Sioux Falls was a good stopping point for a few days, but the area around Williston was where I wanted to go if I wanted to be around the most fracking activity, so we made no plans to stay for long. While in Sioux Falls, we picked up a small, high quality cellphone with wireless earpiece to allow Frank and I to talk less obviously in public, as well as two cheap disposable cellphones with prepaid minute cards we could use for a call or two in an emergency. The business card the girl gave me was burning a hole in my pocket, but I didn’t want to use it. I didn’t want to drag her into more illegal activities, but I wasn’t foolish enough to throw it away. She might be able to help me without breaking the law, if I ever found myself imprisoned.
A tablet computer with Wi-Fi and a new pair of boots were next to buy. Followed shortly afterwards by another used long jacket in good condition. One that fit better. Frank had made my bones smaller when rebuilding them, shrinking my shoulders. I didn’t even notice it until I noticed that my backpack frame needed adjustment after I got off the bus. We gave the old jacket to Goodwill.
Frank and I had a long discussion again about changing my body, but he won this time around. The smaller I was, the faster he could move me without burning us up. I had been wide-shouldered and built like a fireplug, carrying a decent chunk of muscle and a bunch of fat. I was now slender, but not remarkably so. My body had been changing so rapidly in so many different ways in the last day, that I didn’t even notice the bone size changes. Who really notices how big their bones are anyway, especially when you lose almost half your body weight in a day? I was still angry at Frank for making the bone size changes, but he could change things again later, after we were in a more comfortable place. Not that I wanted to be five foot eight and nearly three hundred pounds again, but I wanted my shoulder width back. My sense of self felt like it was in danger here. Strangely, I was less concerned about my face, skin, and hair looking different than I was about my bones and general body shape.
We also started arguing about clothing. A lot. Frank was constantly wanting to get lighter, tighter clothing so he could move with less impediment. I had to keep pointing out that we had to fit in with the rest of the people. We could buy excellent clothing with the money we had, but we still had to fit in. Walking down the street dressed like a ninja in subfreezing weather at night might make Frank happy, but it would create a lot of attention. I finally won that argument, but agreed that we would talk about it again, later, when we saw what people who worked in the fracking industry wore on a daily basis. I reminded him that North Dakota in the winter time was cold as hell for normal humans, and he was going to have to put up with a lot of extra clothing. We agreed that we would do what we could to buy and modify clothing so we could shrug out of it fairly quickly.
We went through a bunch of charcoal as Frank rebuilt my bones. He wanted to take cold showers. I wanted research time with the tablet. I won this time around as well. Frank agreed that using the tablet on the hotel Wi-Fi to research the job market, conditions, etc. that we might expect would be a good idea, and tablets just don’t work well in the shower. Lots of soaking time gave me lots of research time, which I put to use trying to figure out the fracking industry, and what things we might be able to do.
I grew resigned to the kangaroo pouch, but made Frank shrink it significantly after we finally finished with the carbon replacement. The bone mass was easy to get rid of. I went to a local park, walked through some trails, and took fistfuls of bone granules out of the pouch and threw the powder into the bushes and trees as fertilizer.
One of the things I discovered was that the chances of getting work in the fracking industry if I was undocumented was very low. The fracking operations were closely monitored for undocumented workers. I was going to need some sort of ID. Having ID would also let me purchase a vehicle in cash from a private seller with zero questions asked. We needed more clothing, more mobility, and more options.
It was time to figure out how to get in touch with the criminal element without drawing too much attention to myself. Fortunately it didn’t seem all that much out-of-place to have a backpack. Quite a few travelers had them, and apparently some of the locals favored them too. With nearly four million dollars in mine, I was damn sure not leaving it anywhere. Finding a place to hide that money safely in the long-term was going to be a bitch. Walking into a bank and starting a new account with nearly four million dollars was beyond ridiculous. Doing it without ID was not even worth thinking about.
The problem was that people didn’t usually go clubbing or whoring with a backpack, so I was going to have to come up with an approach that would let me approach some criminal activity or shady part of town without either appearing to be either an easy target or completely out-of-place and suspicious. After thinking about how to get in touch the criminal element for a bit, without conflict, I had an idea, and acted on it.
