Adam’s apple. We’d experimented and found out that this position would keep the target’s face in center frame of the video.

2. Unzipping–but only that–and sitting as instructed, for one reason and one reason only. When the video was replayed, it would be obvious that the creep’s face was now looming over the poor, innocent victim.

3. And then Jack Hill bombed on in through the main restroom door, right on cue.

“Black Lightning!” He bellowed it out in a voice fit to wake the dead–or to give a perverted creep in a bathroom stall a heart attack, which it very nearly did. “The Washington Post is here. Entire crew, hotshot reporter and all. Bob Woodward!”

“Holy–” I yelled back, leaping up from the suddenly cowering “customer” who was trying to make himself invisible in one corner of the stall. “Be right there!”

Zip! Flush! Gone!

We did not relax our vigilance one bit until we were well clear of the Beltway and into Virginia, deep in the night, the Intrepid pointed west on Interstate 66. Jack set the cruise control, cleared his throat, and started singing,

“Get your kicks…on Route 66….”

I busted out laughing.

After a few seconds, he joined me. How long we let it out like that, I have no idea, but by the time we came back to Earth my sides were hurting–and not from bruised ribs.

“Let’s see what we got,” he said. By the light of the dash, I could see him grinning.

We’d brought along one of the laptops for the purpose, a Samsung that ran Windows 8. Not my favorite, but it would do. The USB cord was tiny beyond belief at the camera end, but then again, it was made to service a pretty miniscule camera, so….

No way were we slowing the car down, let alone pulling it over to watch the show. I’d have to get it uploaded safely into the computer, then take a look at the results of my performance. Jack could sneak a peek or two and then enjoy his own private viewing when we changed drivers in a few hours…if we had anything at all.

Oh, man. We had something, all right.

“Twenty-three seconds,” I announced, “up to the cutoff point where we hear your voice.” We’d edit that last part out, of course.

“Perfect,” he breathed. And it was.

Jack’s hacker contacts would thoroughly enjoy posting this on YouTube. Oh, they’d bury it a little, put some innocuous padding fore and aft, some lead-in and closeout commentary explaining who the viewer was about to see and why it was important.

All things considered, YouTube management might pull the video, but not in time. Not before copies were snagged all over the place.

We had the sumbitch.

Okay, poor choice of words. He was going down.

Gah. Poor choice of words again.

Thing is, you know what I mean. Moe, aka “Frank”, would be exposed–

Dang. There’s got to be a way to say this without all the double entendre…anyway, we weren’t going to do the George W. Bush thing, saying “Mission Accomplished” when there was so much more to do.

But it could have been worse. A whole lot worse. Moe would be “let go” from the Department of Defense, without a doubt. He had a wife and kids who were going to suffer, sorry ’bout that, but you mess with the bull, you get the horn. Major federal investigations were likely. Who knew what the FBI or CIA or Homeland Security might find, especially if a few bogus emails were planted to point them in the right direction?

That was good. Very good indeed.

Best of all, we were headed home. We’d maintained telephone silence from the moment we’d left Utah, just because. The troops at home had been authorized to call us in the event of any major emergency, but that hadn’t happened. That was good too, but I was missing Sissy something fierce. I couldn’t wait to get back to that Utah line so we could call in, let everybody know we’d be back at the Montana ranch shortly.

And I was still, as far as the world of restroom romance went, a virgin.

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