The Tunneling Chemist

by Michael L. Drummond

Thomas Moreland glared over the edge of his newspaper at his manservant. Despite a physique more befitting a bodybuilder than a valet, Sergei's steps were soft as he crossed the marble floor of the solarium. In his massive hands rested a velvet pillow of royal blue bearing an ivory telephone.

“Sir,” murmured Sergei, “Sorry to bother you, but it’s Mr. Tzanakos.” The man’s bothersome Slavic accent, largely obscured by an adult life spent working in the States, reignited as he pronounced the caller’s foreign surname. Moreland grimaced, thrust his newspaper at Sergei, and lifted the cool ivory of the headset to his ear.

“What do you want, Aristotle?” he demanded.

“My friend, that is no way to say hello,” boomed Tzanakos with a deep Mediterranean laugh.

“It is when you interrupt me while I’m reading my stock quotes.”

Tzanakos clucked his tongue. “You are far too much serious for so early in the morning. Of course, you are always so serious. Fortunately for you, your dear friend Aristotle has a proposition that will up your cheer.”

“Tzanakos, why would a proposition from you cheer me up?” asked Moreland, putting biting emphasis on the correct form of the idiom.

“Because my proposition is about your favorite topic…” The man left the sentence hanging with evident relish.

Moreland gritted his teeth and shot an accusatory glare at Sergei, who remained motionless, still bearing both the pillow and the phone. “And what topic would that be?”

“The security of your diamonds, my friend!” exclaimed Tzanakos with a laugh. “Why else would I…”

“My security is no concern of yours whatsoever,” growled Moreland.

Tzanakos laughed again. “Of course not, of course not. I know that your security is very good, so good that it is very boring to talk about. Very boring.”

“No, Tzanakos. My security isn’t ‘very good.’ It is unassailable.”

The Greek halted mid-chuckle. “What is this word? I do not know this word.”

“Unassailable. It means that my diamonds cannot be touched. My vault is impossible to break into.”

“Ah. Aha!” replied Tzanakos with renewed laughter. “Yes, this word, it is a good word. I wish that I could know it last week, because now it is useless to me.”

“Speak sense, man.” Sergei stifled a chuckle at the foolhardy advice.

Tzanakos sighed heavily. “My friend, my own precious vault, she is no longer unsailable.”

Moreland leaned forward in his chair. “You were robbed?” he asked, taking no effort whatsoever to conceal the glee in his voice.

The Greek barked a hearty laugh. “No, no, no, no, nothing so terrible. But someone did get into my vault.”

Moreland sat back in his chair. “Dammit, Tzanakos, what in the hell are you talking about? Someone broke into your vault but didn’t take anything?”

“Yes!” answered Tzanakos with a cry of delight.

“Wh…” stammered Moreland in confusion, earning a questioning glance from his servant. “What do you mean? Why?”

“Because I paid him to do this!” exclaimed Tzanakos. Moreland sat in stunned silence. “My friend, I wanted to test the security of my vault. Well, OK, I wanted to show to Wisniewski and Milos and Carlozzi that my security was better than theirs.”

“Slow down, Aristotle. Don’t tell me their vaults were broken into as well,” breathed Moreland in unveiled astonishment.

“Yes!” cried the Greek. “All of us! And now it is your turn!”

Moreland leaned forward and cracked the knuckles of his right hand against his leg. He took a single, deep breath. “Hence your proposition. You’re challenging me to hire this man, whoever he is, to try to break into my vault.”

“Yes, you have it, my clever friend,” declared Tzanakos.

“And when he fails, what will you give me?”

“I love your confidence! It is very Greek,” laughed Tzanakos. “This man, Stengler, he charges $100,000 for his service. And he has flair. When he is done, he leaves the bill for you in your vault!”

Moreland rolled his eyes impatiently. “When he fails, Tzanakos?”

“Oh he does not fail. But he has $1.5 million in escrow, yours if you can keep him out.”

Moreland clucked his tongue, imitating the annoying affectation. “Aristotle, I’m disappointed in you. For all your faults, you’re a billionaire, as am I. How on Earth could you think that such a paltry sum would pique my interest?”

“I…I will match the prize, my friend, of course,” responded the Greek, obviously taken aback.

