This You Call A Crime, Mike Baron

Hoss was a lab/shepherd/husky mix came to me by way of an ex-girlfriend’s brother had to move and couldn’t take Hoss with him. So I agreed to take him, sap that I am. Two weeks later, the bitch split and took my DVD player. Only good to come of it was Hoss. He weighed about a hundred pounds, shed twice his own weight weekly, ate whatever, and was fiercely protective of me. Transferred his loyalties as soon as he saw me opening the cans.

Me? I’m what you might call a grifter. I’ve run grass, acid, speed, sold time-share condos, used cars, new cars, waterfront real estate, and worked the phones for the Psychic Friends Hotline. Some people consider me a criminal. I don’t. Remember last year when that Salvation Army Santa Claus found a solid gold Panda in his kettle at the mall? That was me. I’d just burgled Capital Coin and Jewelry and was feeling saucy.

So here I was six months later high and dry. If only I’d invested those Pandas in pharmaceuticals. If only I’d socked them away in a safety deposit box. But I hadn’t. I’d gone to Cabo, hired one of those lissome ladies of the night from Los Angeles who come with their own wardrobe, and lived like a sultan, rarely returning to my six hundred dollar a night condo until rosy fingered dawn began poking her rosy fingers in my eyes. Woke up three weeks later broke, parched, with a headache that started behind my eyes and went all the way back to Iowa.

So here I was in a cheap motel room—and I mean cheap—on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids, with forty-five bucks in my wallet and a hundred pounds of Hoss at my feet, a bitchin’ 86 Camaro in the parking lot, the six banger with four on the floor and a finish halfway between Robert Davi and a mud pit. And I’m thinking. What’s a guy gotta do to put food on the table? And Hoss is looking at me. What are you gonna do, boss?

I could always hold up a convenience store. Yeah, right. C’mon, Bri, where’s your pride? You, who once hustled Marlon Brando outta ten thousand dollars to save the whales? You, who once conned HUD into coughing up sixty thou for a community development grant? You, who once peddled locks of Hendrix’ hair on the internet, complete with certificates of authenticity?

I turned on the television and there was salvation in the person of a retired police dog named Max, now trained to provide comfort to the residents of a hospice. Max’ story was Movie Of The Week stuff. Max had served honorably and with distinction in a decade-long career. He had twice been awarded for bravery. Max was too old and feeble to track crooks through the swamp. With his master’s help, Max had obtained Companion Dog Certification from the National Council of Therapeutic Animals, and now spent his days offering comfort and companionship to the elderly.

They keep drugs in assisted living facilities, especially morphine and other members of the poppy family. I looked at Hoss. He looked back, tongue lolling, and I knew he was thinking exactly the same thing: let’s get us some Certification, Bri! Let’s get us some drugs!

“You got it, big fella,” I told him, scratching him under the jaw. My fingers did the walking. Certification courses ran from one hundred and fifty to three hundred depending on the organization and level of training. An organization we will euphemistically refer to as Dog Institute Prestige Seminars Hospitale International Terpsichorium had classes starting next Monday. Registration materials arrived. I had to produce certification that my dog was licensed and had been treated for rabies, distemper, and bortadella. Anticipating such a ploy, I had lifted the appropriate papers from behind the counter at Cats Here, Dogs There, while Hoss distracted the poopsie by feigning an epileptic fit.

At the word “Sit!” he would lay on his back, legs twitching spasmodically, whipping his head from side to side while making a pathetic whining noise and pissing in a yellow arc that pooled on the floor. At the word “Fit!” he would sit. It was a good trick. He was a smart dog.

Monday morning we showed up in DIPSHIT’s parking lot, the only classic Camaro among a host of Navigators, Beemers, and Mercedes SUVs. I had shaved, showered, and wore my one pair Gap khakis along with a crisp new gray cotton T. I looked like a member of the Bolshoi. I had groomed Hoss and fixed a silk gray kerchief around his neck. He looked like a member of the Borzoi. Not!

I milled in the waiting room admiring the framed certification on the wall, the many blue ribbons and trophies DIPSHIT had collected. I smiled at other dog owners, each with beast on a leash, primly seated in folding chairs.

