I know, I know. Of all the things to sneak across a border, chihuahuas are not topping anyone’s Most Smuggled list. But where there’s a demand, there’s a market, and where there’s a stiff tariff, there’s a black market.
A smarter guy would have told his friend no. A smarter guy would have found real work, preferably in front of an air conditioner. But I’ve never been known for my smarts.
I’d run the smelly little yappers across the border a few times already, under the watchful guidance of my buddy Steve, who’s been in this sort of business since our sophomore year of college. They’d been perfectly simple jobs. After all, we were skipping the border between Smallville, USA and Tiny Town, Canada. Not exactly tight security. We picked the little guys up mid-nap, crated them, stacked a few duffle bags on top and, voila! Fifty pooches and five thousand dollars later, we were on our way home. No sweat.
So maybe that’s why it came as such a surprise when, on the first run I attempted without Steve, I showed up ready to crate the dogs, only to find them all wide awake, yapping like maniacs to see me.
I glared at them, imaging what a beautiful arc one would make if I punted it across the warehouse. Then I turned my glare back up to the supplier. “Why are they awake?”
He shrugged, not-my-problem just oozing out of his pores. “Ran out of the stuff.”
I was pretty sure it was a lie. I shook my head. “I can’t take fifty noisy little rats across the border like this.”
He shrugged again.
I whipped out my cell phone and dialed Steve. But Steve wouldn’t answer, probably working his way through an entire paycheck at a skeezy bar. And since he still hadn’t told me anything about who he worked for, I was officially out of options.
The guy wasn’t even looking at me anymore, picking at a scab on his chin as he stared down at the growling, snapping, yipping hoard of ankle-high egomaniacs crowding the stained baby gate. I shoved the phone in my pocket and stuck my nose in the air. “I’m not doing it.”
He snorted on a laugh. “Yeah you are.”
My frown deepened. He could at least pretend my bluff worried him. If only to be polite. “No I’m not,” I insisted. “They’re too loud. How am I supposed to-”
“I don’t care,” he said, standing up, and I was suddenly aware that this slouching sleepy balding guy was a good foot taller than me and twice my weight. “I ain’t keeping this smelly pack of morons five minutes longer than scheduled.” He leaned closer, looming menacingly over me. “So I suggest you get moving, ‘cause you’ve lost near ten minutes of your loading time whining. You hear me?”
Yes, sir, I did. I rolled my eyes without any heart and muttered something vaguely defiant. Just to show him.
He brightened considerably. “There’s a good lad. Let’s get ‘em loaded up.”
Scowling, I pried the lid off the first of the crates. Boy was I gonna let Steve have it when I saw him next.
The dog man slipped on a pair of leather gloves and made a grab into the crowd. The yapping tripled in volume, the canine sea rippling backward, and he snagged one by a back leg. It twisted as he swung it up into the air, snarling, and sank it teeth into the glove. The man shook it off into the crate without batting an eyelash, and turned to grab the next one.
Meanwhile, the pint-sized Cujo had rolled back onto its paws and sprang out at me. Gloveless, unprotected, I threw my hands up over my face and felt two rows of needles sink into my flesh. I shouted and stumbled backward, a tiny dog dangling from my hand like a fish on a line. I flicked my wrist and the little monster whipped off, crashing back into the crate.
“Ha!” I snarled, grabbing for the lid, just as the dog supplier deposited another miniature wolf on my arm. I shook it off and it fell into the crate, landing on the other. I clapped the lid over the crate, shooting the supplier a dirty look.
He grabbed another dog without so much as a glance at me.
The more dogs that were flicked in my crate, the harder it was to keep them all inside. I cracked the crate lid off narrower and narrower each time, staring at the shrinking hole like I was waiting for a rattlesnake to pop out of it. “Hey, how many are we cramming in here?”
He shot me a disgusted look. “What, were you high last time?”
I scowled. “They were sleeping last time. Don’t awake dogs take up more space?”
“Naw, it’ll be fine.” He chucked another dog in the crate, which by this point was practically vibrating with angry little dogs.
