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The day it all began, I was doing the same thing I'd been doing nearly every day for the past year: beating the bushes in the state's vast forests and trying like hell to stay out of trouble. I was intent on lying low, minding my own business, and bothering no one but the shitheads who were cooking meth in the woods. This had been my sole occupation ever since an agency already inclined to be suspicious of me had become positively paranoid about my methods of investigation.
Now I was determined to give them nothing to suspect. As far as Iand my officewere concerned, I was out of the investigation business entirely. I'd been essentially demoted from a top-rated undercover agent to the role of a mere scout.
Under this new, unofficial job description I would drive each day along remote logging and mining roads in the wilder portions of the Lower 48's least-populated state. The rusty Land Cruiser I called the Iron Pig prowled the backcountry in low gear, my wolf-dog Mungo drooling out one of the backseat windows. Both beast and driver scanned the roadsides for items such as "death bags," strewn kitty litter, cold-medicine wrappers, lithium batteries, and glass jars filled with murky liquids. All of these were signs that somewhere nearby we would surely find a clandestine methamphetamine lab.
Methalso called crank, speed, ice, glass, crunch, and crystalhad become the number one societal problem in Wyoming, surpassing even the red-faced shouting war between the extraction industries and the environmentalists. Ninety percent of crime in the state could be traced back to meth. Something like 40 percent of kids admitted to having tried it, and a lot of them swallowed the hook. They traded normal lives and desires for multiday psychotic binges, permanent brain damage, oozing sores, nowhere futures, and an overwhelming need for more.
I had seen it hundreds of times in the course of my eight-year career in law enforcement. I'd come to consider giving a kid a little tinfoil-wrapped packet of yellow crystals a crime far worse than handing one a loaded gun. The stuff is so addictive and mind-warping that it makes whiskey and pot seem as harmless as gummy bears. Bikers started cooking this scary shit in the late eighties and early nineties, but in the new century it's being produced by grade-school lab nerds, trailer-park yokels with Internet access, and some very well-organized Latino gangs.
It was the gangs and their so-called superlabs that were my primary prey. Or had been, anyway. A year ago I'd broken up the biggest one in the history of the West. But it was that very same bust that, for the second time in my career, had gotten me reprimanded and very nearly arrested myself. It had also utterly devastated my personal life, costing me just about everything but the dog and the truck. My job was still to hunt the drug and its dealers, but the subsequent investigations and arrests were handed to federal agents or local police who had less "colorful" backgrounds than Special Agent Antonio Burns, officers who could testify in court without a famously disputed shooting and a drug kingpin's odd disappearance following them around to cast doubt upon their credibility.
Although I hated to admit it even to myself, and despite the badge I still carried in my wallet, I'd become little more than an informantthe lowest of the low in the law-enforcement pecking order. A rat. I'd long since stopped blaming bad luck or bad judgment for my predicament. Instead I'd come to believe it was an arbitrary result of a flawed and often corrupt system. And I wasn't sure how much longer I could remain a participant in a system that had first disappointed then betrayed me. Or maybe, just maybe, I'd disappointed and betrayed it.
The afternoon of June 17 began with Mungo and me spotting three black trash bags in a roadside ditch. This had become an almost everyday discovery. Either there was more cooking going on or I was becoming very good at guessing where we would find the clan labs. Mungo wrinkled her snout at the plastic sacks and gave her signal; she coughed in a very unladylike manner, as if she had a hairball lodged in her throat. The ammonia scent was so strong that I could smell it myself. My eyes watered as I got out of the truck and pulled on a pair of rubber gloves.
All three bags were partially inflated. Full, I knew, of nasty gases and liquids. Phosphine. Anhydrous ammonia. Crystal iodine. Hydrochloric acid. Stuff that even the dumbest crankers are smart enough to keep the hell away from themselves and their lab. So what the motherfuckers do is dump them in a place like this, where maybe a little kid can find them and wonder what's inside.
