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Authors: David Wellington

Myrmidon

BOOK: Myrmidon
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MYRMIDON

A Jim Chapel Story

DAVID WELLINGTON

 

CHAPTER ONE

I
can do this,
Jim Chapel thought.

It was going to hurt. But he'd suffered worse pain before.

A loud, buzzing noise startled him, but he forced himself not to show his surprise. Across the room, the tattoo artist was cleaning out his equipment and sterilizing his needles. The tattoo gun buzzed again, and this time, Chapel was ready for it.

He exhaled deeply and pulled his shirt off. The tattoo artist had been briefed about Chapel and didn't show anything more than casual interest as Chapel's left arm was revealed. He'd lost the original in Afghanistan, and the army had replaced it with a prototype robotic prosthesis. It was covered in silicone skin that was airbrushed and studded with fake hair to look just like the arm he'd lost, but the illusion stopped at his shoulder, where the arm flared out into a wide clamp that held the arm on his torso. Chapel flicked the hidden catches that released the arm and removed it, then set it down on a convenient table.

The tattoo artist gestured to the waiting chair. It looked like the kind of chair you'd find in a dentist's office. This was no run-­of-­the-­mill tattoo parlor. It was hidden in the basement of a Justice Department office building. The tattoo artist worked exclusively with law enforcement, preparing agents of various federal agencies for undercover work amidst gangs and political groups. Many of those groups identified their own by their ink, by the elaborate symbolism of the tattoos they wore, and feds who wanted to infiltrate the groups needed to send the right signals to fit in.

The room was sterile and obsessively clean, with most of its furnishings wrapped in plastic to catch any blood or stray ink. Hanging above the chair was a big flatscreen that currently showed Chapel as he was—­shirtless, armless, and completely bare of ink. He'd stood for reference photographs earlier that morning. As always when he saw himself in a mirror, he was surprised how many scars and old bullet wounds he had. It didn't look like anyone should be able to survive all that.

Still, he looked pretty good for a forty-­year-­old, he thought.

The tattoo artist clicked a trackpad on a laptop, and the view on the screen changed.

A thick, black, iron cross appeared on Chapel's chest. Cobwebs stretched over his right elbow. The image on the screen rotated to show the number 88 in a black-­letter font scrawled across Chapel's lower back. Finally, a huge swastika flickered in on his biceps.

The view shifted to show Chapel's artificial arm. A long dagger and an SS logo appeared on its forearm. That seemed almost more blasphemous than the designs that had appeared on his real body, Chapel thought. The arm was technically the property of the Department of Defense, after all.

Chapel thought he might be sick. He reminded himself again that he could do this, that he could handle it. He'd repeated that thought often enough that he pretty much believed it.

“Don't worry,” the tattoo artist said. “I know better than to ask why you want these designs.” He was just a kid, maybe fifteen years younger than Chapel—­which put him in his midtwenties. He had a single earring in his left ear and a tattoo on his left forearm, a skull with roses blooming in its eye sockets.

“You have a lot of experience with . . . that?” Chapel said, waving at the screen.

“I've been tattooing for six years. I've had this job for three. I've done way worse. Full torso portraits of Hitler. Complete sleeves that had to look amateurish and sloppy so they looked like poorly done prison tattoos. Nobody likes this, but it's part of your job, right?” Chapel could see in the artist's eyes that he was trying to figure out which agency Chapel worked for. FBI? DEA? ATF?

None of the above. Chapel worked for a secret directorate in Military Intelligence, an organization that didn't even have an official acronym it was so hush-­hush. His reasons for getting these tattoos were strictly need-­to-­know, and the artist didn't need to know anything.

“It's not like you'll have to live with them forever,” the artist suggested. “Why don't you have a seat?”

Chapel realized then that he still hadn't sat down.

A little voice spoke in his ear, over the hands-­free set he always wore there. The voice belonged to Angel, his operator, who had saved his life more times than he could count. He trusted her, as much as he trusted anyone. “Sweetie, it's not forever. We'll have those nasty things removed just as soon as this mission is done.”

Chapel frowned. “They can do that? Just remove tattoos? I thought they were permanent.”

The tattoo artist must have thought Chapel was talking to him. “Yeah, they use lasers. Hurts like hell. Much, much worse than getting the tattoos in the first place. The ink we use is metallic, right? The laser goes right through your skin and heats up the pigment until it evaporates. Then your body just absorbs it.”

Chapel nodded. “Uh-­huh.”

“Go ahead and sit down,” the tattoo artist said.

I can do this,
Chapel thought.

“Excuse me a second.” He turned away from the artist to indicate he was speaking to someone else. “Angel. Is that right? Does it work? Tattoo removal, I mean.”

“Sure, honey. I mean, pretty well.”

“Angel,” Chapel growled.

“Well, there's always going to be a little bit of it left. But not enough that anybody would recognize what it was.”

“Even the swastika?”

“You can always get something else tattooed over it, so it doesn't show,” she suggested.

Chapel looked at the chair. Then up at the screen again.

“My grandfather died in World War II,” he said. “He died fighting the Nazis.”

“You're doing this for your country,” Angel said. “I'm sure he would understand.”

I can do this,
he thought.

“Listen, lots of guys get squeamish,” the tattoo artist said. “It's a normal reaction. It doesn't mean you're chicken or anything.”

Chapel knew exactly what the artist was trying to do. The problem was, sometimes reverse psychology worked. He sat down in the chair. “Get it over with,” he told the tattoo artist.