The door to the inner kennel opened. A thin intense woman with a beak like a B-52 looked at us. We could hear her stomach growling. “Hello. I’m Denise McClarty. I will be your instructor. Please keep your registration materials with you. I will collect them, and your tuition, after the class. Follow me into the school and please control your dogs.”

There were nine other dogs in class, all purebreds, from a Chinese Temple Dog to a Weimeraner. Hoss is okay as long as you don’t try to sniff his booty or grab his food. Then, watch out! A Mink Terrier tried to sniff his booty and before I could stop him, Hoss picked the mophead up in his jaws, shook it like a damp washcloth and tossed it while its owner, a middle-aged hausfrau with fake platinum hair and three facelifts went into hysterics and the instructor batted ineffectually in the direction of the dogfight, like a fag butler dabbing at a spot.

I grabbed Hoss by the scruff of his neck and dragged him off the hapless terrier, all the way back into the entrance foyer. The instructor followed, quivering with emotion. “Mr. Albright, I can’t permit your dog in class if he’s going to assault the other students.”

“I’m terribly sorry, ma’am. I thought we’d resolved those problems in therapy. Hoss was sexually abused by a Mink Terrier when he was a pup.”

Her tongue paused in her half-open mouth like some small furry mammal trying to decide whether to lunge for a nut. “Whatever, Mr. Albright, I’m sorry. I really can’t permit Hoss back into this class. I wish you the best of luck elsewhere.”

She turned her back and went back into the training hall, letting the door swing shut behind her. There. Done. Unpleasant, but necessary. I hung my head in shame. I selected the appropriate certification off the wall, stuck it under my jacket, and followed Hoss into the parking lot.

We were ready to spread comfort among the elderly and infirm. I had my eye on a spanking new facility called Oakwood Village, obviously intended for the upper crust, with its prairie-style architecture and lavish grounds. I had watched it progress from a developer’s sign to a long low pile of sandstone, fieldstone, timber and glass. I used to take Hoss there for purse-snatching lessons.

While selling fake Rolexes in the Caribbean, I learned that it’s best to emerge from the background, as if you were part of the picture the whole time, rather than come dancing in the front door like Gene Kelley in Singin’ In The Rain—in the big production number with Cyd Charrise. I had observed that the nurses and orderlies would wheel some of the chair-bound seniors out back to a bricked arbor, about thirty feet from undeveloped farmland, lightly forested that backed up against a farm. I had observed the comfort dogs out back accompanied by their handlers.

On a bright June morning with a gentle breeze, just enough to ground Baron Von Moskito and his Flying Circus, Hoss and I parked in our usual place, at the curb adjacent to four acres of undeveloped grass, a quarter mile down from Oakwood Village. We followed a Frisbee into the woods. The Flying Circus was waiting for us, but I had prepared with Cutter’s, and not even the vile Baron could penetrate Hoss’ gleaming coat.

I wore chinos, high-zoot sneakers, a pale yellow knit shirt with some kinda goddamn weasel stitch, and a snappy off-white fedora. Had my certification neatly clipped to my clipboard. Hoss carried the clipboard in a khaki vest that cost me sixty-five bucks at Discount Dog. We followed a path through the woods—not a deer path—a kid path, two feet wide, trampled flat, and festooned with trash, right up to the perfect emerald lawn of Oakwood Village.

At wood’s edge, I attached Hoss’ leash, ditched the Frisbee, adjusted my hat, and emerged like Errol Flynn from the Papuan jungle. Arbor vitae provided concealing cover as we made our way to the rear patio. The patio had an element of English maze, cleverly designed so as to provide the maximum amount of privacy. There were nearly a dozen alcoves where you could hide a good-sized wheelchair.

Hoss pulled me between two evergreens on to the bricked portion of the patio, into the presence of a large, gleaming wheelchair occupied by what, at first glance, appeared to be a log wrapped in a blanket. The shriveled homunculus also wore an outsized Oakland Raiders sweatshirt, hood shrouding his face like the Grim Reaper. Pulling the leash tight, Hoss went right up to him, found bare flesh at the end of a sleeve and began to lick. No reaction. Just our luck, a croaker.

“This you call a dog?” the log croaked.

I went forward to see if it had a face. “Excuse me?”

“Vhat, you’re hard of hearing too? Sprechen ze English?”

I bent down. It had a face, all right. Two blue marbles regarded me from a parched lakebed, like a pair of meteors that had landed next to each other, shattering the earth in all directions.