I gently lifted the sacks by their tied-off necks and carried them deeper into the woods. There I concealed them as well as I could. It pissed me off that I didn't have the equipment and protective gear to deal with them properly. In the unlikely event the state or federal government would somehow scratch up the funds to do proper sanitation, I recorded the location on my handheld Global Positioning System.
A little ways farther down the road we came across a fresh double-track leading into the trees. The path had obviously been made by an all-terrain vehicleit was too narrow for the Pig, and the torn earth had obviously been the victim of some very knobby tires. This in a place where no onenot even poachers or asshole off-roaders intent on tearing up a meadow somewherewould have a legitimate interest in going.
I stopped and listened carefully. When I didn't hear the banshee wail of a two-stroke engine, I let the Pig creep on down the road for another quarter mile then parked in a turnout. Mungo leapt out and sniffed around while I laced up my running shoes and slung on a small pack. Consistent with my mantra of avoiding trouble, I left my duty weapon under the Pig's front seat. Trouble was all the .40 Heckler & Koch had brought me.
I looked, and wanted to look, like a grad student on summer break. Just hanging out, dude, doing a little tramping through the woods. If I looked anything like a cop, then I knew there was a pretty good chance I'd be shot on sight. So my hair was a little long, my face unshaven, and my shorts and T-shirt appropriately baggy and torn. Mungo was disguised, too, with a bright red bandanna around her neck. But she looked away disdainfully when I offered for the hundredth time to enhance her costume by letting her carry a floppy dog disk. She had her pride.
The disguises were good, though, even without the toy. It was only with a very close look that someone would notice the creases around my eyes, suggesting I might be a little old for a grad student, or that Mungo was no oversize shepherd-malamute mix but actually half Mackenzie Valley wolf.
"Vamonos," I called to her.
On foot we headed back down the road and then turned onto the double-track.
Within a few minutes we were hoofing it through a forest of lodgepole pines, with Mungo bumping her bony shoulder against my thigh. The sun cut through the needle canopy overhead in dusty rays and the trail wound around trees, drop-offs, and boulders. Mungo stayed at my side even when a squirrel taunted us from a high branch. We moved easily togetherat least one of us was well trained. Her light-footed tread was something I tried to emulate, and I swung my head as often as she did, smelling, looking, listening.
Mungo's vigilance was due to a genetic instinct that had her always searching for something she could kill. My awareness, however, was defensive. It came from too much experience with booby traps.
These came in many formsfishing line connected to detonators or mounted shotguns on the trailside, punji stakes in concealed pits, bear traps, poisoned hypodermic needles hidden in brush, fishhooks dangling from branches at eye level, and once, quite memorably, a half-starved mountain lion chained to a tree. Then there were the crankers themselves to worry about, as they were almost always armed a hell of a lot better than I would ever be, even with my duty weapon. The labs they protected could be anything from fancy trailers to canvas tents with crates of cold medicine and lithium batteries stacked under tarps. Dead or dying trees were always nearby, thoughkilled by the by-products that then sank down into the groundwater. The cooking process produced six pounds of highly toxic waste for every pound of meth. Poured in a trout stream, it would kill every fish for miles downstream. A lot of it seemed to get sucked up into the brains of the crankers, making them meaner and more prone to violence than a sackful of rattlesnakes.
Once I found the lab, and if it was unguarded, I intended to snap a few pictures with the digital camera in my backpack, record the longitude and latitude on the handheld GPS, and later E-mail both files back to the main office in Cheyenne. Maybe they would send out a SWAT team with a Hazmat disposal crew. Or maybe not.
Not was most likely, I had learned. There simply weren't the resources to bust up and then clean up every lab I'd found in the last year. Each site, it was explained to me the first few times I'd complained (later they just ignored me), could cost from $5,000 to $150,000an amount of money that was sorely lacking in this economy, especially in a state with no income tax. I understood this, but it still pissed me off. This shit was killing people, after all. I even knew about it firsthandand not just through my undercover observations. My one and only brother was among the hundreds I'd seen wrecked by drugs.