I put on a worn pair of jeans and a short-sleeved shirt under my jacket, then made a trip to a pawn shop where I picked up a used pool cue in good condition, a case, some chalk, and a tip kit. I made some small talk about having to leave my last pool cue in pieces after doing too well in a tournament, and the shop owner smiled. I asked him if there was anywhere nearby where a passer-through might be able to play a few games for money and he gave me the names to half a dozen places. I asked him which ones were less likely for a fight to break out if the out-of-town stranger were to win too much. He laughed, then told me to avoid a couple of the places he had told me about earlier. “Don’t go to those places and play shark. Not safe for you.”, he said. This, of course, told me exactly where I needed to go. I thought.
Later that night, I looked around at the parking lot of the first place I had decided to check out, which was full of all sorts of trucks. Almost exclusively trucks with really big tires. The place was in decent condition, and I was hearing country music from inside. Unfortunately, I was getting some pointed looks from the people walking through the parking lot as I stood next to the cab. They were almost exclusively white, mostly men, and looked like folks who worked with their hands. I didn’t think this place would be where I would want to meet the criminal element. Based on the flat stares I was getting, I wouldn’t be welcome here because of the way I looked. That really made me think – I had lived my whole life as a white man, and wouldn’t have even thought about going into this place before, even though the music wasn’t to my taste. I decided that winning too much would get me in a fight really fast here. It was likely that just walking into this place might get me into a fight. The pawn shop owner had been right. I had been thinking like a white man, but in the eye of the pawn shop owner, I looked like a Native American. The advice I had been given was good advice for how I looked, not how I thought of myself. I got back in the cab, gave the cabbie what I owed him so far and started to ask him to take me to the next place the pawn shop owner had said I shouldn’t win too much at.
Then I thought about it, and asked the cabbie. “A fellow I talked to earlier today gave me a list of a few places where a person new to town who played pool could maybe get in on a tournament or some friendly betting and he told me these places, do you know them?” I listed off the other five places the shop owner had told me about. “This place would not be a good place for me to win too much. Too much… color in my skin. I’m hoping one of the others might be a good place.”
The cabbie gave me a quick nod at that. “Right. If someone told you to go to these places, they weren’t a friend to you.”
“You know of any places where there might be some friendly betting games or tournaments?”
“How good are you?” asked the cabbie.
“I’m good. I’ve just never been here before.”
Frank cackled in the back of my mind, but he was confident sounding. I couldn’t imagine us being anything less than top-notch with his spatial sense and precision.
“There’s a tournament at Rocky Top tonight. Top prize is based on number of entries, but it’s usually around a thousand dollars. Costs ten at the door for cover on tournament night, and twenty to join the tournament.”
“Take me there, please.” I said, leaning back in my seat. Even if it didn’t seem likely that I’d be able to connect to the criminal element at a big pool tournament, it would probably be a good idea to at least practice the game. It’s been years since I played last. I sucked then. I knew I would do better this time around with Frank handling the cue, but how much better?
When we got to Rocky Top, I tipped the cabbie well. I could look for a seedy dive tomorrow, a bit closer to the criminal element. Tonight we would see what Frank could do. I had high hopes.
As I walked in, I started talking, pretending to be in a conversation over the phone.
“Hey Frank, I’m over at Rocky Top. Tournament tonight, going to put my hand in and see what comes out. You want to come join me?”
“I know the common play rules from twenty years ago. Just like you. Mechanically I will be better than anyone else here, but I’ll want to watch a couple of tournament rule games or get a copy of the tournament rules before we start.”
I walked over to the bar and asked the bartender if they had written tournament rules. She shrugged and pointed at a big sign with rules in large type at the back of the bar near the pool tables. “Yes, visible right by the tables, no excuses.”
“Where do I sign up for the tournament?”
“We’ll announce in about thirty minutes, sell tickets for thirty minutes, then get started.”
“OK, thanks.” I bought a soda and tipped her well, then looked around, found the restrooms and took care of that business. Moving to a back corner table, I set the pack down and untied the cue case from the side of the pack, assembled the cue, and chalked it.
I ordered a burger with seasoned fries from the grill, and bought a few play tokens from the waitress working my section. She was nice enough but when she noticed my pack, she told me there wouldn’t be a tab. I didn’t have a problem with that and made sure she knew it by tipping well. Then I started playing pool solo, letting Frank play around, while watching to see how good the rest of the people who were playing seemed to be. I muttered under my breath when I walked back into the corner to get a bite of burger and some fries. “Don’t be too good, no need to attract attention. Good enough to run a table is good enough, no crazy tricks.”