“Sorry, sir. This is Hoss. He’s a certified aid worker. We’re just out here seeing if anyone needs us, or would like a little company.”

I couldn’t just waltz into the facility and ask the first nurse, where’s the drugs? I had to make myself familiar. Gain their confidence. Gather a little intelligence. Despite the gnome’s inert appearance, he appeared to be fairly sharp. Might as well start with him.

The gnome removed two stick-like appendages from his lap and the wheelchair jerked my way so abruptly Hoss took a step back and barked. “If this fucking shlamazzle is a certified aid worker, I’m Yassir Arafat. Lemme see his goddamn papers.”

You could have knocked me down with a feather. Last thing I expected was some wizened ginseng root questioning my credentials. But that’s why I’d gone to the trouble of securing them. I decided to give the geezer a taste of the sheer depth and class of our scam.

“Fit,” I commanded. Hoss sat, an idiot grin on his face, tongue spilling out like a drunken insurance salesman’s tie. I knelt, unclipped Hoss’ backpack, removed the clipboard, placed the certification on top and handed it to the geezer.

He pulled it within three inches of his nose, which resembled a russet potato. Every now and then he’d peer over the top at Hoss or me. I felt like I’d been called on the carpet before the principal. “Brian Albright, huh? Brian Half-bright is more like it! You did a piss-poor job whiting out this other name here. And this certificate says that your dog Rebecca is a purebred golden lab!”

Damn. I wished I’d done a more thorough job prepping that document. But who expected anyone to give it more than a cursory glance? “Listen, old-timer. We’re here to spread comfort, not take an interrogatory. She doesn’t like to be called Rebecca. And it’s very unkind of you to make fun of her affliction. She suffers from the same skin discoloration as Michael Jackson.”

“Sonny, I don’t know from Michael Jackson, but I can smell a goniff a mile away. I saw you come out of the woods there. What’s your game?”

Of all the hospices in the Midwest, I had to choose the one with the psychic. I probably should have taken back the clipboard, excused ourselves, and retreated back to the woods. But there was something about the old guy, the hesitation of a wink, a certain perspicacity that made me want to open up to him. The guy was on to me. It takes one to know one.

Even though there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with his hearing, I hunkered and got close. “Pops, I’ll level with you. Hoss and I are with the DEA. We’re in disguise. Seems someone’s been dippin’ into your drug supply. You’re a pretty sharp old bird, but I expect our documents to back us up better than this.”

White eyebrows made twin peaks. “If you’re DEA, I’m Willie Mays. Level with me, sonny. I won’t blow the whistle on ya. I’m an alter kocher anarcho-syndicalist. I saw the inside of the Czar’s prisons before your grandfather was a twinkle in your great-grandfather’s eye. I got a rap sheet from here to Estonia. Who do you think you’re talkin’ to?” Continuously scratching Hoss behind the ears. “I saw you come out of the woods there.”

Hoss laid his big head in the geezer’s lap and snarked lunch remains while I stood like a dumb bird with my mouth open. Clearly, my stars were not in alignment. Venus was not aligned with Mars, and Saturn didn’t give a shit. Time to regroup and rethink. Get the hell out of Dodge. Go home and open a cold one.

I snapped my fingers. “Hoss, let’s go.” He looked at me reluctantly, tongue lolling as if to say, you gotta be kidding. “Hoss, let’s go!”

Reluctantly the big boy fell in at my side and I turned to walk away.

Click.

I knew that click. That click sounded suspiciously like the hammer being cocked on a revolver. But that couldn’t be. This was Oakwood Village, not Dodge City.

“Hold it right there, shtunker.”

I turned, knowing what I would see. Sure enough, the geezer had his gnarly fingers wrapped around some kind of goddamn horse pistol. “It’s a black powder 1851 .44 caliber Navy Revolver. It’ll put a hole in you the size of the Holland Tunnel. I’ll never serve a day in jail. I’ll bet you’ve got a record. Never shnorr a shnorrer. So come on back here, shmendrick, and level with this alter kocher.”

Seldom had my understanding of the universe proven so spectacularly bass-ackwards. I’d stepped into a parallel dimension. Through the looking glass. I turned, hands visible, came back toward him. The gun twitched like a big hard-on in his lap.

