Know When You’re Licked

A starring vehicle for Jack Wing, a character who pops up in some of my other stories.

Know When You’re Licked

Don wanted to throttle me, I could tell.

Unfortunately, his arms weren’t long enough to reach across the desk, so he could only glare, folds of neck skin that poked out from his too-tight collar turning crimson.

Today’s battle concerned a contract for Mama Garcia’s restaurant to advertise a new promotion on the KAXE Wing and a Prayer Morning show, starring yours truly.

“Mama Garcia’s wants you to read these spots, Jack.”

In Iowa, my name was Jack Wing.

I shook my head. “You know I don’t endorse alcohol or drink specials.”

“I don’t get it, Jack. When did you become such a prude? It’s not like I haven’t seen you knock back a few yourself.”

“That’s not the point. I’m not against drinking.” Around here, drinking is a survival mechanism. “But I’m not going to promote it on a show that reaches 50,000 kids each week.”

“You are being paid to do a morning show, not safeguard the morals of the community. And your job description includes the reading of commercials. It’s not an unusual request. In fact, DJs do it all the time. You know, come to think of it, every ad on the station is read by a DJ.”

“Then you shouldn’t have any problem finding someone else to record your Mama Garcia’s spots.” 

“Well, Jack, that’s the problem. They want you. And they’re going to have you.”

“Don, look at this copy. Mama Garcia’s entire knowledge of Hispanic culture must come from Speedy Gonzalez cartoons. Horas Buenos? If they’re trying to say Happy Hour, they need to go back to ninth grade Spanish.”

They can do the spot in Bosnian for all I care. This is a six-figure order for the station.”

“There are plenty of clients out there, Don.”

You will do these commercials, Wing. This is not over.”

It was for me. I turned and left the office.

Iowa is not an easy place to grow habanero peppers in the winter, especially if you live in a condo. So when I took up horticulture, I had to come up with a solution to the climate problem.

The rear of my unit was shielded from street view, so no one really noticed when I enclosed the deck.  Our restrictive covenant didn’t specifically forbid me to transform living space to farmland, but I bribed the neighbors with out-of-season produce just to be safe.

The greenhouse wasn’t large, but every inch contained either growing stuff  or stuff that helped stuff grow. Sunlight, along with a propane heater gurgling merrily in one corner, kept the temperature at a comfortable 75 even though it was near zero outside.

The argument with Don had taken more out of me than I thought. I was halfway through transplanting my second flat of seedlings before I calmed down. But I wasn’t having much luck puzzling out the real reason behind the morning’s scene.

Don Felquist came on board at KAXE (Real Rock and Roll, AXE 106.9!) after  the radio consolidation frenzy brought on by FCC deregulation in the late nineties.

At first, only stations in big cities were bought up by the new media giants. It took several more years, but eventually some corporate bean counter noticed the bluffs crowning our little river town were home to tall antennas that reached tens of thousands of listeners in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

And then it was just a matter of time.

Our owner held out as long as he could, but finally the call of retirement, not to mention the money they dangled in front of him was just too much, and he sold the station.

Upon his arrival, Don promptly cut a third of the staff. With the bloodletting fresh on everyone’s minds, Don was pretty successful in making everyone knuckle under.

With one long-haired exception. The “Wing and a Prayer” Morning Battalion was owned by me, not the corporation, with a 5-year guaranteed contract. Not unusual in sports or big-time entertainment, but almost unheard of in radio, a parting gift from the former owner.

The Full Modulation, Inc. legal department probably could have broken the deal, but I caused little trouble, this morning’s scene notwithstanding, and the company certainly liked the four million dollars my show billed each year.

But Don couldn’t stand having someone on the staff he couldn’t bully. Since termination wasn’t an option, he’d tried everything else, even going so far as to try and get me hired in a larger market.

So, why the scene over Mama Garcia’s?

I was still mulling over this new tactic when the doorbell rang. I wanted to ignore it, but finally went inside and opened the door. I immediately wished I’d stuck with my first impulse.

Dickie Dickson squinted up at me.