“Yes, I know. We aren’t fighting for our lives here, and I won’t show off beyond plausible human skills. Do you want to win? We don’t need the money, but I’m not sure what you want to accomplish here tonight.”
“Let’s win if the best competition is an ass, but if they seem like good people we lose.”
“Sounds like a good plan to me.”
“OK, fair enough. Gotta go Frank, need to warm up.” Then I pretended to hang up the phone in my pocket.
Frank played around, making adjustments to the tip of the cue, doing some English and masse shots but nothing spectacular. I watched the tables around us as the other players practiced, and the players at the tables around us watched as Frank practiced. Frank quickly adjusted to the point where he was sinking nine out of ten shots, and then got better, telling me exactly what each ball would do as he moved them around the table, intentionally missing an ugly shot every now and then, but hitting every straight shot, every non combination shot, and most one-bumper or two-ball combination shots as well. There were two other players on the floor that were consistently as good as Frank was pretending to be. One looked like he was fresh out of high school, the other seemed to be my age. They were playing at the same table. After a second, I recognized the family resemblance, father and son, nephew and uncle, or something. The younger man was gangly, with some muscle, in shape, and dark-haired. The older man was carrying some extra pounds, but moved easily, and his hair had heavy silvery-grey streaks mixed in with dark black hair. There was a high degree of contrast between the silvery grey and black hair, I suspected some of the older man’s grey or some of the black was artificially colored.
I walked back over to the food at my table, mumbling to Frank. “Don’t make shots too fast. Watch how fast the other players are playing, the ones that are better than the rest. They take their time, without wasting a lot of time, but they are smooth. You might be playing too fast to credibly be that accurate.”
While I took a few bites of burger, we watched a few of the better players, paying close attention to how they were handling themselves. Then we walked back to the table where Frank practiced a bit slower and was noticeably smoother about how he was playing.
“That actually is easier, the way they are doing it. The two finger grip keeps the cue from angling up or down as much. Just letting the forearm hang and swing from the upper arm joint rather than using shoulder muscles also helps a lot.”
I smiled while thinking about how well Frank and I complemented each other. It was nice to know that humans could still teach Frank a few things about how to do physical activities. I had only known him for a day, and he was already insufferable at times due to being so damn good at everything physical. On the other hand, getting to know me well enough to predict my actions to ninety percent accuracy before he was allowed to communicate with me was a learning handicap for him when it came to understanding other people. I have always been a bit of an oddball, perfectly content to have no social interaction, but not turning away from it either. That was one reason Frank was able to learn to predict me, I guess, because I was so solitary. Fewer outside influences. I understood people better than Frank did, in any case, which isn’t saying much. Between the two of us, we were a good team.
I reached over and grabbed the chalk, then chalked the cue. “Can’t forget to chalk between hits,” I muttered low, like I was talking to myself.
“Oh, ok, yes. Thanks, I will remember that I should be doing these things when I don’t really need to.”
The tournament tickets started to sell. I bought ours, while carefully keeping my eye on my pack as I walked over to the waitress selling the tickets. Nobody seemed to be paying any special attention to me or the pack. There were at least two other packs parked under tables around the room, but they were school packs, not hiking packs.
“I’m watching it too, Bob, I can see what you are looking at. There are a couple who have looked at the pack, but nobody’s made a move. I doubt anyone will. You aren’t large but you are imposing. People move away from you more than they move away from most other people. They give you space. That’s what I was trying to do when I set you up in this body.”
“OK” I said in response, disguised as mumbling to myself.
The tournament was single elimination for the first two tiers of matches, then double elimination for all the tiers after that. I watched the kid and his relative play each other one last time before the tables were cleared for the tournament. The older man was a bit of a showboat, but rarely missed. When he did miss, it was usually because he tried to do something complicated that he could have done an easier way. That made me a bit suspicious of him. When the kid missed a shot there was nothing showy about it, he just missed. A little off here, a little off there, just enough to barely miss. Frank pointed out that the kid was missing the same way every time, hitting the cue ball a tiny bit right of where he should have. I realized all of a sudden that the kid was far better than he was pretending to be. He was the hidden shark, and the guy with him was the obvious shark. I laughed out loud as I realized that, and the kid looked straight at me, grinning openly. He had been watching me watch him and his partner. He apparently recognized that I had figured out they were sharks, and poked his partner with his elbow, carefully timed to cause him to miss a shot. When his partner looked at him, a bit irritated, the kid nodded at me. He whispered to the older man, and I grinned back at both of them. They both grinned back. It was a challenge then.