“That’s far enough.”

I told him my pathetic little scheme to find drugs while Hoss rummaged through the old dude’s pockets. When I finished, he tucked the gun back under the folds of his parka. “This you call a crime? All this training and subterfuge for a couple thousand bucks worth of delaudids?”

A black woman in a white smock, with the rolling gait and heft of a linebacker, appeared in a break in the hedge. “How you doin’, Mr. Navatsky? Who’s this?”

The geezer grinned, displaying supplemental insurance choppers. “Everything is kosher, Brunhilde. This is my dearly departed brother’s great grandson Brian. Brian, Nurse Brunhilde.”

“I told you my name was Brenda, Mr. Navatsky,” she said, regarding me like a piece of bad meat. “Is that your dog?”

“He’s a registered comfort hound,” I replied. “Would you like to see his papers?”

“That’s all right.”

“Thank you for taking such good care of my great great uncle.”

“Huh,” she snorted. “He ain’t so great.”

Navatsky waited for her to go before continuing in a conspiratorial whisper. “Listen, shmendrick, you still want to rip this mortuary off for chump change, or do you want to make some real money?”

My dog sat next to him looking at me expectantly. “Do you have a better idea?”

He nodded once to himself. “Wheel me around front. Take the concrete path on the left.”

We passed a tiny woman the color of a wet sheet inching along with the help of a four-legged walker. I smiled and nodded at her. She smiled brightly back. “How do you get away with keeping that horse pistol around?”

“What I get through the mail is my business. Got my own room. A man has the right to protect himself. In Russia, the first thing they did was take away all the guns.”

“Are you dying?”

“That’s right, shmendrick. Poke fun. If I feel myself slipping away, I may just take you and the dog with me.”

We came to the front of the building, a covered porch surfaced in terrazzo with a pre-fab concrete colonnade facing the sloping front lawn, the U-shaped driveway. Across the freshly-laid broad avenue was undeveloped industrial park where Hoss and I tossed Frisbee, and beyond that the stacked glass prism of a Biotech company. Two other inmates sat in wheelchairs in the shade, isolated by space, time, and their refusal to use their hearing aids.

He pointed over the rail. “See that glass building? Frederhoff Biotech. Big drug magilla. Fetal tissue research. Once a month they prepare some steroid out of fetal tissue, some kinda youth drug for this Hollywood big shot, ship it outta there via Wendleton Truck. Does the name Wendleton ring a bell?”

“Sure. Wendleton, Brink’s, Loomis, Pinkerton, they’re all in the armored car business.”

“What else?”

“Enlighten me, o wizened sage.”

“That’s right. Make fun. Wendleton’s also a strikebreaker. Nineteen twenty-seven, Boonville, Colorado, Wendleton guards fired into a group of miners protesting harsh conditions, killing eleven.”

“Were you there?”

The old man was silent. Hoss assiduously licked his hand. Seventy-five years was a long time to nurse a grudge. On the other hand, Wendleton was where the money was. It made sense. “So what’s the plan? Rip off the armored car? How much cash they carrying?”

“You don’t get it, shmendrick. We’re not after the cash, we’re after the drug. Mr. Hollywood Big Shot will pay a million bucks to get it back.”

I thought for sure the guy was missing his medication. A million bucks. Even Hoss drew back, a dubious expression on his face. Then I had another thought. “Are you sure you don’t just want this drug for yourself? And if this guy’s got some kind of youth drug, how come we haven’t heard about it?”

The old man rotated his wheels to face me, so I could see the complete and utter contempt dripping from his face. “Because, shmendrick, it doesn’t work! It’s the bunk! They’re taking him for a Siberian sleigh ride. But when you’re old and feeble, and you got a lot of money, vhat the hell.” He held his hand out palm up and Hoss resumed licking.

“We split down the middle. Until you showed up, the answer to an old man’s prayers, I had to sit here every day looking at that fucking mausoleum. You know what Frederhoff did in the war?”

“What war?”

The old man made a chopping motion. “Ehhh! You ever hear of I.G. Farben? Ahhh! What do they teach in school anyway? World War II, shmendrick! Never mind. Why do I even waste my time. Go on. Go away. And take this stinking laidik gaier with you.”

I’d seen the Wendleton trucks pulling up to the glass building. “Wait a minute, Navatsky. Who’s this Hollywood Big Shot who’d pay a million bucks?”