The crate filled quickly, and I had to start smacking the little barracudas back into the box to keep them from escaping. I pulled my sleeve down over my hand to absorb the worst of the damage and kept the doggy tide at bay. A crate of chihuahuas has about the same combined IQ as a crate of apples, but the devious little monsters were getting better and better at worming their way into the opening. Finally, I clapped the lid over the top of the crate and kicked it back out of the way.
The man stopped with a squirming dog in his hands. “That wasn’t even twenty. It’s twenty-five to a crate, always has been.” The dog peed on my shoe.
Growling, I scrambled back out of the stream of urine. “Well unless you’re suddenly remembering an extra bottle of sedative somewhere, that’s all that’ll fit.”
“You’re taking fifty,” he reminded me firmly.
“And I will,” I said, dragging the second crate forward. “I’ll just need to borrow an extra crate.”
“Don’t have one.”
I popped the lid off the crate and he tossed the empty-bladdered beast inside. I rolled my eyes. “Come on. You know I’ll be back next week.”
“I’m telling you, I don’t have one.”
“A spare box? A coffee can? Anything?”
He sighed heavily, as if I’d just told him I needed to borrow his left leg. He flipped another dog head over heels into the crate. “Fine. I’ll see what I can dig up.” The dog landed with a yip and came at me snarling.
By the time we got filled the next crate, the dogs were having hysterics. The crates were rumbling like the beginnings of an earthquake and I’d heard what sounded like at least a dozen fights. At this rate, I’d be lucky if half the dogs got there alive.
“Alright,” the supplier sighed, straightening his spine with a grunt. “Let’s see what we can find for the last of ‘em.”
He led me down the length of the warehouse, past pens with a dozen breeds of pets waiting for export. Several kinds of dogs, downy kittens, even a few exotic birds and lizards. The whole warehouse smelled like a poorly kept zoo. What a way to make a living. Maybe my folks were right about going back to school.
The man stepped into an office with an old desktop, a printer, and a filing cabinet. The room smelled of stale coffee and beef top ramen. He kicked around the trash bin by the door, and then leaned over to scowl under the desk. “Ah,” he said, his voice muffled. “Here we go.”
He stood and turned to me, brandishing a large paper grocery bag, one of its corners dark with grease.
I stared, waiting for him to crack a smile. “You’re kidding, right?”
He glanced the bag front to back. “What? There aren’t any holes in it or anything.”
“It’s a paper bag.”
“You’d rather it was plastic?”
“It’s a paper bag.”
“And they’re tiny breed puppies.” He brushed past me back into the warehouse. “Come on, it’ll be fine.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I told you, I don’t have any more crates.”
“Don’t you ever get packages?”
“Not today. But Joe did get takeout.”
I picked up the pace to catch up to him. “I can’t smuggle ten puppies across an international border in a- a-” It was a doggie bag, I realized. A doggie bag. This had to be a joke.
He flicked the bag open, glancing inside. “You’re the one who didn’t want them in the crate.”
“And you’re the one who didn’t put them to sleep! They’ll kill each other if we keep packing them in like that, and how much money is the dealer in Canada gonna give me for fifty pounds of soggy dog meat?”
He shrugged. “He can just give ‘em to the other dogs, save on feed. Everybody wins.”
I balked. He was crazy. He had to be.
“Listen,” I said, hurrying to stay abreast of him. “Let’s just reschedule. How soon can you have more of the sedative?”
He whirled, towering over me. “I already told you, I ain’t keeping ‘em any longer. We agreed today, and-”
“We also agreed they’d be asleep!”
“Well they ain’t!”
We paused, staring at each other, and I said desperately, “And?”
I tried to puff my skinny chest out, lifting my chin. “If you’re not keeping up your end of the deal, why should I?”
He took a menacing step closer. “’Cause I’m gonna feed ‘em you if you don’t. Ya get me?” I think I peed my pants just a little bit. He watched the fight bleed out of my eyes, and turned away muttering about drop-out punks.
I waited until he was a safe distance away and then scurried after him. College was sounding better and better.
The two loaded crates were shuddering and jumping on the floor. It had never occurred to me before how small the crates were. It didn’t seem like a big deal when the dogs were all asleep, but now they seemed like they might appreciate a little more elbow room.