“Hey, Jack.” He slid bonelessly through the doorway.

By the time I shut the door, his lug-soled boots were already smudging the glass top of my coffee table. He’d pulled his phone from a pocket and was frowning at the screen. The large white box he’d brought in with him rested next his shoes.

Isis had gone on alert. She watched from atop the back of the recliner, tail swishing in Siamese agitation.

Dickie’s clothes, like the rest of him, were wrinkled and stained. Ironic, because Dickie was the sole heir to Dickson Dry Cleaners (“Don’t Dry Clean, Dickson-ize!”), the largest in the Tri-States.

About six months previously, Dickie was using his contacts in the local convenience store industry to acquire pseudo ephedrine, which he intended to sell to a particularly nasty bunch of meth cookers.  But, due to some quiet work on my part, he ended up accidentally helping the DEA break up the gang instead. Hailed as a hero, the resulting publicity had forced him to go legit.

Dickie blamed me for the change in his fortunes, and had been making himself even more of a nuisance than usual.

To his credit, the little guy had  been staying relatively straight. His trust fund kept him from really having to work, but he was obsessed with the idea of making the next Big Score.

His latest project had been managing a paintball course. All had gone well, until he had to ban a talented but bloodthirsty high school team. In retaliation, the group put their paramilitary skills to use in making his life a living hell.

After weeks of living under virtual house arrest, he did what a lot of war criminals do. Skipped to South America.

“So, does the militia know you’re Stateside?”

Dickie stared glumly at his phone. He was scrawny, with black hair and a square head too big for the rest of his body. If he’d spent any time on the beaches of Rio, you couldn’t tell from the pasty skin poking out from the sleeves of his shirt. He chewed gum.

“They’ve got surveillance like the NSA. I wasn’t back two hours before the doorbell started ringing. I was lucky to make it over here without being seen.”

I nudged his feet off my coffee table, not gently. “Why are you here?”

“Burritos, man.”

“What?”

“Burritos. The Flying Burrito Brothers. All the time I’m in Rio I’m sitting in this little bar right off Ipanema Beach. That’s a real place, did you know that?  Anyway, the band’s playing a salsafied version of “Oops, I Did It Again.” Can you imagine?  But it’s OK, because in my head I’m hearing Gram Parsons.”

“Dickie, how high are you?”

“No, I’m totally straight. I’ve got a big business deal coming down this week.  Gotta stay sharp. All I was wondering was, could I borrow one of your Burrito LPs?”

I considered. Normally, I don’t lend out my vinyl, which is irreplaceable. But unlike his clothes, Dickie was meticulous about his stereo. His Ozayden CQ-5800 with the low-mass tone arm was just about the finest record player made.

Besides, it would get him out of my house.

“OK.  Just a second.”

I headed for the spare bedroom I used for a library.

When I returned a moment later, Burrito Deluxe in hand, I found Dickie in the kitchen, staring thoughtfully through the French doors that opened into the greenhouse.  He was holding the box he’d carried in. He heard me coming and turned around quickly.

“What’s in the box?”

“In here?  Nothing.”

He opened the box and turned it upside down. It was empty, but the cardboard inside was discolored with what looked like grease stains from a pizza. It’s a measure of my opinion of Dickie that I didn’t consider it unusual for him to tote an empty box around our complex. He put the lid back on and glanced nervously at Isis.

“I don’t like the way that cat stares at me, man. It’s like she’s getting ready to take a chunk out of my neck.”

“Just don’t touch her ears. She hates that.”

I handed him the album.

“Oh, yeah. Thanks.”

He looked surprised, like he’d forgotten asking me about it. Of course, Dickie didn’t have much short term memory left.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you later.”

He hadn’t taken two steps off my porch when a shriek split the night.

“Die, rat bastard!”

A figure sprang out of the evergreens that hugged the building. It wore a mottled zipsuit of white, green and brown, face obscured by night-vision goggles and a helmet. A huge pistol filled both hands in the standard cop-show grip. Two sounds came in rapid succession. First a pffpht, then a loud SPLAT.