“Ahhhh!”

“Come on, Navatsky. I’m sorry if my history’s a little weak, what can I say? I’m the product of public education. Hoss. Lick Mr. Navatsky’s hand.”

The old guy gave me the once over. We both knew he was just going through the motions. He had to let me into his scheme. What else was he going to do? Die with his dream unrealized? I was offering him a priceless opportunity, and we both knew it. He glanced around, to make sure we weren’t being overheard by any of the other geriatrics evenly spaced along the veranda. He motioned me close. When I knelt down next to him, he whispered the name of a famous diva in my ear.

I was surprised. In the first place, I hadn’t thought of her as that old. But in retrospect, I guess she was, or maybe it was just the star’s ego which drove her to extreme measures to preserve her dwindling youth. However, no question she had the bucks, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.

“What’s the plan, Mr. Navatsky?”

“Okay! They ship the drug in a cheap Styrofoam ice cooler, the kind you find at Hardware Hank’s. The plan is this. We get an identical cooler. I’ll front you the money if you’re too cheap to buy it yourself. You’re waiting by the loading dock. Wendleton’s is still a cheap outfit. They only send the driver. While he’s about to load the cooler, I will distract him, you’ll switch the cooler, and nobody will notice a thing until the diva pops the lid.”

“In broad daylight?”

“Of course in broad daylight! What are you, meshugga? It’s a loading dock out back! Nobody’ll see a thing. They don’t look out the windows. They’re all downloading dirty pictures from their company computers.”

“You’ve seen this loading dock?”

“I seen it the day I borrowed Abernathy’s motorized wheelchair, so sue me. I thought he’d have a stroke. He did have a stroke. But don’t take my word for it. Go. Go on. Check it out for yourself. Then get back to me. Tomorrow. I gotta take a nap now.”

Hoss and I checked it out, and it was as the old man said. The sunken loading dock next to a small parking lot was shielded on three sides by blank concrete walls and on the fourth by the woods. This end of the biotech company was all business, hardly any windows. There were a couple dozen vehicles parked parallel to each other in two rows. I could easily hide between two of them, dash out and make the switch, if Navatsky could distract the guard.

That was a big if. He talked a good game, but he looked like he was glued to that chair. What could he do that would cause the guard to set down his precious cargo?

We returned the next day, only this time we parked in front and I took the walk around the building. Navatsky was out back in the arbor, reading Gogol in Russian. Hoss made a beeline, dragging me like a sea anchor, snarked something out of the old man’s hand, stood there chewing while the old man petted.

“What did you give him?”

“Meat loaf. Take my advice. Never order the donor kabob in a hospital cafeteria. So, John Dillinger. Did you case the joint?”

“Okay, maybe we could make the switch. But then what? Won’t they naturally suspect you? How far are they going to have to look for a suspect? The guard’s gonna remember, you can only have come from this place.”

“Trust me, boychik. They’ll never think to look here. I’ll need to borrow your dog.”

“Hoss?”

“No, your other dog. Of course Hoss!”

“It’s amazing how he likes you.” Hoss grinned while the old man stroked his head.

“Where are we going to hide the stuff? How will you contact the diva?”

“Here’s the deal, boychik. You park your car in back with the employees. What kind of car we talking?”

“Eighty-six Camaro, four on the floor.”

“Ach, what do I know from cars? Once you make the switch, you circle back here through the woods. You can park right out by the edge there, back it in, load the Styrofoam cooler into your trunk, nobody’ll see a thing. They’ll all be out front ogling the action. Give me your huddled masses staring at a train wreck. You pick me up back here, and we make our getaway through the fire trail, runs through the woods to PD. We skedaddle, we high-tail it.”

“What’s to prevent the lab from whipping up another batch?”

The geezer leaned back, the better to take in my towering ignorance. The hood fell off, revealing his tiny, pink head, like a polyp with a wire in its ear. “Sonny, they can only produce fifty cc’s of the treatment every thirty days! They use an enzyme extracted from moon dust! Sonny, this broad is paying twelve mil a pop for this shit! Trust me, they’ll pay.”

