The world had changed almost overnight. One minute everything was fine and dandy and the next – thanks to a bat in some far off place nobody had ever heard of – people lost their minds and started buying up all the toilet paper. Joey supposed you could say everyone had gone bat-shit crazy. And that had just been the start; things had gone from bad to worse since. Joey didn’t need the local news, with its constant reports on the dying economy, to tell him that. Like so many others around the world, he found himself out of work and in desperate need of a way to earn a living.
He regarded his cousin across the kitchen table. Brian was a big guy. With his massive, hunched shoulders, shaggy hair and beady little eyes, he looked exactly like one of the brown bears down at the zoo he loved visiting so much. Beneath the imposing exterior, however, lay a mind that was somewhat less than fully developed. Brian wasn’t stupid, exactly, but he was rather slow, to put it politely. Joey liked to joke that his cousin was not overburdened in the brains department.
Brian was busy making his way through a bowl of Cheerios when, noticing his cousin's gaze, he asked, apropos of nothing, “Hey, Joey? Do penguins make good pets?”
“No idea, cuz,” Joey replied disinterestedly. He was used to Brian’s inane questions and seldom paid attention.
“Too bad the zoo’s closed. I sure miss it.” For some unknowable reason, Brian was obsessed with animals. For him, the biggest tragedy amidst the global health crisis currently unfolding was that he couldn’t visit the zoo. “You know how the panda bears just eat and sleep all day?” he asked. “That’s kind of like what everyone’s doing now, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why it’s called a pandemic.”
Joey had to smile at the workings of his cousin’s childlike mind, but his amusement was short-lived. He turned his thoughts back to the nagging question of what they were going to do to survive.
He and Brian were business partners. Joey liked the term ‘home security experts’ but ‘burglars’ was a more accurate description. They broke into empty houses and made off with as many valuables as they could carry. Or had, at least, up until recently. Things had changed. Now everyone was cooped up inside, twitchy as hell, and since they all had guns and enough bleach and paper towels to clean up the scene, no would-be intruders stood a chance. Housebreaking had gone the way of so many other small business operations of late – down the tubes.
They would have to adapt to survive, but that was easier said than done.
Brian, not completely unaware of their present predicament, had also been thinking about the problem. “Joey, I know my ideas are usually no good,” he ventured, “but I’ve got a whatdoyoucallit? A reposal.”
“You mean a proposal?”
“Yeah, one of those. Why don’t we try rob a bank? You know, like in them movies with the bandits and stuff? Hands up mother-stickers, this is a fuck-up!” He mimed twin pistols with his fingers. Pow, pow.
“I know you’re just trying to help, Bri, but it would never work. We’re small-time, remember? We don’t even have guns. And banks have all kinds of security these days.”
“Well, how about if we just asked for the money? If we’re real nice about it, then…” he trailed off. “Actually, you’re right Joey. It wouldn’t work. Bandits always wear masks and gloves, but now everyone’s doing that. The bank people probably wouldn’t even know they were being robbed. It was a stupid idea, I’m sorry.”
“Brain!” Joey cried, leaping to his feet. “You’re a genius! That’s brilliant! Oh man, I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself.” He made for the door, calling over his shoulder, “Come on, Cuz, we’ve gotta go.”
“Where to, Joe?”
“The bank, of course. We’ve got work to do.”
Later that afternoon, Detective Alphonse Stone sat in his office considering the case file on his desk. With all the changes and bizarre developments of late, in the world in general and law enforcement in particular, it was a welcome relief to get back to some good old fashioned police work. The bank robbery he’d been assigned to investigate would be a piece of cake to solve. Two guys had walked into Pine Grove Savings and Loan that morning and waltzed out with $2 million in cash, easy as you like. And, for some reason, they thought they’d get away with it. Much might have changed but, Alphonse mused, Einstein had been right about human stupidity being eternal.
He had lots to work with. The CSU guys were down at the bank already dusting for prints, the footage from the surveillance tapes would be useful, and there were three eyewitnesses waiting to be interviewed. Detective Stone thought he had a good shot at breaking his personal record and wrapping this one up before dinner time. He left his office and made his way to the interrogation room for the first of the interviews.
Mrs. Irene Bloom was one of the customers in the bank at the time of the robbery. She was old, which suited Alphonse perfectly; retirees make the best witnesses. They notice everything and love to talk.
“Okay, Mrs. Bloom, I just have a few – “
“Oh, detective, it was awful! Just awful!” She howled. “I thought we were all going to die.”
“I know it must have been very upsetting, mam. You’re safe now. Tell me, what kind of weapons did the suspects have?”
