THE TRUCK WAS a three-year-old Ford E-450 sixteen-foot diesel cube van, painted white some time ago, without company markings or other writing on its sides, doors, or back. The cab was comfortable, the rear door rolled up easily, and the flat floor interior was broom clean and without the odors of yesteryear. The truck's green license plates were from Vermont, a state about which there has never been a shred of suspicion, unlike some we could mention, and the CD left behind in the deck was Schubert's Trout Quintet.
Seeing this, Stan said, "The previous owner give up the ministry?"
"Something like that," Max said.
Already at eight in the morning, Max's shirtfront was streaked with gray from leaning on cars, talking over their tops at potential customers, of whom a few straggled around the lot at the moment, hoping to find something that could take them to work today. Harriet had a perky nephew who played salesman sometimes, when the customer load backed up, and he was out there now, fetching thrown sticks and talking up the merchandise and otherwise making himself useful, while Max and Stan discussed the trade at issue.
So Stan took one wary step back from the Ford and said, "Something like what, Max? Does this vehicle blow up?"
"Nothing like that at all," Max assured him. "I'll tell you the story in the office. For now, I understand you got a free gift for me."
"Stockbroker's special," Stan said, pointing at the BMW. "It's all yours except the plates."
"I'll switch with the truck. I wouldn't want to drive around New York with Vermont plates. Somebody might stop and ask to borrow a ski."
"Mm hm." Max walked around the BMW to the other side, leaned on it, looked over its top, and said, "You got any papers with this thing?"
"Nothing you'd want to hold in your hands."
"We're talking virgin birth here."
"It's a miracle, Max. And it's all yours, if the truck's story doesn't scare me too much."
"I'll wanna hear the BMW story, too," Max said. "Come on in."
As they stepped into the office building, Harriet was typing and the phone was ringing — nothing new. "We get more privacy inside," Max said, as Harriet at last paused in her typing and grabbed the phone:
"Maximilian's Used Cars, Miss Caroline speaking. I'm sorry, you want to do what with it? Yes, I remember that vehicle, I typed up the paperwork on it. You're the rubber man in the carnival, aren't you? So amusing, we all — Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Flexo, was it? All sales are final."
Max and Stan should have been in the other room by now, but both had stopped to listen to how the phone conversation would come out. Harriet listened, smiled pityingly, and said, "Well, 'final' means we don't take them back. There's a forwardness to the story of life, Mr. Flexo. That vehicle came to us, we passed it on to you, if you are finished with it, you pass — Well, it drove off the lot, if you recall. Mr. Flexo, there are strange sounds in the background, just where are you? Setting up the county fair? Where, Mr. Flexo?"
Harriet's light trilling laughter filled the little office like bouquets of roses. "In Kentucky, Mr. Flexo? I tell you what. You get that car here, then we'll talk." Hanging up, she shook her head, turned her smile toward Stan and Max, and said, "They know they're scrap iron, and still they rely on them."
"If buyer's remorse ever accomplished anything in this world," Max said, "we'd all still be living in caves. Come in before Harriet makes any more friends."
Max's inner office was mostly tall fireproof metal filing cabinets, variously locked with keys and hasps and iron bars, because what they contained was more precious than gold, or anyway on an equal par of preciousness with gold; in those filing cabinets were the customers' signatures. With them in existence, Maximilian's Used Cars could go on forever.
There was also space in this room grudgingly allowed for furniture other than filing cabinets, in the corner farthest from the door and near a barred window with views of weeds and anonymous vinyl buildings. Here crouched Max's desk, smaller than Harriet's and much messier, with everything on it from empty soda bottles to various newspapers folded open to partly done crossword puzzles, to a V-shaped metal spring-operated object meant to improve the operator's grip. As though Max needed his grip improved.
"Siddown," Max said, involving the last of the room's furniture, being his own wooden swivel desk chair and the small, sagging brown mohair sofa facing it.
Stan sat on the sofa arm, that being as much of that sofa as he cared to know, and said, "The truck had a life in Vermont."
"It did. It was an undercover for the feds."
This was a surprise. "The feds had that truck."
"And here's a fact you may not have considered before this, Stan," Max said, raising a pedagogical finger. "At all levels of law enforcement, they take very good care of their vehicles. I've had undercover narc cars come through here, look on the outside like they been run off cliffs, but the insides and the wheels are better than when they came out of the factory."
"When they need to drive, I guess," Stan said, "they really need to drive."
"You've got it."
"But why do the feds need to drive in Vermont?"
"Oh. Canada. What, whiskey?"
"Chinamen," Max told him. "And also Chinawomen. And I believe sometimes Chinachildren, too."
Stan said, "Chinese? From Canada?"
"Asians, anyway," Max said. "And yes, from Canada. The same like you got all these Hispanics coming up to the border down south, you got these other people coming down from Canada. A Chinaman can go to Toronto and you'll never notice him, they already got a Chinatown. That same Chinaman in Guadalajara? Not your best idea."
"So they used this truck," Stan said, "to infiltrate the smugglers."
"Worked like a charm," Max told him. "From what I understand, they used this truck to send a whole lot of people back where they didn't wanna go, and even put some of the coyotes, you know, the smugglers, in the can in Canada."
"So now the truck is retired. Why?"
"Well, it got burned. The word got around up there, you do business with this truck, all of a sudden you meet a lotta people that don't smile."
"Not good," Stan suggested.
"You're okay if you stay away from that border," Max assured him. "But the thing is, the way it got outed, the feds can't do the normal way to get it back into civilian life. It still has some of its previous life on it."
"The truth is," Max said, "it has very strange papers. The fella had it, he deals in big trucks mostly, sends em overseas so nobody ever tries to bring them back, I envy that guy, he tells me, you get a cop, he runs a check on the registration on this truck, he gets like an asterisk, says, don't worry, keep your nose clean, good-bye."
"For you, Stan," Max said, "it couldn't be better. For a furniture dealer, maybe, somebody in the legit world, a little freaky. So my friend and I worked out a deal, and now, depending on this BMW, you and me are gonna work out a deal, and what I think, Stan, whatever you want that truck for, afterward you might as well keep it. You'll never find a better mace. Now, about your offering."
Stan told him about the owner of the BMW, off for years now in a Club Med, hiding out from process servers, nobody checking the garage where the BMW's stored. Just give it a new christening, it's gold.
"This sounds good," Max admitted.
"It is good."
"I would say, Stan, you and me, we've done a good morning's work."
"No, you have," Stan said, getting up from the sofa arm. "My work starts now. I gotta meet my guys at nine-thirty in the city."
A small amount of paperwork adjustment, and Stan was on his way, the nephew waving bye-bye. The truck felt fine. And keep it around after the job, eh? Hmmm.
And who knew the feds listened to Schubert?