The figure sketched us a quick salute, then made the windup motion over his head.

“Saddle up!”

A half dozen others, dressed similarly, sprang from the snow. They hooted and howled as they ran lightly across the parking lot and melted into the night.

Dickie examined the yellow stain on the crotch of his pants.

“I really wish semester break would get over.”

“Jack, can you come into my office as soon as you get off the air?” The words were polite enough, but it wasn’t a request.

“Sure thing, Don. Soon as I get things put away.” 

I puttered around, filing CDs for a few minutes after my shift ended, until I figured if I stalled any longer Don would come looking for me.

I passed Robin, at her desk outside Don’s office.

“How is he?”

“The usual.” She looked tired already. I walked past her and knocked on the half-open door.

Don was on the phone. “Ten a.m. Monday, then. We’ll have everything ready.”

He saw me and waved a hand toward a seat.

“The Full Modulation Board of Directors,” he explained as he hung up the phone, “will hold their quarterly meeting here next week as a part of the company’s initiative to spend time in each city where we own stations. And also to find out why we are three quarters of a million dollars behind projections.”

I knew why. We just couldn’t keep capable sales people who were also willing to put up with Don’s abuse.

I was ready for him to abuse me, but apparently he needed to warm up on someone else first. He picked up the liquid sweetener bottle that sat next to his coffee mug. It was empty.

“Goddammit, Robin!”  He didn’t bother with the intercom. “Where’s my Sweet ‘n’ Low?”

Robin rushed in with a fresh bottle. He laid a long squirt into his coffee. Until I met Don, I didn’t even realize they still sold the awful stuff in liquid form. 

He took a long swig of his doctored coffee and leaned back in his chair.

“Jack, I know you don’t like me much, but the company didn’t hire me to be your friend. Change is needed around here, and I’m the change agent. With the board meeting next week, and the station so far under budget, I’ve had to make some hard choices.”

He moved some spreadsheets to the center of his pile.

“You, of course, are safe from any cutbacks. Your ratings are stellar. Your male numbers are impressive, not unexpected with our rock and roll format. But, our cume among young people is outstanding, and look at these women! Number One ages 25-54, Number Two 18-49. The girls love you, Jack! Too bad your own inclinations aren’t in that direction.”

I didn’t reply.

“So, I have a problem. To make budget, I can assure the board we can make the numbers by year’s end. I can tell them this because the star of KAXE’s highly-rated morning show has agreed to do a series of live testimonials for a regional restaurant chain that will generate at least six figures for the station.

“Or, I can present this list of staff cuts.”

During this performance, he’d handed me a sheet of paper.

I thought of Robin, at the desk outside this office. She and her two beautiful daughters lived just to the north in Winneshiek, scraping by on her pitiful salary and the occasional check from her ex.  

Her name graced the top of the list.

Don’s eyes met mine.

“So which will it be?”

I stared back at him until he averted his glance.

“All right, Don. You’ve made your point.”

“So I can call the agency and tell them you’re on board?”

I nodded.

He smiled brightly. “See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

I stood up to leave.

“Oh, before you go. One more thing.” He pushed a sheet of paper across the desk.

“What’s this?”

“Just an opinion from Legal  After your last run-in with the police, I felt it was in the company’s best interest to get a ruling on whether your involvement with criminal activity had the potential to reflect poorly on KAXE.”

“Don, we both know I was asked by the police to help with the Grisman thing.”

“Be that as it may, Full Modulation’s position is that employee involvement in police matters is not in the company’s best interest. You’ve made something of a habit of sticking your nose into criminal investigations for years. But it stops now. Any such conduct in the future will be grounds for immediate cancellation of your contract.”

“You can’t do that.”

Don bared his teeth in a soulless smile.

“Try me.”

I walked out as the gleeful glint in Don’s eyes burned into my retreating back.

I was off the next day, and spent the morning in the greenhouse. My only company was a big toad that peered warily out from inside an overturned bucket. He’d apparently snuck in when I’d aired out the room in the fall.

“You’re welcome to all the grubs and insects you can find, Shep.”

He looked like a Shep. 