“Weapons?” Mrs. Bloom seemed puzzled by the question. “They didn’t have any weapons, detective. Nothing at all. They weren’t even wearing masks or gloves! That’s what was so terrifying. In this day and age? Have you ever…”
“I see.” Alphonse was delighted at this development. He’d be able to get a full physical description of the suspects now. “Have you ever seen either of them before?”
“I wouldn’t know, would I? If they’d been wearing masks like they ought to, then maybe. You get awfully good at recognizing people by just their eyes I’ve found. But bare-faced like that? I could’ve walked passed them dozens of times on the street before and I’d never know. That’s how we knew they were professionals. Hiding in plain sight like that? Very smart.”
Very dumb, more like. “Can you describe them for me?”
“Well, one was big and bear-like, but it was the smaller one who was in charge. He had a cunning, rodent-look about him. Put me in mind of a weasel.”
Not very helpful. A bear and a weasel? Might as well head down to the zoo now, Alphonse thought wryly. He needed more. “Okay, and what about race? Were they - “
Irene Bloom let out a little gasp of surprise. “How dare you, detective! Asking me such a thing with all that’s going on out there.” She motioned vaguely to the window as if the social unrest was occurring just outside the building. “I’ve heard all about that racial profiling you people do. Look what a mess we’re in because of it!”
“Mrs. Bloom, I’m not trying to profile anyone, I just want to know what they looked like.”
“So you can use it as an excuse to go beat up on some more poor folk? Oh no, detective, not on my watch.”
“Look – “
“No, you look. I find your questions improper and, quite frankly, insulting. I want no part of your bigotry.” She then crossed her arms and stuck her nose in the air. “This interview is over.”
Alphonse was frustrated beyond measure. He wanted to put his face in his hands but, of course, face-touching these days was strictly verboten.
Next up was Pete Walsingham, the bank security guard. Most of these rent-a-cops were academy drop-outs and they were always eager to help the real police out, Alphonse knew. This guy would be a font of useful information.
“Tell me, Mr. Walsingham, what did you do when the suspects entered the bank?”
“I went straight for my radio, detective. That’s standard procedure and I’m a stickler for the rules.”
“And why didn’t you? Call it in, I mean.”
Pete looked a bit shamefaced as he replied, “Well, I tried, but I’d just sanitized my hands - that’s also standard procedure these days – and they were still slippery, so I couldn’t get a grip on my radio in time.”
Alphonse sighed. “Okay, don’t worry about it. Now Pete, what I’m going to ask you next is very important and I think, being in law enforcement yourself, you’ll understand exactly why.”
“Okay, I’m ready.” He leaned in expectantly.
“These suspects weren’t wearing gloves. So I need you to think carefully, did they touch anything? Handle any objects?”
Pete was nodding before the detective even finished. “I knew that was important, so I paid close attention. They touched a lot of places, and I remember exactly where.”
At last, the break Alphonse had been hoping for. “Can you list the places for me, Pete?” With this information, he could call CSU at the bank and tell them exactly where to look for prints.
“No need, detective. I’m one step ahead of you. After they left I went around and sanitized every place they touched. Scrubbed it all down good and proper with 90% alcohol disinfectant – kills everything, that stuff. Those are the rules, you know, and I’m a – “
“Stickler for the rules? Yeah, yeah, I know.”
This time Alphonse did put his face in his hands, rules be dammed.
Detective Stone had saved the most promising witness for last. Jolene Burke was the regional manager of Pine Grove and, as the wronged party, she would be more than willing to help in any way she could.
“Ms. Burke, this robbery – “
“Robbery? Oh no, detective, this wasn’t a robbery.”
“They made it look like a robbery, of course, but only because they didn’t want to scare anyone.” She continued in a conspiratorial whisper, “They were from the government. The small one, he did all the talking, he said the cash in our vault was contaminated with the virus. That they had to remove it at once, for our safety.”
“Did it not occur to you they might have been lying?”
“About such a serious thing? No, detective, it didn’t.”
“Well, Mrs. Burke, I’m sorry to tell you that they were. Those guys were not government officials.”
“They said you’d say that.”
“And cash can’t carry the virus, that’s a load of bull- ”
“They said you’d say that, too.”
Alphonse lost his cool. “Ms. Burke, doesn’t it bother you at all that your company just lost $2 million?”
“Oh, so you’re one of those economy-over-lives people, are you? Disgraceful. Detective, you can’t put a value on human life. I’d gladly have given any amount of money to ensure the safety of my staff and customers.” She sniffed in disdain. “If only everyone thought like that…”
Having thus concluded that the police were the enemy, Jolene Burke clammed up. Another bust. Three from three. Alphonse was disgusted, but he consoled himself that the surveillance tapes, at least, would provide a solid lead.