“How you going to ask for the ransom? They’ll be able to trace a call.”
The wizened homunculus held up one quivering finger, like a twisted flagpole. “Aha! That, my friend, is where the genius of the switch takes place. I will prepare a ransom note for the switched cooler! Instead of the elixir of youth, the old bag will find an untraceable note demanding one million cool ones.”

“How you going to make this untraceable? They got DNA tracking, they got infra-red whooziwhatsis up the yib-yob. You ever watch CSI?”

Navatny hawked up a goober from deep within and let fly toward the hedge. A mortar shot. “Sonny, I was fleecing Gypsies when you were suckin’ hind tit. I print the note out on a computer. Twelve point, Times New Roman. I give them a mobile phone number.”

“What mobile phone?”

He raised both gnarly, arthritic hands as if to conduct the Leipzig Philharmonic. “Vhat? Vhat, vhat, vhat? Where is the trust, Albright! Did I not tell you I’ve been thinking about this for two years?”

“You did not.”

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Now take me to Wal-Mart. We’ve got to get the cooler and a few other things.”

Navatny slid into the bucket seat like a pile of sticks and Hoss filled the rear. When we got to Wal-Mart, he pulled a blue handicapped parking tag out of his sweatshirt and hung it on my rearview. “Park next to the door, if you can find a place.”

“Where’d you get this?”

“Huh,” he snorted. “You think I was born yesterday? I borrowed it from Mildred Guilfoyle’s Buick. She only drives Fridays, to go to bingo.”

As soon as we were inside the door he snagged an electric-powered go-cart with a basket attachment.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Just be at the check-out counter with your wallet open, sonny boy,” he said, and zipped away without a backward glance. I wandered the aisles trying to make eye contact with pert young things of which there were few. Wal-Mart was like Alice’s Restaurant. What you couldn’t get, you didn’t need. Finally I saw the geezer moving through the checkout lane like a bulldozer with a full load. He had so much junk piled up in the wire basket he couldn’t see where he was going. Styrofoam cooler, thermos bottle, a CD boom box, two bottles of prune juice, some greetings cards, a road atlas, a pair of fuzzy pink bedroom slippers.

“What is all this stuff?” I asked as the clerk rang it up.

“I don’t get out to the store so often, so sue me! I’m saving my receipts and will settle up after the program, izzat all right with you, boychik?”

“That’ll be two hundred and seventy dollars and eighty-five cents, sir,” the clerk chirped. Sighing, I reached for J. Osborne O’Poole’s credit card. We could barely get all that junk and Hoss in the back seat and trunk. When we got back to Oakwood, I had to use a shopping cart to ferry the old man’s junk back to his room. Brenda cast a chary eye.

“Redecorating, are we, Mr. Navatsky?”

“Don’t you worry about it, Brunhilde. Comes time for der Walkyrie, you vill be notified.”

Brenda slowly shook her head, grunting in a negative way. “Huh. Huh, huh, huh. There’s no fool like an old fool.”

Navatsky held his hand up, fingers crossed. “The Negro and the Jew, like this.”

Hoss went down the hall while I got the old guy settled, showed up a minute later with a pork chop in his jaws, and someone shouting.

“What next, o wizened sage?” I asked.

“Next, take a powder. Go on, get outta here. Be here Thursday the nineteenth by ten a.m. sharp, I’ll give you the cooler. You’ll make your way through the woods and wait for the Wendleton truck. I’ll supply the distraction. Don’t you worry about it, Albright. A doozy. Little Eva could dance naked on the truck and pipples won’t notice. Not even your dog, this bloodhound, this paradigm of caninehood would notice!”

Comes the big day. I’m at the facility by nine-thirty, talking to my dear old uncle. Hoss is making the rounds, a lick here, a slurp there, cleaning breakfast off chins and hands. Dear uncle proudly shows me the Styrofoam six-pack, duct-taped shut and sealed with a large, official looking pale green document in a zip-loc bag. The word Frederhoff pokes up.

Navatny wore an XXXL Oakland Raiders sweatshirt. Just like cars. The smaller the person, the larger the garment. The tip of his nose emerged into sunlight like Jimmy the Groundhog. “Pick it up,” he growled.

It was surprisingly heavy. “What’s in here?”

“Never you mind, boychik. A message. And if you’re thinking it weighs too much and the guard will notice, wrong-o! That thing’s packed with ice to keep the enzyme cool. Weight, dimensions, details, identical! Hours I spent watching and waiting with my Zeiss binoculars, which I took off a furshtunker stormtrooper I killed on the Eastern Front, winter, ’43, along with a nice Walther.”