I was interrupted by pounding on the door again.

“What now, Dickie?” I asked as I opened the door.

But it wasn’t Dickie. Two men crowded onto my small porch. One was small and slender with a crest of orange hair crowning his otherwise bald head. The other was big and beefy, with straight blond hair longer than mine. Several inches of belly protruded from his unbuttoned denim jacket.

“Have you seen the Vision?” inquired Shorty.

“What?” 

“We are members of the Church of the One Vision. We would like to tell you how you can find the Vision for yourself.”

“Thanks,” I started to close the door. “But my vision is just fine.”

“Please,” he persisted, “Can’t you spare us just a few minutes?”

“Sorry, no.” I tried to finish closing the door, but there was now a foot in it, attached to the tall one.

“We really would like to talk to you,” his voice was a low rumble.

I didn’t find the scowl that went with it real convincing, but the handgun leveled at my chest spoke very clearly.

I backed into the living room, trying to pretend that being held up by gun-toting Seventh Day Adventists was not unusual at all.

We sat. Shorty on the couch, Tall Guy in the recliner across from me. I clapped my hands briskly. “Well, let’s get on with the Bible lesson, then.”

“We aren’t actually here to spread the gospel,” Shorty began.

“Really.”

“We are looking for your friend Dickie Dickson.”

“What makes you think I know where he is?”

Tall Guy spoke. “He lives in this complex and he visited you yesterday.”

Someone else was surveilling Dickie? How did they keep from bumping into one another?

“What do you want with him?”

The two looked at each other  Shorty seemed to reach a decision. “As I said, we are members of the Church of the One Vision. My name is Meyer. This is Mr. Johnson.  We have a small congregation just outside of Bellevue. We have had to move several times because the secular authorities frown on our style of worship.”

“What do you do, sacrifice virgins?”

“Of course not,” he snorted. “Our rituals are totally harmless, but many of us need external means to enter the proper state at which we can perceive God’s Message in the One Vision.”

“I see. This Vision is drug-induced.”

“Consciousness enhanced. It’s difficult to find natural agents, and the substances you get on the street are expensive and addictive.”

“So, peyote is hard to come by, and it’s hard to justify using the collection plate to buy crank. I still don’t understand what Dickie has to do with this. What, was he growing pot for you at the paintball course?”

Meyer shook his head. “What Mr. Dickson was doing is not important. That he reneged on our bargain is.”

Now that I’d had time to study him, I noticed Meyer’s gaze seemed a little out of focus. He also swayed while he talked.

“Some members of our group,” Meyer nodded toward his companion, “have gotten tired of waiting for Mr. Dickson to abide by the terms of our deal.”

I shrugged.

“Well, not to incur the wrath of the Church Militant, But I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Dickson called yesterday and told Reverend Meyer he got a better deal,” Johnson growled. “This was the only place he went all day.”

“Look, I told you I don’t know anything about it.”

“I’ve had enough of this shit,” Johnson grumbled. “I think he does know, and I know how to find out.”

He started to rise.

Before deciding that my sexuality made me unfit to remain in his employ, my Uncle Sam spent four years teaching me the dirtiest and most effective close-in fighting techniques known. All I needed was a diversion.

And on cue, one glided silently into the room.

Isis surveyed the visitors and crouched near Meyer’s chair.

“What a beautiful animal.”

Meyer reached down to scratch her head, fingertips grazing her right ear.

We struck like a trained insertion team.

Isis sank her incisors into Meyer’s wrist. He screamed and whipped his arm around, pulling ten pounds of snarling cat with him.

I hurled myself at Johnson. My momentum carried us both over the back of his chair.  I pulled out of the roll first, snaking a hand inside his jacket. As we hit the ground, I yanked out the gun and climbed quickly to my feet. Johnson lay on his back, trying to gasp some air into his deflated lungs.

“Get it off me!” Meyer screeched.

“Isis!” I called, covering Johnson with the pistol. “Dinnertime.”

Isis unclenched her jaws, dropped to the floor and rambled into the kitchen, totally oblivious to the commotion she’d begun.