All three of us got past the two single elimination rounds because we were against far weaker opponents. The players left in the double elimination stage were either good, or lucky. The lucky ones quickly got weeded out as the matches continued to progress.
Frank and I got beat by the kid in a match because he ran the table from the break and we never got on the table. His partner got beat the same way in another match. Frank was running the table on every table we got to touch, but by the time there were about ten of us left, all of us could run a whole table without much trouble. Anyone could beat anyone if they got a good break, but two of the contestants had been drinking and made mistakes, losing their matches. Others were just inconsistent, unable to run every table.
After a while, the kid and his father (at least the kid called him dad at one point that I overheard) were still in, with myself and one other fellow who was a lot better than I gave him credit for to start with. He had been drinking, but actually got better after what appeared to be his second beer, based on the bottles on the table he walked back to when he wanted another drink. He had been barely touching his third beer after it arrived. Apparently he was one of the oddballs who was better at pool when they have had just enough alcohol to get a buzz. The kid was unbeaten, the three of us had one loss each.
Coin tosses put the father and son against each other, and the son won off the break by running the table. The father ruffled his son’s hair, and then sat in a nearby chair to watch the rest of the tournament. I looked to my pack in the corner. Nobody was near it, everyone who was left was watching us. I ran the table off the break against my buzzed opponent, and it was down to me and the kid. He was unbeaten, I was one game from losing.
It was up to the coin tosses now, really. Either of us could run the table almost every time at our level of play. I had to win the coin toss twice to win, he only had to win it once.
The father was watching me pretty close at that point and it took me a couple of seconds to figure out why. I was playing his boy in high stakes, and I had the appearance of someone who might just start a fight over a lost game. I caught the kid’s father’s eye as Frank prepped for a shot, giving him a half grin and a little shake of my head. He saw my grin and head-shake, and became a bit less tense.
I won the first toss, and ran the table. The kid was watching the second toss, and grimaced when I won. The father was actually grinning. Apparently he thought it would be a good idea for his son to lose this one, so I asked Frank to run the table again. At the very end, I thought about scratching on the 8-ball. When I looked at the father though, he was watching his son rather than me, so I decided not to. It really did look like the father wanted his son to lose, and he certainly didn’t look to be worried about the money.
The kid looked a bit upset after I won the match, and shook his head, muttering about bad luck coin tosses. He didn’t hesitate when I reached out to offer a handshake though, giving me a solid shake right back while meeting my eye and saying “G.G.”
I tilted my head in obvious confusion, and he laughed. “G.G. means Good Game in webspeak, sorry.”
“Sorry, I couldn’t let you on the table there, young man, we both know what would have happened if I did.” We both grinned at each other as his father walked up slowly, watching his son interact with me.
“Well hell, son, I thought you had this one for sure but the coin won it for him.”
“Yeah, I saw you two smiling. You set me up to teach me a lesson. How you managed to game the odds well enough to manage that, is a lesson I expect to be taught.” He looked expectantly at his father.
I shook my head, and the kid’s attention turned to me. “Nah, we were smiling at each other after I realized that your dad was hoping I could teach you a lesson. If you had been watching before that, you would have seen your dad looking at me a lot differently as he was trying to figure out what I’d do if I lost.”
The older man smiled and nodded. “Ayup.” Then he stuck out his hand. “Name’s Bill.”
I took his hand and gave a firm shake. “Bob. Good to meet you and your son…”
“Kirk,” said his son. We shook hands as well.
“Good to meet you too, Kirk.”
A bunch of others crowded around and shook hands with us briefly before most folks wandered off. A few continued to play informal pool and practiced tournament rule play at the tables since the tournament was over. Prize money was awarded. I pocketed almost twelve hundred dollars, and Kirk got three hundred for second place.
We were all packing up our gear. I nodded my head towards the corner with my pack. “I’m sitting over there. Winner buys. What’ll you two have?”
“I’ll take a burger and a draft” said Bill.
“Same” said Kirk. I looked at his father who grinned. So I nodded.