So far, though, I had managed to keep from firing the extremely flammable labs I'd found with flashbang grenades, managed to keep from arresting the cooks after encouraging them to "resist," and even managed to keep from screaming and pushing the office suits into walls, although sometimes it had taken deep breathing and seated meditation to cool the impulses. I will be nothing but a good scout, I constantly reminded myself. No trouble. Just do your damn jobnothing more! as my boss commanded me each time I reported in. Find the labs, turn them in, and do nothing.
Then wait and watch as nothing was being done.
I tried to be philosophical about itHey, Ant, you get to spend your days wandering around in the woods with Mungo. You even find and get to rope up on cliffs no one's ever been on before. C'mon, man, a lot of people would kill for this jobbut the frustration had me grinding my teeth day after day. Pumping some chemical through my veins that was even meaner than meth. It had polluted me. It kept me from driving down to Denver and trying to win back the woman I loved, not to mention the daughter she'd given birth to six months before.
It wasn't just that the shitheads were getting away with it; it was that they knew they were getting away with it. And that other people knewmy own office, for God's sake, the state's chief law-enforcement agencyknew that they knew and let them go on laughing at the law. That was what really pissed me offit actually enraged me.
Butdeep breath, center yourself, AntI was being a good boy. I was becoming adept at avoiding trouble. Until this day, when trouble came looking for me and demanded yet another confrontation.
It was Mungo, of course, who first sensed its presence.
We were moving down the double-track at an easy pace, our noses, eyes, and ears taking in everything that our vastly unequal senses were capable of, when Mungo suddenly whipped her hatchet-shaped head to the left. Ears pricked in that same direction, she lifted her nose high and snuffed the air. I watched her eyesin them I was pretty sure I could read whatever she was smelling, whether it be a moose, an elk, a bear, a stranger, or a booby-trapped clan lab.
The yellow eyes narrowed. Like she was frowning; no, confused. She confirmed this interpretation by glancing up at me, cocking her head, then going back to testing the air with quivering nostrils. Her big, pointed ears working, too, like some sophisticated radar system, her head moving this way and that. I waited for her to lock on.
"Que pasa?" I asked when she did.
Mungo kept staring into the trees, straining her neck forward a little. She let out a soft whine. What the hell? I still didn't know what she'd locked on to. What was weird was that I didn't think she knew, either. All I could hear was the touch of a breeze in the treetops and the faraway rumble of a lot of water moving fast over stone. All I could smell was pine needles. I finally got impatient.
"Okay, Mungo. Whatever it is, let's check it out. Vamonos."
I lifted my hand and flicked my fingers in the direction she'd focused on.
Mungo took a few hesitant steps off the double-track and into the treeshead still high, examining the air, not the groundand then she shifted up into a higher gear. Within twenty feet she was moving at a fast trot.
Even just loping along, she traveled at a speed that I could only keep up with in an almost-sprint, something I wasn't willing to do when chasing the unknown. Mungo was aware of her master's shortcomings, however, and paused every hundred yards or so to wait for me. Her tail waved me on like a beacon. The forest's undergrowth wasn't particularly heavy, as the high canopy above only allowed light to enter in dusty beams. I was able to move pretty fast through it, not worrying too much about breaking an ankle but still imagining hanging fishhooks and punji pits.
I'd only been running for four or five minutes when I heard the first faint strains of what had undoubtedly been a cacophony in Mungo's ears. It sounded like yelling. Coming from not one person, I guessed, but several.
I slowed, holding my breath so I could listen. The forest had gone silent but for the rush of blood in my ears. The usual birds were quiet, the squirrels not chattering at all. Only the river was still rumbling away as a bass background for the distant screams. Then I picked up the pace until I was actually sprinting. As I ran, vectoring in on the sounds myself now, I mentally unfolded a map in my head.
The way the sunbeams slashed across the forest told me that I was heading west. Toward the Badwater River, which couldn't be more than a quarter mile away now. Just beyond the riveron the other sideran a state highway. Maybe a car had plunged through a guardrail and gone into the river. Or maybe a raft had flipped on the rapids and the survivors were screaming for missing raft-mates. But, no, some of these screams, growing in volume as I neared, sounded angry. Others were pleading.