The city’s new, multi-million-dollar forensics center houses a ballistics lab and a friend named Larry. I’d been sitting in the lobby for over half-an-hour waiting for him to return from a late lunch when the door peels back and in walks a doughy-looking character in his late-fifties, mostly bald, with thick glasses. His hands are full. In his left, he carries a weighty attaché case leaking papers in all directions like cheese on a hamburger. In his right, there’s an actual hamburger leaking cheese in all directions.
I’m met with a nod and a visual pat down.
I stand to greet him.
“Long time,” he breathes on me. “Are you packing?”
“Today, yes,” I say, following him down the corridor to his office. “But it’s been a rough couple of days.”
“I’ll say. What happened to your cheek?”
This brings a laugh. “Speaking of, you still with that petite blonde?” he asks, moving from one lethal subject to the next.
“You’re referring to my secretary?”
“Secretary, huh? Yeah, that’s what I need, a secretary.” He puts air quotes around the last two words as if to engender the real meaning of the term. “Take a seat,” he says, motioning to a chair in his office. “I just need to deliver these papers to my supervisor.”
A minute later, he returns. “Is this related to that thing in your office yesterday?”
“You read the papers this morning?”
“That’s twice in two days you’ve made the papers. Say,” he says, shuffling around his desk, “did you see a billfold sitting over here?”
“A roll of Franklins in a silver clip,” he says, digging through the drawers. “It was right here when I left.”
I watch as confusion turns to frustration and anger. And that’s when he turns to me.
“All right, Mulroney, just what kind of a con are you running here?”
Shock falls off my face.
“So, that’s how it is, huh?” he yells, his naked head changing colors, from pink to red to purple. I take to my feet as he comes marching across the room to belly up against my torso.
“Empty your pockets right now or I’ll have security empty them for you!” he hollers.
I’d have laughed except nothing was funny. I go to reach into my pockets when the next thing I know, his right hand, firing like a steel piston, seizes the gun beneath the fold of my jacket. I catch his right hand with mine and, with the other, grab hold of the barrel as we both take a step back.
“Is that a .45?” he asks, wide-eyed.
“Sweet virgin birth, you roll heavy. And here I assumed you were packing a dainty .32. May I?”
“You’re serious right now?”
He shrugs. “How else was I going to get you to take it out of there, court order? Kind of figured you’d offer it up after I asked if you were packing, but seeing as how you missed the hint, I felt forced to resort to theater. Now, where is this slug?”
It takes a minute for my heart rate to settle. In the meantime, I remove the small plastic bag from my pocket. “This was pulled out of the body of the man who died in my office,” I say, handing it to him.
He takes the bag, holds it against the light. “.22 caliber, huh?”
“I need to know if you recognize the signature.”
“It’s like that?”
I shirk my head to one side. “I highly doubt you’ll find a match.”
“Then what am I doing this for?”
“Call it a shot in the dark.”.
“Sounds like a waste of time,” he says, walking back around to his side of the desk.
“When do you need it by?” he asks, plunking into his chair.
“Are you busy now?” I ask.
“I’m always busy. When do you need it by?”
“The sooner the better.”
He checks his watch. “It’ll take a few hours, but I’m pretty sure I can have it processed before closing.”
“That soon?” I say.
“You want to stick around?” he asks.
“Are you sure I’m not taking you away from something?”
He sniggers. “Listen, there’s always something that needs to be done around here, but there’s rarely anything that needs to be done right now.”
“Then I’ll wait.”
It takes roughly three hours to complete the analysis, examining the slug for striations and breech markings. Afterwards, the results are fed into a fingerprint database for bullets. If the results come back positive, it could provide a jumping off point, something to indicate who was behind the killing of James Vance, which may then link to the attempted murder of Natalie in the subway this morning. The search timer on the database shows three minutes.
“Looks like someone went a little liberal with the caffeine this morning,” Larry says, nodding at my bouncing leg.
“Do you ever get that stir-crazy feeling, being walled in here every day like this?”
“Who’s asking?” he says, jerking his head around, right eye burgeoning.
I tilt my head back.
“Nah, I’m only kidding. Yeah, it gets to me. Most days I come in before sunrise and leave just after sunset. Makes me feel like a goddamn vampire. But not for long, you see, I’ve got me a little sideline business that’s going to get me out of this grind. Something with a little more action, if you know what I’m saying.”
To be honest, I have no idea what he’s saying.
“Hey,” he whispers, swiveling his head in a show of making sure nobody in the empty room would hear what he’s about to tell me. “Let me show you something.” His hand disappears into his jacket, returning with a wallet from which he removes a license with a headshot photo of him and stamped by the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, declaring his right to own and operate an open-air shooting range.
“Do you carry that weapon even when you’re off-duty?” he asks.
“Do I need to?”
“It’s your Constitutional right,” he says, flexing his eyes at the corners while tapping the NRA pin on his tie.
I return the narrow gaze with a nod as if to confirm the understanding between us.
“The second amendment is sort of my specialty,” he continues. “In school, before I switched to forensics, I was studying criminal justice, but most of what I focused my attention on was gun law. Guns make people polite. The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing entrusting us with an armed citizenry. This is the only country in the world I know that empowers its own people to protect themselves. Oldest constitutional democracy in the world, where every four to eight years we have a peaceful transition of power, and they call us crazy. Speaking of crazy,” he says, “I took this broad out for a date the other night. A real nice place. I must’ve dropped a week’s pay on the appetizers alone. We’re having a great time, laughing and slurping down oysters. Meanwhile, she’s slugging back gin and tonics like they’re going out of fashion and talking about herself as though her entire childhood would be rendered void if she didn’t tell it all in one sitting. At some point, she mentions something about wanting to write a book on Human Rights Advancements in China. ‘Oh, so you’re a short story writer?’ I say.
“Apparently, that was the wrong thing to say.
“Things got pretty quiet after that so I figured I’d reference a little something about what I’m hoping to do. Of course, she starts in with the twenty questions. The whole ‘don’t you think guns are dangerous?’ and ‘how do you keep guns away from children?’ nonsense.
“It sounded like English, it really did, but for the life of me, I couldn’t understand a single word she was saying. Given, by this time, I was suitably oiled by the booze, but not enough to let myself get baited into that argument. But she won’t let up. Next, she starts in on criminal background checks and the rise of the black-market gun trade. With all these questions, I decide to take her out to the firing range, put a .38 in her hands and let her feel the recoil. Ten minutes later and she’s begging me for another fifty rounds. Last week she called me to see if I was going to the pro-gun rally down at Jefferson’s Square.”
It’s obvious that Larry could have gone on for another twenty minutes, lucky for me, the database search has just ended.
The results are a negative. The system found no match.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” he says. “But if it’s like you said and there really is a cover-up and evidence is disappearing, then it’s really no surprise, is it?”
“If anyone comes around—”
“You don’t even need to ask,” he says, returning the bullets in the same plastic bag.
The sky is darkened by dusk as I step out into the parking lot. Beside Cassie’s Aston Martin, an AMC Gremlin carries a bumper sticker that reads, ‘You want my gun… Bullets first!’ I shake off a bemused smile, knowing exactly who’s making payments on that lump shack.