I was never big on alcohol. There were circumstances that I understood the need for an escape from reality, but I’d never found myself in those. Any loss of control worried me, so generally speaking, I just didn’t go there.
But I was here. So I sipped my whiskey.
Watching my wife onstage. Wearing a red thong.
She was a great dancer, honestly. The music absolutely pounded through the speakers – it wouldn’t have surprised me to find out she had earplugs in, hidden under the strands of hair escaping her updo. Legs hooking around the pole, abs flexing. . .
She really was a work of art.
I wasn’t surprised when two guys sat down next to me, or when they started tossing bills out onto the stage. Stephanie crawled forward to collect them, with everything you’d expect to be happening with a topless woman on all fours. There was something primal about it – right or wrong, men had been watching women do this for a long, long time.
“You’re Nick.” The guy closest to me could have been talking to his buddy, but he wasn’t.
He was talking to me.
“Today, anyway,” I acknowledged.
“You too cheap to drop bills, or you just... Different.”
I smiled. “I’m definitely different from you chumps.”
He snickered and extended a hand. “You look it.”
I shook firmly, but didn’t try to break anything. “Nick Sears.”
“I’m Zee.” He acknowledged the guy next to him. “This is my brother, Dubya. He doesn’t talk.”
“If you need to ask why a guy’d have his tongue cut out, you’re not as smart as your advance billing, slick.”
“Time to pay for a dance, or hit the road, farmboy.”
I looked her over appraisingly. A few strands of hair had gotten loose during her gyrations on the pole. They framed her eyes, drawing me into them. I nodded. “I’ll pay.”
“Fair enough,” she said with what looked like a genuine smile.
The bouncer at the velvet curtain covering the back room’s doorway stuck out a hand. I stuck a hundred in it – the dancer got a nod and I got no change. There was no sexy way for a woman to pull her panties off, but she got pretty close by tossing her thong at me after she straightened.
I snatched it out of the air and slid the sliver of red satin and strings into my pocket.
“Trophy?” She sneered as she pushed me back onto the bench in a u-shaped alcove.
“Memory,” I smiled.
Biting my ear after she crawled on my lap was Stephanie at play. It shocked and aroused me in equal measure – without a doubt the reason why she did it. After she whispered that she loved me and to be careful, I caressed her left breast.
She jumped back – part of the show. If the bouncer was any good, she wouldn’t have had to. I used that hand on purpose so her body wouldn’t block his view of my fondling.
I had the space between six thundering steps to steel myself for what I figured was next. My guess was a back room, and I wasn’t surprised. I’m not sure anyone would have thought twice about watching me take a beating in the alley, but privacy was preferential when you were knocking the shit out of someone.
I was fine with that.
It’s a matter of physiology. If they come at you bare-fisted, it’s probably not going to be that bad, at least as far as beatings go. The question then becomes whether they go for the head or the body. Getting punched in the face tended to hurt worse, at least in my experience, but even the best enforcer can only hit a guy in the head so many times before they break something.
Three shots. An attention-getter across the jaw, a love-tap in my right kidney, and one in the stomach. I hadn’t expected to get knocked around within an inch of my life, but this seemed to be overkill for what I’d done.
According to Stephanie’s briefing, the guy that walked in wearing the suit was Vladimir Tolan. He’d been a minor player in George Monsino’s operation who had stepped into the power vacuum I’d created the night I canceled George rescuing Stephanie. After steering the organization back toward his home country and business he understood, Vlad logically progressed from the drugs and racketeering empire George had created into gun running.
Vlad’s English was predictably accented. “Welcome to the back room, Mr. Nick Sears. I trust we have your attention?”
“Hello would have sufficed,” I smiled. I looked him square in the eye with all the defiance I could muster. “I trust I have yours.”
His face cracked. “Are you sure you’re not Russian?”
“I’m sure I am. It’s not far back on my mom’s side. Her grandparents snuck out of Volgorad, I think.”
“And you know guns?”
I looked at the ground, counted to ten. Like I had to think about it. “Yeah, I know guns.”
“As long as you don’t touch my women again, we’ll get along fine, Mr. Nick Sears,” Vlad said as he stuck out his hand.
I nodded. “Had to get in the back room with you somehow, didn’t I?”