“No,” said Moreland, his voice stern and flat. He paused, ignoring Tzanakos’ss feeble protestations. “But, if through some miracle this Stengler breaks into my vault, I will give you both of my Czar Nicholas the Second diamonds.”

The talkative Greek was silent for a dozen heartbeats. “And I am guessing,” he replied at last, “that if you triumph over Stengler, you will want my Czar diamonds.”

“An even trade. Of course, we could forget the whole affair,” said Moreland dismissively. “Not much suspense to be had, I suspect, given that my security system is far more advanced than your own.” He relaxed back in his chair, awaiting the answer he knew would come.

When Tzanakos at last delivered the expected reply, he did so with a laugh. “Yes, yes, it is a deal.”

Without another word, Moreland hung up the phone and smirked at his servant. “Sergei, I want you to find a man for me.”

“Rick Stengler?” guessed the manservant. Moreland raised an eyebrow in question at the brute, who shrugged his enormous shoulders in response. “I heard you say ‘Stengler’ to Mr. Tzanakos, and there’s only one man with that name you’d want to see.”

“You’ve heard of him?”

Sergei gestured towards a stack of newspapers piled on a nearby lacquered end table. “He’s front page news, sir.” There was a hint of amusement in his voice.

Moreland shot a dark glare in response to the man’s effrontery. “Then he shouldn’t be too hard to find, should he?” he snapped. “Set up an appointment. Today.”

Moreland sipped at his scotch and studied the man. Rick Stengler was tall and lanky. Rumpled khakis cinched high and tight at the waist accentuated his long legs and lean build. He stood with his shoulders slanted, giving him an air of casual nonchalance. Jumbled curls of unremarkable brown hair adorned his head. His lips were thick, perpetually poised on the verge of smiling.

“Stengler,” asked Moreland in a sharp voice designed to catch the man off guard. “How long have you been a thief?”

The man answered with a deep frown, which his meaty lips managed to soften to a slight grimace of distaste. “I’m not a thief, Mr. Moreland. I’m a chemist.”

“So my man tells me,” said Moreland, gesturing towards Sergei. He had instructed the Russian to change out of his richly tailored servant’s garb and into something more “brutish.” Sergei had, of course, chosen wisely, a tight, black short-sleeved T-shirt, paired with dark blue jeans, and topped off with a glare fierce enough to frighten a bulldog. “So will you dissolve my vault door with a beaker of some caustic acid?”

Stengler shook his head slightly, a wry grin on his face. “No, sir. I’m not that kind of chemist. In fact, I haven’t touched a beaker in almost 20 years.”

“What kind of chemist are you if you don’t use beakers?” asked Moreland with a snort.

“I’m a quantum chemist, sir.”

“Of course you are.” Stengler raised an eyebrow, an amused grin toying with one corner of his mouth. “But what does that have to do with breaking into vaults?”

Stengler flashed an impudent grin at Moreland, who swallowed his annoyance along with another sip of scotch. “A quantum chemist is someone who works with matter at its smallest, most basic level. We come up with new theories to describe how and why molecules do what they do. And,” he added, a note of fierce pride in his voice, “we do it with nothing more than a pad of paper and a pencil. One day, I was studying a phenomenon known as ‘tunneling,’ which is when something very, very small goes from point A to point C without paying any attention to what’s at point B.” He shrugged his slanted shoulders. “I figured out how to make tunneling work for big things as well as small ones. Big things like…chemists, for example.”

“I won’t have you digging a tunnel into my vault,” barked Moreland. “Not that you’d succeed, of course, even if you had years to do it, but I will not allow you to do any damage to my property in a foolish attempt.”

Stengler poorly concealed a wide smile beneath his hand. “Forgive me, Mr. Moreland, but it’s not that kind of tunneling. If you’d like, think of it as more like teleporting. And,” he added smugly, “it won’t take years to break into your vault. I’ll have done it by this time tomorrow.”

Moreland fixed Stengler with his most penetrating glare, an infamous look responsible for a large part of his fortune. The chemist stood unconcerned, confident in his abilities, secure in his bravado. Moreland switched to another tactic, belittling laughter.