Meyer rubbed his hand on his pants, leaving a pink smear on his gabardine.

“You’ll live,” I told him.  “Isis has all her shots.”

I waved them toward the door with Johnson’s gun. “I don’t know what Dickie was supposed to get for you and I certainly don’t have it. Now get the hell out of my house.”

I ejected the cartridge from the weapon, and tossed it at Johnson.

“Your rod. I’m sure it comforts you.”

He snatched it from the air as the door swung shut.

I’d lied to them, of course. Upon reflection, Dickie’s sudden obsession with the Burrito Brothers must have been a ruse. I was now sure he’d hid whatever they were after in my house.

I checked the kitchen first. Nothing in the cupboards or under the breakfast bar.

That left the greenhouse. Fifteen minutes later, the only thing I’d accomplished was waking Shep up from his midmorning siesta.

It looked like I’d have to beat the answer out of Dickie in person.

I found him hanging out at the mall, ogling girls half his age. I grabbed his soiled collar and pushed him up against a convenient wall.

“Two friends of yours visited me today,” I said. “Clergy, but they weren’t in the habit of turning the other cheek.”

“Look, Jack . . . “

“No, let me see if I can put this together. About the time you decided to escape the acne battalion, you connected up with the Church of the One Vision. They needed a source for hallucinogens. You figured out a way to get what they needed. For some reason, though, when you got back, you decided to rewrite the deal. How am I doing so far?”

He shrugged.

“But then you found out not all of the congregation were pushovers like Meyer, and you decided to use my house as a safety deposit box. So now I want to know.  Where is it and how can I get rid of it?”

A glint of hope came into Dickie’s eyes.

“You mean they didn’t get it?”

“They didn’t stick around long enough. Now, where the hell is it?”

Dickie gave me a smug grin. “I guess you didn’t figure everything out, did you?  It’s in your greenhouse.”

“I looked there.”

“Then you must not have been looking carefully enough.”

“Dickie, I’m not in the mood. I’ve been pushed around and threatened with a gun today. If not for my homicidal cat, I’d still be a hostage to this little drug deal. Give.”

“It’s simple, really. The church needed stuff to get high. I told them I could provide it. Have you ever heard of Bufo Alvarius?”  

“What?”

Bufo Alvarius. Native to Central and South America. Secretes a venom from sacs on its back. Poison to wild pigs and anacondas, but gets humans higher than hell. Most people dry it and smoke it, but if you want to bad enough you can lick the stuff right off the toad’s back.”

“Wait a second. A toad?”

Apparently Shep didn’t belong to the local fauna after all.

“Yeah. Tribes in the rain forest have been breeding these things for centuries.  They use them in religious rituals, which is what gave me the idea. It’s perfect. I sell a mating pair to the church. They can lick ’em, smoke ’em, even squeegee off the venom and mix it with the sacramental wine. Cops show up, you just pop the little guys into the garden. No illegal weeds, no chem labs, no problem.”

I stared at Dickie, getting a vision of my own, one of poor Shep passed from one tongue to another.

It seemed like a pretty miserable existence.

“Anyway,” he continued, “I had to pay some Indians a fortune to steal two, then getting through Customs was trickier and way more expensive than what I thought. I told Meyer my expenses were more than I expected, but as a show of good faith, I gave him one of the toads. I figured the other one would be safe at your place.”

“And you thought Meyer would just pay?”

“Sure.”

“Well, apparently some members of the congregation would rather break your head.”

“Shit, Jack. I never thought they’d resort to violence. They’re a church, for Christ’s sake.”

“Dickie, cut your losses. Give Shep, er . . .  the toad to Meyer. You don’t do this for the money. You don’t need the money. Get out of it before somebody gets hurt.”

Dickie squirmed in his seat. “Well, it’s not quite that simple.” 

“What do you mean?”

“I told them the price increase was my partner’s idea.”

“Your partner.”  

I knew I wouldn’t like what came next.

“You.”

“Dammit, Dickie. How dare you get me involved in this?”

