The days and then the weeks dragged on…and we got nowhere. Jack’s hacker contacts were able to keep close tabs on the FBI investigation, and it wasn’t going anywhere, either. In fact, probably more in frustration than anything else, the feds had focused for a while on rancher Billy Davis as their prime (read only) suspect and had pretty much harassed the poor man half to death.
Overall, Davis was not a happy camper these days.
We knew where Shawn Hicks had dumped the minivan; the badge packers didn’t even know that. They’d come up with a description of the vehicle…and there it ended. At this point, moving on into late October, they weren’t even convinced there’d been a van. And frankly, except for wishing to solve the case so it would look good on their resumes, most if not all of the agents were beyond caring.
They had other things on their plate, credible terrorist threats and a couple of clear hate crime homicides. One missing jigaboo–that racist term had actually made it into one agent’s official though of course unpublished notes–one missing jigaboo more or less was, behind the scenes, no big deal.
Naturally, they kept on making soothing sounds every time Blessing Devonia’s Mom called, and she did for a fact call. And call. And call. Suenna Barlow, currently of Davenport, Iowa, was not about to give up on her baby girl.
She’d given up on a fistful of husbands over the years, but not on her baby.
As it happened, she knew somebody who knew somebody who knew the Reverend Al Sharpton, and Reverend Al had gotten on the bandwagon for a while. Not for long, though. All Blessing was, was missing; Al’s nose for publicity led him away from Idaho and back toward Florida before he could stir up much fuss. There’d been another black boy killed by a white man in Fort Lauderdale, and Sharpton wanted him a piece of that pie.
Then he found out the first MSNBC broadcast had gotten it reversed; it was a white boy killed by a black man. The good reverend shied away from that one right quick, but could never be persuaded to take another look at Rexburg.
Billy Davis had survived the unwelcome attention from law enforcement, but he was some bitter. He’d told Mom, “Louella, you and B.J. stay on it as long as you can, please. You two are the only chance Blessing’s got. I worked it out with Sim; he says he misses you something fierce, but he agrees, okay?”
Sim and Mom talked plenty, of course. Not case details over the phone, but other stuff.
Plus, so much time had passed, she and B.J. had stopped in at the Bowles ranch several times already.
A monster early storm had wiped out a good 5% of western South Dakota’s cattle herds, some individual ranchers losing as much as half of all the cows they had.
There were only two good things that I could see.
One was, the Trace Fire had finally been conquered with some help from more than 1300 fire fighters and the weather, after burning close to 43,000 acres. Amazingly, or maybe not in that mostly wild country, no humans were reported killed. Property damaged was reportedly in the billions, though.
The other good thing? My ribs were healed, or at least healed enough. That double busted bugger kept slipping in its sheath every once in a while, which was always a bit disconcerting, but you better believe I wasn’t telling anybody but Jack and my girls about that. Mom was not to know, nor uncle B.J., nor Dr. Menning.
I could breathe deep, sleep on my side, laugh as loud as I wanted, and fake it when people asked me if there were still tender spots.
“Ready, cowboy?” Jack poked his head in through the mobile home’s front door, bringing a blast of chill air. Ruby kitten skittered out of the living room and back into the master bedroom; she always went and hid when company came.
“As I’ll ever be.” Judi and Sissy gave me a fierce group hug and let me go. We’d had three days together this time, not bad for a warrior on the hunt, and we’d spent every minute of those three days in deep communication, one way and another.
By mutual agreement, we were taking the Pontiac. B.J. had only been back to Montana once since he and Mom headed out looking for Blessing and her abductor, but he’d spent most of his twelve hours working with me in the ranch shop, making one more modification to my car.
No, not armor. The Grand Prix was already about as beefed up as it could get, what with steel reinforced door panel inserts, bullet resistant glass, the power plant upgrade from V-6 to V-8, and all that.
No, what we’d done, finally, was figure out how to add some ordnance to the vehicle without being unduly at risk during a routine stop-and-search by law enforcement.
The weaponry rode inside the air scoop, which had been a custom job anyway, oversized to accommodate the V-8 we’d dropped in back when.
Nothing “deadly”, you understand. Just a couple of Glare Mout laser dazzlers, mounted under the hood. With all that healing time and thinking time and going crazy time, plus Jack’s input and access to his various sources, I’d come up with carriages that could shift the point of aim and trigger the focused-light weapons by remote control.
Hadn’t figured out how to rear mount the blasted things yet, but hey. Something is better than nothing.
Not that I’d have been able to afford the components without Jack’s help. He had money these days; one of his investment ships had come in. That allowed him to offer to pay for the parts, which added up to nearly eleven thousand dollars before we were done.
I’d been working on the install for a couple of weeks when B.J. came home. Probably never would have finished without his help.
If we were behind another car–say, a car with Shawn Hicks at the wheel, high speed chase–we might be able to blind him long enough for him to run off the road, at least if we could hit one of his rear view mirrors with the laser.
The coolest thing about these beauties was the power ejection system; we could fire the dazzler’s themselves out through the mounting ports, get rid of them. They weren’t designed to cause permanent blindness in violation of the 1995 United Nations Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons or anything like that, but neither were they something we’d want to have to explain to the authorities.
Jack already had his duffel in the car. He’s a gypsy at heart, that man; it doesn’t take him long to pack.