Everyone knows that blindfolding someone is a waste of time. They’re almost impossible to get on so a person is completely unable to see. A bag is much more effective. There’s no way to work a bag off your head, and the fabric flops around making it virtually impossible to see around.
They’d scanned me for high-gain electromagnetic transmissions as well. They hadn’t found any, of course. I was a professional, too, after all.
Once I was inside the windowless warehouse, they pulled the bag off, revealing a pretty standard gun-runner’s storage facility. Of course, I smelled it before the fabric was removed. If there was one scent I’d never forget beyond Grandma’s marinara, it was gun oil.
Absolutely unmistakable. . .
It seemed counterintuitive to most, but the security was obviously passive. The building, wherever it was, would be nondescript from the outside. No legions of armed guards or bands of razor-wire topping ten-foot-high hurricane fences.
This place hid by sitting in plain sight.
Vlad shrugged. “You have seen this before.”
“A hundred times,” I admitted. “I assume they’re AK-12s?”
“Today,” Vlad said.
“Used weapons in from Korea, Palestine, and South Africa. De-milled, of course, to pass homeland security inspection. All the necessary goodies from the motherland, of course. It goes without saying that I’m bringing life to the lifeless.”
“More or less. Fifty pieces, today, Mr. Sears.”
“How long do I have?”
“You’ve heard it a hundred times, Mr. Sears. You have long enough, if you make the decision to live."
He was right, the ‘choose life’ kind of decision wasn’t foreign to me. “Help?”
“I will assuredly help you to die if you fail, Mr. Sears,” Vlad promised. “I sincerely suggest that you do not require my assistance, da?”
“Fair enough,” I clapped my hands together. “If you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
Guns are simple.
They’re not like a computer, a car, or even a microwave oven. They’re more like a typewriter than a computer – they have only one, dedicated purpose in life. If you can accept that and look at them that way, as precision instruments designed to launch bullets and nothing else, they’re suddenly much simpler.
Kalashnikovs probably take that to a higher place than most weapons.
I’m not a fan of Russians, personally. I’ve been told repeatedly that I don’t and never will understand what it is to live in a totalitarian régime like Russian society had become during my lifetime. Regardless, looking in from the outside always left me with the impression that their leaders were bullies and most of the people were sissies to put up with such crap.
I can’t abide either, honestly.
Regardless of my personal feelings, I highly respected Russian engineering. They stressed brutal, effective simplicity in everything they built. When you focused like a Russian engineer, you generally found the easiest way to reliably do a job, and created a machine that was tougher than a bag of smashed assholes along the way.
Russian weaponry elevated this philosophy to an artform.
Instead of tables filled with precision parts, springs, gas seals, and fine-threaded screws, I had six pieces to replace in weapons with nice, big, chonky componentry. Field stripping the weapons and replacing the innards could be done in minutes if I hurried.
If my new friend Vladimir was half as smart as I knew him to be, he’d know this as well. Since this was only a test, I knew I’d have to deliver, or I was going to die tonight.
All things being equal, it seemed like a simple transaction.
“Dubya. Zee. What can I do for you?”
I cracked the door far enough that they’d know I was naked. Whether they read it as confidence or indifference meant nothing to me. It’s not like I was going to mix it up with them, anyway. If they wanted to tangle, I’d shoot them both with the Glock 17 I had just out of sight but within easy grabbing range on the waist-high table just behind me.
“Mr. Tolan is pleased with your work. He wants you back tomorrow night,” Zee said while his brother simply nodded. He pushed the door open wider, probably to let me know he thought he was in charge.
“Good on him.” My smile was weak. I was tired. I kept my body between them and the gun on the table.
“Do you know how this works?”
“Sure. Either I show or I die.”
“Be at the joint before sundown, or you’ll never live to see another sunrise,” Zee said as his eyes flicked between my legs.
“See anything you like?” I asked.
Zee turned and stepped away, replaced by the dancer from before. Her look was unabashed. “Cute little thing, that.”
“Why are you here?” I snapped.
“To make sure you’re either here or there. Mr. Tolan thought you’d prefer me for a babysitter, but we can leave Zee here if you’d prefer.” Her smile was striking. “We both like the same things.”
I shrugged. “Come on in.”
The door snapped shut while I reached under what there was of her dress to pull the red thong off. Our lovemaking was passionate and slow. The kind of tension created by a night spent undercover couldn’t be released quickly or easily.