The tattoo gun started buzzing again. It set Chapel's teeth on edge. The artist put a piece of waxy paper over Chapel's biceps and rubbed over it with a stick of deodorant. Purple ink on the paper—­temporary ink—­was transferred to Chapel's skin, giving the artist lines that he could color in. The paper came away, and Chapel looked down and saw the swastika staring up at him.

After that, a presidential order couldn't have kept him in that chair.

“I can't do this,” he said. He jumped up and grabbed his artificial arm and his shirt. “Sorry to have wasted your time.”

As he hurried out of the room, buttoning up his shirt, Angel started talking in his ear again. “Chapel, there's no way you'll be able to pass as a white supremacist without some kind of ink; the mission requires—­”

“There's another way,” Chapel said. There had to be.

 

CHAPTER TWO

“I
'm guessing,” Rupert Hollingshead said, pouring himself a drink—­he'd already offered Chapel a beer, which had been declined—­“that you weren't just afraid of the pain. After all, son, you've been shot so many times now, a few needle pricks couldn't possibly compare.”

“No, sir,” Chapel said. He wished he could stand at attention. Whenever he disobeyed an order, his immediate impulse was to stand up and receive his punishment. But Hollingshead must have known that—­the man was a master at reading ­people—­and he must have also known that the best way to make Chapel squirm was to invite him in for a nice, friendly chat.

Hollingshead was all smiles and firm handshakes when Chapel had come in for this meeting. He was dressed in a tweed suit, and the thick glasses he wore made his eyes look big and merry, amplifying their twinkle. Rupert Hollingshead had been an admiral in the navy once. Now he ran one of the most secret directorates in Military Intelligence, which made him Chapel's boss. Chapel had never seen the man in uniform. He'd never seen Hollingshead act much like a command officer in the armed forces. If pressed, Hollingshead would claim he'd never much gone in for all the brass and dress blues and medals, that he was more comfortable dressing like an aging Ivy League academic. Chapel had begun to believe the man had chosen his relaxed if elegant appearance simply to put ­people off their guard.

“Please do sit down,” Hollingshead said, gesturing at a leather couch. His office had been a fallout shelter under the Pentagon once. Now it looked like the common room at a private club for rich bankers. It had a fully stocked bar and a burbling, tasteful fountain and overstuffed armchairs. Chapel often forgot, while he was there, that he was at least fifty feet underground. Only the lack of windows in the office reminded him.

Chapel sank into the couch and tried to look relaxed. “My grandfather—­” he began, but Hollingshead interrupted him.

“Sergeant Hiram Chapel,” the old man said. “I've seen his record. Good man by all accounts. Distinguished himself in Italy. Took out a pillbox on his own, with the rest of his unit pinned down on a beach.”

“I never met him,” Chapel admitted. “Just heard stories, from my father. I don't know if he was any kind of saint—­to his dying day, my father was terrified of his old man's belt—­but I was raised to believe he was a hero. And that he died to keep us safe from the Nazis. Now you're asking me to wear a swastika on my arm for the rest of my life.”

Hollingshead didn't dither on about tattoo removal or getting the thing covered up. He just nodded and sipped at his drink. After ruminating for a while, he set his glass down, and said, “You know how sensitive this is, son. That's the damned hardest part of this job, sometimes. I have the authority to tap into the largest pool of human resources in this country—­the entire armed forces—­yet time and again, I find I can't do it. The more ­people know about this job, the more likely it is one of them ends up talking to a journalist. And we can't very well have that.”

“No, sir,” Chapel said. It was true. Normally, Chapel hated the cloak of secrecy that wrapped around all his missions, but in this case, he knew it was crucial.

A few months earlier, he had discovered a plot by former KGB elements to ship surplus guns—­mostly AK-­47s—­to America, for sale to extremist groups and political nut jobs. The program had started as an official effort by the Soviets to undermine the American government. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian mafia had taken over the operation, but nothing else had changed. Chapel had closed off the pipeline—­the man who ran the whole operation was dead—­but that didn't change the fact that there were thousands of cases of Russian assault rifles inside the borders of the United States, and they were in the hands of the worst possible class of criminal.

If word got out that the Russians had been arming American domestic terrorists, if even a single news outlet got hold of the story, it would start a nationwide panic overnight. And if that happened, Congress would be forced to react. And if Congress chose to demand action, the military would have to get involved. There was no telling how far it would go. In Hollingshead's estimation, war with Russia was a serious possibility.

The only way to stop all that was to make sure nobody ever heard about what had happened. And that meant recovering the guns, every last one of them.

And since Chapel, Hollingshead, and Angel were the only ­people in America who knew the whole story, they were the only ones who could fix it.

Hollingshead sounded apologetic. “If there were anyone else I could send, I would. There are plenty of men in the ATF and the DEA who would wear those tattoos if it meant helping their country. Plenty of them already do, and I doubt they complain much about it. Good men, heroes like your grandfather.”

“Those men are undercover cops. Specialists in infiltration,” Chapel pointed out. “I'm no actor. You could dress me up like a skinhead, but I wouldn't fool anyone for a minute.”

Hollingshead nodded again.

Chapel knew this was his only chance to make his case. “I'm not trying to get out of doing my job. But there's another way we can make this happen. I'm sure of it.”

“Very well,” Hollingshead said. “Let's hear it.”

BOOK: Myrmidon
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