“I was desperate. I figured while they were busy coming after you, I could decide what to do next. Of all the people I know, you’re the one who can take the best care of himself. And I was right, wasn’t I?”

“Not the point. But now that I bought you all this time, what have you accomplished in terms of a plan?”

He looked down, refusing to meet my gaze.

“Great.”

It occurred to me that one possible outcome to this misadventure involved me answering uncomfortable questions at the police station. Which would be just what Don the change agent needed to force me out.

I looked out the window. In the parking lot sunlight spiked off something behind a mud-streaked Jeep Wrangler.

I turned back to Dickie. “OK, you find Meyer and buy me some time. I’ll bring the toad over in a couple of hours.”

“A couple of hours?” he squeaked. “How am I supposed to do that?”

I patted his cheek. “You’ll think of something. Look how well you’ve done up till now.”

My preparations took ninety minutes. To add a touch of authenticity, I pulled on a pair of my old fatigues, then went to get Shep.

The greenhouse door was ajar, but it didn’t occur to me to be concerned until I discovered Shep wasn’t in the bucket he’d appropriated for sleeping quarters.

Just then, Isis glided wobbly into the room. Even if I hadn’t seen what she carried in her mouth, it was evident something was horribly wrong with her.

She was purring.

The cat proudly dropped a warty carcass at my feet. Shep would never feel the gentle rasp of a tongue in search of enlightenment again.

For a few minutes, I feared the worst. But fortunately, Isis’s fangs only grazed the venom sacs on the toad’s back. After careful examination, I decided she was fine, just stoned. I left her to sleep it off.

The Church of the One Vision was housed in a former Kawasaki dealership on the River Road. Folding chairs and a podium almost hid a variety of oily stains on the carpet of the former showroom. 

My plan had been contingent on delivering a healthy and virile Bufo Alvarius. I was going to have to improvise. 

Dickie sat in one of the chairs under Johnson’s watchful eyes. Meyer stood by the pulpit. He was placing a toad similar to the one I carried, only more animate, into a Plexiglas globe that rested on a white stand. He wiped his mouth and turned to me with a satisfied smile.

I walked up an aisle, taking a stance between Dickie and Johnson. “Am I too late for the Benediction?”

“Shut up and give me the damn thing,” said Johnson.  

“I’ll just put it with the other one.”

I walked over to the terrarium. Shielding the box with my body, I slid Shep’s corpse into the soil.

“What the hell is this?” I bellowed. “You told me the other toad was fine!”

“What do you mean?” asked Johnson.

“Look.”

I moved aside and swept my hands toward the toads in a theatrical wave. Mrs. Shep humped over to her mate and began to nibble on a leg.

“What have you done?”  screamed Meyer.

“Me?”  I pointed to the live toad, “I kept this animal in a controlled climate, a perfect approximation of its native habitat. You couldn’t even keep yours alive for a day.”

Meyer rushed over and picked Shep up, cradling the dead toad in his arms. He rocked slowly back and forth, keening and muttering softly. I caught the words “polka” and “Dobermans.”

Obviously the Reverend wasn’t going to cause me much trouble, but Johnson still had the gun and time was running out.

I turned to Dickie. “I agreed to cover for you because you told me we’d be able to put the money back before the Colonel noticed. Well, it’s too late now.”

Dickie opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, looking a little toad-like himself. Luckily, Johnson interrupted before Dickie could blow the whole thing.

“What are you talking about? You told us your family owned dry cleaners.”

“A front,” I said. “Members of the Tree of Liberty Party are sworn to work in secret until we rise up and replace the illegal U.S. Government.”

I was on a roll now. Even Meyer attempted to focus on what he was hearing.

“Corporal Dickson here used Party funds to finance his little escapade, hoping to show our superiors a quick profit, but things didn’t work out.”

I turned toward Dickie now. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t keep the Colonel from authorizing a redemption squad to come for you. I thought if we could get the money back, he might rescind your death order.”

 “Death order?” squeaked Dickie.

“But now it’s too late. They’re right behind me. If we’re smart, we’ll all leave right now. Redemption squads don’t stop to separate out the noncombatants.”