Despite the overcast sky, threatening snow, it felt good to be on the road, at the wheel, no more putting up with well meaning folks trying to tell me I wasn’t fit for fighting duty. Besides, the snow held off, mostly. All the way, down through Helmville Canyon and then east on I-90, it kept dropping flakes behind us but never quite catching up until after we’d cleared the pass and dropped into Wyoming.
Which was a good thing; that pass can be nasty sometimes.
Mom and B.J. were waiting for us at the Perkins Restaurant in Sheridan, and they seemed pretty upbeat, too. Family togetherness, maybe. This was our first real team effort, come to think of it.
And they had news, sort of.
“We got to thinking,” B.J. explained, “about how Hicks is surviving. He’s dropped out of sight, but whether Blessing is still with us or not, he’s gotta eat, put gas in his car. And how do most folks who don’t want to be tracked manage that? Cash, of course, but cash has a way of running out on a fellow sooner than he thinks it will, no matter how much he starts with.
“So, what else would he keep handy for assets? Louella and I brainstormed that for a bit, and the one answer we kept coming up with was gold coins. Big sales of either coins or bullion are supposed to be reported, but dealers can and do handle the smaller transactions–the tenth ounce coins, for example–without any tracking paperwork or even asking your name if you don’t want to give it.”
He stopped talking, mainly due to the waitress having arrived to take our orders. I settled on pot roast…and on something else, too.
“You’re saying,” I said, once the waitress had gone, “that Hicks might be carrying gold around, selling some off as he needs cash?”
“Hm. Uh…how heavy would that be? All I know about gold is what you see in the movies, where the gold bars are super heavy and all that.”
“Let me put it this way, Tree.” Mom reached over and patted my hand, a gesture I’d have resisted a few years ago. Guess I was growing up, maybe. “Gold was selling today at something above $1300 an ounce. Let’s say our Mr. Hicks carries ten pounds of the stuff around for mad money. One pound would be sixteen ounces, times $1300 per ounce would be $20,800. Times ten pounds would be $208,000. He could last a long time on that.”
“And there’s no need he’d have to limit himself to ten pounds…”
“So,” I wondered, “are there a lot of these dealers out there? Is this going to be a big job? And how do we get them to talk about their customers?”
“Not that big a job.” B.J. smiled, adding, “In fact, it’s not that easy to find even one out here in the wild, wild West. We’ve already covered most of the state. Which was easy, ’cause we could only find eight dealers in the whole state, we’ve talked to every one, and no joy. So no, not that big a job, not in this cowboy country. Did you know Wyoming is the most sparsely settled state in the entire nation?”
“Yeah, uncle, I knew that. So again I ask, how do you get them to talk? And why are you still looking like the cat that ate the canary if you’ve already struck out on all eight?”
“O ye of little faith,” he chuckled, rumbling the booth. “You doubt our prowess? We kind of figured a black man my size and a black woman looking as fine as yo mama, we’d need to explain ourselves a little in the outback, right? So what we do is, we show folks our photo of Hicks, the one Jennifer took that day in the welding shop for the new Rodeo Iron brochures. We show it, and we tell them I’m on the injury list for the Detroit Lions. We’re looking for this man, who’s a welder sometimes but also the finest rehab trainer on the planet. I need desperately to get him to help me work my knees back into place after surgery.”
It was my turn to chuckle. “And they buy that? You’re up there with Too Tall Jones, I guess, only a lot wider, so they might.”
“Oh, they do, Tree.” Mom gave me a big grin, patting her big brother on the shoulder. “They really do. He gimps around a bit, looking like it hurts him to walk. And if that doesn’t do it, he pulls up his pant leg, shows them the scar on his right knee. That convinces the most skeptical of them, right on the spot.”
“Ah.” I’d forgotten about B.J.’s right knee. Of course, it wasn’t like he was in the habit of showing it off–except now as a detective trick, apparently.
He’d gotten that injury back in Hartford when he was nineteen or twenty, courtesy of a fast man with a switchblade. The knife man had ended up with his brains splattered all over a brick wall, courtesy of Big Jude’s counter move. It had taken a bit of tendon repair in the hospital and something like eighty or ninety stitches to put the knee back together, at least according to family legend.
The dead man’s brothers had apologized to Jude, fully aware their deceased sibling had been in the wrong, which he’d pretty much been for most of his short life. They’d also gotten him a headstone with a memorable epitaph.
HE WAS FAST
BUT NOT VERY BRIGHT
MESSED WITH THE BULL
AND OUT LIKE A LIGHT
I’d seen the headstone.
“Now, as to why we’re all fired up? We happened to run the right Internet search just a couple of hours ago, and guess what? We’d missed one. There’s a dealer called Bighorn Card ‘n Coin in Frannie, Wyoming, an easy drive from here tomorrow.”
I was puzzled, but Jack Hill beat me to it. “Frannie?” He asked. “Don’t believe I know that one.”
“Not surprising. We didn’t, either. It’s not even big enough to show in the Road Atlas. But it’s there, all right, on the other side of the Bighorns, tucked right up next to the Montana border. It’s got a Port of Entry, too, with separate truck scales on either side of the highway.”
“Hmmm…” Jack’s wheels were turning; I could see it.
“Dang right, hmmm,” B.J. nodded. “We figure Louella and I can take Tree with us to snow the coin man while you put on your harmless old white man act and figure out how to chat up the cops in the coops. There can’t be too much traffic through that way. They’ve got to get bored. Maybe they’ll have noticed something.”