As the detective returned to his office, he was intercepted in the hall by one of the AV techs. “Sir, that surveillance footage you were waiting for? There’s a slight problem.”
“What now, goddammit?”
“Well, the bank put in one of those fancy new facial recognition systems at the beginning of the year, but – “
“Wait, lemme guess. Now that everyone wears masks the system doesn’t work like it should, so they shut it down to save costs. That about right?”
“Um, yes sir. How’d you know?”
“It’s turning out to be one of those days,” he sighed, defeated.
Back at his desk, Alphonse couldn’t quite grasp what had just happened. He had nothing and the perps would walk. He grudgingly revised his initial assessment: these guys, whoever they were, were good. Very good. He’d never seen anything like it. In Alphonse’s opinion, whoever masterminded this heist was a genius.
“You really think I’m a genius, Joey?” Brian couldn’t wipe the grin off his face as the pair walked away from the bank, $2 million richer than they had been that morning. “You came up with all the… the… the, you know, pacifics.”
“The specifics were mine, sure,” Joey conceded, “but the general idea was all you, Bri. Thanks to your proposal, we’re rich!” The heist had gone off without a hitch. Joey couldn’t quite believe it had been so easy. He suspected a fair amount of luck had been involved, but so what? Fortune favors the bold, after all.
“What do we do now?” Brian asked, still beaming.
“Now, dear Cuz, we celebrate. I think we should pick up a case of beer on the way home, whaddya say?”
“Sure! We should get that one everyone’s talking about, you know? The one that’s on the news all the time?”
It took Joey a minute to figure out what his lumbering cousin meant, but when it came to him, he had to admit that it was another great idea. Two in one day; the big guy was on a roll. “You know, Bri, you’re smarter than you look. That’s exactly what we’ll do.”
So, on their way home, they stopped for a case of Corona.
It seemed only fitting.
By that night, though, Brian’s good cheer had evaporated. He was troubled. Joey had plowed through most of the beer (Brian hadn’t had any, he much preferred chocolate milk) and was passed out on the couch, snoring away, while his restless cousin paced up and down anxiously.
Brian knew that thinking wasn’t his strong suit, but Joey had said his idea to rob the bank was genius. And Joey was always right. That was the cause of Brian’s deepening concern. His cunning cousin had told the lady at the bank that the money was contaminated. Brian had only a vague understanding of what a virus was, but he knew it was bad. Real bad. People were dying. And, if Joey was right (and he always was) the cash in the duffel on the kitchen table was dangerous.
Brian had to do something. Ordinarily, he’d have woken his cousin (even though Joey was a grouch when roused from slumber), but Brian, full of confidence from the successful implementation of his reposal, thought he could handle the situation on his own. He was on a roll with good ideas and knew exactly what he had to do.
The security guard in the wooden hut at the entrance to the Metropolitan Zoo was bored stiff. His job had never been exciting, and now that the zoo was closed to the public, it had become even more tedious than ever. He reminded himself to be grateful he still had a job when millions out there didn’t. And besides, it gave him a chance to listen to music and just relax. There were worse ways to earn a living.
Bob Dylan was busy insisting that the times they are a-changin’ from the radio (an apt song for this brave new world if ever there was one) when a hulking figure appeared in the entrance to the guard hut.
The guy was huge and his shadowy presence exuded an unmistakable aura of menace. The guard was sufficiently terrified. Reaching slowly for his gun, he stammered, “C-can I h-help you?”
“I’m here for a penguin,” the figure growled.
The guard lowered his hand from his holster. Just a prospective visitor, nothing more. “Well, sir, the zoo’s closed. You can see a live stream of the animals on our YouTube channel if you want – “
“I don’t wanna just look. I want to choose one. To take home.” Brian paused before adding, “You know, as a pet?” as if the reason mattered overly much.
“What is this? Some kind of joke?”
“I’ll pay you for it.”
“Look, man, the animals aren’t for sale, okay?” A duffel bag overflowing with cash thumped down at the guard’s feet. His eyes bugged out. “But,” he continued with a smile, “since you put it like that, I think an arrangement can be made.”
As the security guard led the way to the penguin enclosure, Brian couldn’t help thinking Joey was right - he really was a genius. On a day full of good ideas, this last had been his best yet.
He sure hoped penguins liked Cheerios because that's all there was at home. He was almost certain they did, but if not, his feathery new friend would just have to adapt to a new normal like everyone else.