“Wait just a goddamn minute,” Johnson interrupted, “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull here . . . “

The front display window shattered before he could finish.

Dark-clad figures poured through the opening. Two of them swiveled and sighted on Dickie.

Johnson started to bring his pistol up. I slapped it away.  

“Are you nuts? Get out of here!” I grabbed Meyer by the shoulder and practically threw him at the big man.

“A bratwurst kaleidoscope spins ringworm in my head.”

“Later, Rev, please!”

I pushed them toward a door in the back of the showroom.

Sprltt! Sprltt! Sprltt! With muffled coughs, three rounds hit Dickie square in the chest. He dropped to his knees, screaming.

I was nearly to the back door when I felt the first blast hit me. I went down, hard.  Johnson half-turned, saw me hit the floor, and hustled Meyer out.

“Stop!”  yelled one of the commandos. His voice cracked, but not with excitement.

Three others hopped over me, but stopped short of the door. A minute later, a truck engine started. The three turned around and stepped smartly back to the center of the room, stopping in front of the commando who’d shouted.

“They’re gone,” one reported.

I rolled over onto my back, and accepted a hand up from the soldier nearest me.  In their haste to get out, neither Johnson nor Meyer had noticed not one of the members of the “redemption squad” was older than sixteen.

“Dickie, I believe you know Tyler Delaney and the Grant Wood High School paintball team.”

“Will somebody please tell me what is going on?” Dickie wailed. I counted at least eight different paint hits. He looked like he’d been tie-dyed.

“Well, in exchange for saving your ass, you’ve just offered the Grant Wood Griffins permanent free access to your paintball course.”

“You had no right to do that.”

“You want me to call Johnson and Meyer back? Or will you agree to end hostilities?”

Dickie tried to stare me down for about two seconds, then gave up.

“Yeah, whatever.”

I started pulling open drawers and quickly found what I was looking for. Soon, an impressive pile of marijuana seeds, powder that was probably coke, and even some acid dots covered the counter.

“Well, this looks like most of it.  Tyler, want to make the call?” I pulled a phone from my pocket.

“Won’t they be able to trace the call?”

I shook my head.  “It’s a burner.”

“Wow.  Can you tell me where I can get one of these?”

“No.”

Tyler shrugged and dialed 911. He spoke in an urgent whisper.

“Look, I don’t want to get my anyone into trouble, but I think these people are doing drugs at this church out on the old highway. There’s a bunch of them out there now.  No, I don’t want to give you my name.” He hung up quickly.

“Nicely done,” I said. “Nation County deputies love a good drug bust. With any kind of luck, by the time Meyer comes down and heads back to find out what the hell happened, the DCI should just be showing up.”

While I spoke, Dickie quietly edged across the room.

I beat him to the terrarium and scooped the living toad out.

“I don’t think so, Dickie. Since you made me your partner, I’ll take custody.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do?”

I suddenly felt very tired. “Go home.  Get those pants Dicksonized. And the next time you take up smuggling, make it something safe. Like heroin.”

After my air shift the next morning, I grabbed my laptop case and sauntered into the coffee room.  Don scurried past soon after, an octet of suits in his wake.

Robin swirled in, dumping the contents of the coffee pot into our best Wal-Mart beverage service. She looked around, frowned, then disappeared into the conference room.

She emerged a second later behind Don, his florid face even redder than usual.

“What do you mean you thought I had it?” he hissed. “The most important meeting of my life and you can’t even take the time to locate my sweetener.”

“Here you go, Don.” I produced the missing bottle. “It fell behind the microwave.  Please, let me.”

He squinted warily at me, then held out his cup. I smiled pleasantly as the clear drops fell into his brew. “Say when.”

“Thanks, Wing,” he grumbled, then left to give what would undoubtedly be a memorable presentation.

I put the sweetener back onto the counter, slipping the eyedropper which had actually provided the flavoring for his drink back into my pocket, then stooped to pick up my bag.

It let out a startled croak.

“What was that?”  asked Robin.

I winked and headed for the door.

“A change agent, I think.”

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