Okay, I admit it. Showering with Steph was a little out of necessity since the water would make it next to impossible for anyone to hear us. It was also my favorite place to relax under any circumstances, but since I hadn’t seen my wife since she’d gone under cover for DHS a month ago, getting the chance to help clean up her glammed-up dancer body felt like a real treat.
“Tolan might be a gunrunner, but he’s not a complete pig, Sam. He hasn’t touched me.” She grinned. “Besides, I don’t think I have what he’s looking for.”
She nodded. “You got the M93s covered?”
It wasn't hard to choose these words carefully. “Planting a tracker and cleaning a gun is simple enough. I can do this.”
Slippery with soap, she pulled me to her, pressing against me in all the right places. “Did I say thank you for helping me with this case?”
“The Monsino crime family and I go way back, Steph. Anything that stands a chance of putting the organization in the bag works for me. It’s worth the chance we’re taking.”
“It’s not that much of a chance. If the Liberty Soldiers of America fail to do whatever they’re planning with that rifle, they're not going to let Tolan live to regret selling faulty equipment.”
Her actions blew straight past provocative to downright pleasing as she lightly bit my left earlobe. Unmitigated glee broke out on her beautiful face less than a minute later as I tried to catch my breath
“Setting bad people up turns you on, doesn’t it, Sam?”
I hoped my sarcasm was strong. “Yeah. It was the danger that did it.”
“Welcome back, Mr. Nick Sears.”
“I trust this means you were satisfied with my services?”
The clap of his hands felt like a reflex he had no chance of mastering. “You did well. While the AK-12 is a formidable weapon, it was a relatively non-complex task. I have something more interesting for you today.”
I raised my eyebrows just enough to let him think I was interested.
“Are you familiar with the M93?”
“Going elephant hunting, Mr. Tolan?”
A crisp edge to his words matched his menacing smile. “You do not need to concern yourself with what’s being hunted, unless you fail in this task. Then, Mr. Sears, I should think you should become very concerned with my quarry.”
“Message received, Mr. Tolan.”
“A customer requires two M93s, balanced and tuned to complete efficiency. It should go without saying that this is precision work, Mr. Sears, testing a skill set far different than the one you demonstrated yesterday.”
Vlad was, of course, at least partially correct. My introduction had required precision of movement – to walk through as many weapons as I did as quickly as I did required no step to be wasted. This would require attention to a completely different detail.
“Can you provide me an expected range to target?”
“That’s on the ragged edge of effectiveness for an M93, Mr. Tolan.”
“If it weren’t, what use would I have for you, Mr. Sears?”
“I see your point.” I looked down at the floor, like I was calculating something in my head. I was actually remembering Stephanie in the shower, but Tolan didn’t need to know that. “I assume I have the night, again?”
“If you choose to live, yes.”
The M93s were both gorgeous. Whereas the AKs had been battle-worn, the M93s still smelled of packaging oil from their ride over here from the Baltics. Comparatively long and slim, if a Kalasnikov was a pickup, these were Fornula-One racers.
A check of bore size and quality along with some basic cleaning were my first steps. The action itself would take a few hours to assess. Mods would take another few hours – undersizing the firing pin just enough to cause a misfire about six shots in.
These were serious weapons. Anyone wanting to send that kind of alloy downrange would squeeze off a few practice rounds, but not enough to take the gun out of the window if it was in. They wouldn’t want to take their shoulder off, either.
They’d kick like a pair of rented mules. . .
Looking at the situation realistically, it seemed reasonable to assume the misfire could occur during that practice, which, on the whole, wouldn’t be the worst thing that ever happened, either.
Whoever was buying these from a guy like Vlad wasn’t going deer hunting with a 50 cal. He was buying them because he wanted to kill people from far enough away that he wouldn’t get caught. They weren’t apt to take it well when that weapon failed on them.
After all, assassins assassinate – it’s in their name.
With a little luck, Vlad or Nick Sears’s extermination was a given. The retribution of criminals was usually pretty harsh. Maybe we’d land a discredited professional killer, and, if things really, really fell our way, maybe their employer would come out of the dark and take action.
A shipment of AKs hitting the street that would have landed out there anyway and a night’s hard work was a small price to pay for the hate and discontent I was about to sew.