Wendleton’s was due at ten-thirty. “Don’t worry about the mutt. I’ll take care of the mutt. And when you get back, we’ll celebrate with a bottle of Jagermeister.” We were out by the edge of the patio near the tree line and the field. No one noticed as I hefted the white Styrofoam cooler and disappeared into the brush. No one noticed as I thrashed through the woods in a semi-circle, heading for the back parking lot of the biotech building.

They weren’t real woods. They were the type of light growth sprinkled with trash that sprouts on the edge of development. Birch, ash, alder, cottonwood, the occasional oak sprouting a severed limb, marked for death or maybe not, if the developer was Green. My foot crunched a Ding Dong wrapper. It was slow going in the heat, in the sun, hefting the cooler awkwardly before me. A tendril of sweat cascaded down my forehead. I could see the biotech building ahead through the trees, a smooth expanse of new red brick. The black-topped rear parking lot was mostly empty, save for a company van and an old Thunderbird parked near the woods. I stopped at the edge of the lot behind the van, about twenty feet from the loading dock, set the cooler down, and waited, panting from exertion and excitement.

I was spending my cut in my head. A cool half mil. New car for starters. Maybe one of those Vipers. No. Something with room for a broad and Hoss. Maybe a big SUV. The wind whistled in the trees. I heard a truck approaching. A second later, the gray Wendleton’s armored van, a safe on wheels with a windshield visor, rolled slowly down the incline toward the back lot. I crouched, heart thudding. Navatny had told me to wait for the distraction. It would be obvious. I waited.

The Wendleton’s truck backed into the loading dock. The driver’s door opened. A stocky fellow in a gray uniform and cap got out, walked toward the loading dock, up the three iron steps to the rear door. Buzzer. A moment later the door opened and a man appeared with a clipboard and a white Styrofoam cooler on a hand truck. The guard signed the clipboard, picked up the cooler. The biotech guy went back inside, the steel door shut, kaboom, finito.

A Ford Focus with an Imperial Pizza sign strapped to the roof zipped down the drive followed by a mini-van that said Strip-O-Gram. They pulled up in front of the Wendleton’s truck. Guy got out of the Focus carrying one of those big red vinyl insulated pizza boxes, even though it’s got to be eighty five degrees out. Three poopsies popped out of the mini-van in rain coats with a boom box. One of them set the boom box on the truck’s roof and turned it on. Gloria Gaynor! Boogie Wonderland! The guard came down the three iron steps, leaving the Styrofoam box on the loading dock. The kid with the pizza started wrangling, the three poopsies started stripping.

This was it! This was the diversion! I hoisted my white Styrofoam box and hotfooted stealthily toward the loading dock. No need. I glanced left and those girls were putting on quite a show—the pizza guy had forgotten his pizza, the guard had forgotten his name. I was just about to make the switch when the cooler began to vibrate in my hands. This is new, I thought. It started to hum. It got hot in my hands and began to blister. I set it down and grabbed the real deal. Soon as I was off the loading dock, the replacement box exploded. Fwoosh. Roman candles, screaming meemies, a real old-fashioned Fourth of July. Even the strippers were staring at the Amazing Technicolor Beer Cooler. It started blasting the “1812 Overture,” the Boston Pops version!

The old coot had rigged some kind of bomb in the replacement box! How are they going to get the phone number, I wondered. I beat it through the woods carrying the real deal, trying to figure what the hell happened. Some freak chain-reaction of mundane chemicals? I got the wrong box?

The old bastard set me up?

I got far enough into the woods no one was following, and then I got suspicious. Dug out my knife and opened it up. Inside was a thermos packed in dry ice inside plastic. I shook the thermos. It was solid. I grabbed the thermos and headed back toward Oakhaven dogged by gnawing anxiety.

You know the rest. Every denizen of the nursing home was lined up on the veranda to watch the show, even some geezer in a roll-out bed with an IV drip. Navatny was splitsville, along with Hoss, my Camaro, and enough OxyContin and Delaudid to live like an Arab potentate in Mexico.

The old bastard, I should have expected that. Never shnorr a shnorrer. But Hoss?