Murder McDogsmell scooped the last few chihuahuas into the takeout bag and folded the top neatly down over them. I watched the thrashing bag with a very bad feeling.
“Here ya go,” he said cheerfully, as if he hadn’t just been threatening to feed me to his black market puppies. He set it atop one of the crates and then hefted them with a smile. What a helper. “That’s fifty. Where are you parked?”
Taking wide steps as far around him as possible, I hunched down and slipped my fingers into the grips, lifting the second crate. “I’m around the-” I yelped as a furry piranha sank its teeth into my fingers, and I dropped the crate.
For a moment, time stood still.
Then it hit the floor with a sickening crack and angry dogs exploded outward.
The supplier roared in rage as three of the little savages sailed over and latched onto his coveralls. Another couple snagged my pants, a few more pinging off of me and landing gracelessly on their bug-eyed bobble heads. The supplier stumbled back a step, lost his footing, and fell backward. His crate tilted onto the concrete floor and the doggie bag splatted against his chest, gushing chihuahuas and cold noodles across his face.
Dogs scattered, yapping, peeing, running for their tiny lives. They were everywhere, their numbers seeming to triple as they darted throughout the warehouse. A few brave little souls stayed to do battle, leaping at the man on the floor, a few more throwing themselves against my legs. I kicked one off, sending it sailing against the supplier’s chest as he rolled onto his belly, roaring an endless litany of profanity that just barely topped the noise of the dogs.
I froze, paralyzed with horror.
My parents thought I worked at a Kinko’s. They’d never know how I really died.
I turned and bolted for the door as my would-be murdered staggered to his feet, chihuahuas hanging from his jacket like some horrible Cruella Deville coat right out of Pongo’s nightmares. I didn’t dare look back as he snarled, “You!”
The yapping from the dogs reached a new pitch as the chase began. I chanced a glance over my shoulder and saw Satan himself chasing after me with a pack of tiny hellhounds at his ankles. I heard myself wailing, “I’m sorryyyyyy!”
“I’ll kill you!”
I skidded around a corner and slammed into the panic bar. Bursting through the door, I launched myself over the handrail at the concrete steps. I landed like a sack of rocks on the asphalt below, flopping against someone’s car. An alarm added its piercing shriek to the cacophony roaring down through the doorway after me.
The supplier stumbled out the door, shaking another chihuahua from his sleeve, and the hapless beast pinwheeled over the railing to slap its warm genitals against my face. I grabbed the dog away from my eyes and bolted for my car. The supplier, still roaring like a madman, staggered down the steps, kicking dogs left and right, but he couldn’t quite shake them.
I dug the keys out of my pocket with shaking hands and pressed the fob frantically. Click click click! The car chirped happily in reply, its lights flicking in recognition as it unlocked.
I slammed against the side of the car and fumbled with the latch, finally throwing myself inside. The chihuahua I was still holding yelped beneath me and scrambled across to the passenger side, claws clicking. Then it sat happily, tongue lolling, and looked out the window, ready for a ride.
I dragged the door shut just as the dog-cloaked maniac slammed against the side of my car. I clicked the locks shut, flinching backward as he slammed his elbow against the car window. He howled, clutching at his elbow in pain.
“Ha!” I shouted, jamming the key into the ignition.
“I’ll kill you! I’ll find you and I’ll feed you to the dogs, you little-”
The engine roared to life, fan belt squealing, and I threw it into reverse.
The man stumbled backward as the car skidded out of the parking space. I shoved it into drive and it lurched forward. The supplier lobbed a flailing chihuahua at the car and the dog bounced off the back window. I rolled my window down just a crack as I gunned the engine, roaring out of range. “You look like the crazy cat lady from the Simpsons!”
I don’t know if he heard me. But man, he really did. Just like her.
I glanced down at my little dog as I tore out of there. It stared back at me, vacant as a cheap motel.
It was time to get out of this business. I looked up at the road, and then back down to the dog again.
“You know what? I think I’ll name you Exhibit A.”
Exhibit A yipped excitedly, all the way to the police station. And I didn’t mind the noise one bit.