“I’ll match that, had one of those burgers before the tournament, and it was pretty good.”
Bill looked at my table, and the scattered remnants of my burger and fries, raising an eyebrow. “Hungry still?”
“Blessed with a hollow leg.” I grinned.
“Ah, I know someone else like that.” He glanced at Kirk.
Kirk said “Don’t know what you’re talking about.” then whistled a little tune and looked away from the two of us, a comical protestation of false innocence.
Bill and I both laughed as we all walked over to my table. Bill waved down a waitress while I was attaching my cue stick bag to my pack. She approached with a friendly “Hey Bill, hey Kirk”, as she walked up, making it obvious they were known here.
I straightened up, saying “We’d like three burgers and three drafts please.”
I saw the waitress looking at Bill’s hand as it pointed at Kirk from the underside of the table, shaking back and forth as an obvious “no.”
Kirk grabbed his father’s hat and said “I saw that, Lois has glasses.”
Bill grabbed his hat back. “Sigh. I try to protect him from himself, and look at the thanks I get.”
Kirk waited till his father put the hat back on then quickly leaned forward and pulled it down over his face, slowly leaning back after the deed was complete, smiling.
Bill sighed long and deep under his hat, lifted it back into place, slowly shaking his head and smiling, then said “No respect.” Obviously this was something they’ve been doing for a while, making fun of Kirk being almost old enough to drink.
Frank was watching carefully, I could sense his attention. He had never seen a father and son relationship like this. I wish he had. Nothing wrong with my relationship with my father, but it wasn’t this close.
The three burgers, two drafts, and a soda arrived. I paid, and over-tipped. We chit chatted about the matches we had been in while eating. When we were nearly through, Bill asked “So where are you headed to?”
“Headed up to look for work in the fracking industry near Williston.”
“You done work in the drilling industry before?”
“Nah, done construction, maintenance, driven a truck, and did some security work when I was young. Nothing directly mining or drilling related.”
“I run a few mines myself.”
“Nah, a lot closer to Williston. This is just a boy’s night out since Kirk’s back from school for the holiday.”
“What kind of work you got?”
“Driving work mostly. I’ve got some rigging work too, but you’re a bit small to be doing the rigging work. Don’t take offense please. Working with the rigging, you need some mass, not just muscle.”
“I’ll do what needs to be done, I’m a lot stronger than I look. If I really can’t do the rigging work, I won’t be upset to drive.”
Bill looked at me, then my pack, then back at me. “You got ID?”
I looked at him, thought about lying, then decided against it. “Nope.”
“Mind saying why?”
I thought about it, then tried to avoid the full truth without telling a lie. “Hurt some guys real bad a while ago when I caught them with a girl who didn’t care for their company. Things got turned around and made me into the bad guy as far as the law was concerned. Had to get away from things.”
Bill was watching me real close, looking me straight in the eyes, I matched his gaze, but put no heat in it.
“That ain’t all of it, but I won’t push you for the rest.” He averted his gaze and took another swallow of beer. “I like to think I’m a good judge of character. I got over two hundred guys working for me, and haven’t been wrong yet. Well, not really wrong, there’s been a couple that were OK, but just didn’t work out.” Bill looked at me, waiting for a response.
I just looked at him and gave him a brief nod. I wasn’t going to challenge him.
Bill finished the last of his beer, rubbed his upper lip with one hand, stood up from the table, pulled his wallet out, and pulled out two business cards. “Unfortunately I don’t hire anyone that doesn’t have ID.” He slid a card to me, and I looked down at it. ‘Darla’s Photography – We do Passports!’ “If you get things sorted out and want a job, call me.” Then he handed me a second card ‘Bill’s Drills, LLC.’
I looked at him for a couple of seconds, put one finger on each card, and slowly drew them to me, looking down briefly at them, not quite sure they were real. I nodded my head, stood up, and shook Bill’s hand. Then I reached down, collected the cards and carefully stowed them in my wallet. “I’ll call you when I get things sorted out then.”
Kirk piped up. “Awesome, it gets boring beating my dad at pool all the time. It’ll be nice to beat someone else when you have time! I do want to learn how you managed that odd English bounce for the six ball in our second to last match.”
Bill smacked Kirk on the back of the head and Kirk pulled Bill’s hat down over his face again.
I grinned. “I think a couple of lessons can be arranged.”