“So what you’re telling me,” he said in between unfeigned guffaws, “is that you’re going to teleport into my vault?” He cackled again, and was soon joined by the rumbling laughter of Sergei.

Stengler swept a bow. “For all intents and purposes, yes sir.”

Moreland laughed once more and then finished his scotch with a swig. “You’re full of shit, but Tzanakos was right—you’ve got flair.”

“Did Mr. Tzanakos not vouch for my abilities?” he asked, the question belied by the swagger in his voice.

Moreland waved a hand dismissively. “I don’t believe a tenth of what that Greek bastard claims. No, Stengler. If I’m to hire you, you’ll have to prove yourself to me.”

“How would I do that, sir?”

Moreland rattled his glass in the direction of Sergei, who hurried over with another scotch. Stengler licked his lips unconsciously, but Moreland only stared at him as he sipped the tawny liquid. He smiled. “Mr. Stengler, when I play a game, I play for high-stakes. Do you?”

“Mr. Moreland, as I’m sure Sergei and Mr. Tzanakos both told you, should I fail, I will pay you $1.5 million…”

“A pittance,” interrupted Moreland. “Not worth my time.”

“But…but sir,” stammered Stengler, his confidence no longer in evidence, “that’s every penny I’ve earned with my tunneling services. I could never come up with enough money to match you.”

“A service then,” replied Moreland with a smirk of annoyance. He drained his second scotch with a long sip. Before Stengler could speak, Moreland continued in a brisk, professional tone. “First things first. Should you break into my vault, I will give you the two most valuable pieces in my collection, two diamonds that belonged to the last Russian Czar, Nicholas the Second.”

“Sir,” coughed Sergei, “don’t forget that Mr. Tzan…”

“Be silent!” hissed Moreland with angry vehemence. The big man lowered his head in cowed submission.

Moreland resumed speaking, his tone once more smooth and level. “Two diamonds will be yours, if the abilities you claim to possess prove not to be as ludicrous as they sound.”

The chemist swallowed a lump in his throat. “And if I can’t?”

“Then you will tunnel into Tzanakos’ss vault and take a few of his gems for me.”

Stengler’s slanted shoulders slumped. “No,” he sighed.

Moreland nodded. “So you’re a fraud after all, then. A pity, because…”

“No sir, I could do it. I just won’t.”

“At least make up some excuse, man!” snapped the billionaire. “Tell me that your magic only works once per vault or that you’re almost out of whatever chemical you need to…”

“It’s because I’m not a thief,” cut in Stengler with a glare of defiance. After hearing a deep growl rumbling in Sergei’s chest, the chemist immediately lowered his head and added, “Sir. I’m not a thief, sir.”

Moreland let the man stew in the awkward silence for a few moments longer before he spoke. “I can respect that. I, too, am an honest man. But I’m not asking you to take everything from Tzanakos’s vault. Just a few select items, three or four, no more. Aristotle is a friend. He’ll see that it’s nothing more than a clever move in the back-and-forth game of wealth that he and I play.”

“A game that will send me to prison,” muttered Stengler.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Moreland. “You’ve met Aristotle. Does he strike you as the vengeful type? No, if he ever found out that you were behind his missing jewels, he’d probably clap you on the back and say, ‘Very good, very good, my friend!’” Stengler smiled despite himself at the surprisingly apt impression. “And don’t forget that you’d only have to take his gems if you can’t break into my vault. Have some confidence in your abilities, man, especially if you’re asking me to do the same!”

Stengler chewed his thick lower lip. After a brief moment, a casual smile returned to his face. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.”

Moreland had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling. “Then it’s a deal?” he asked, schooling his voice to remain calm.

“Sure,” answered the chemist. He chuckled. “When I leave you your bill in the vault, I’ll just add ‘two Nicholas the Second diamonds’ to the bottom.”

The feeble jest gave Moreland all the excuse he needed to let his joy bubble to the surface. He smiled, stood, and shook Stengler’s hand. “Then I’ll see you at noon tomorrow. Please be on time. Sergei, show Mr. Stengler out.”

As the two men left the room, Moreland strolled over to the bar to pour himself another scotch. The warm liquor gurgled out of the bottle, overflowing the tumbler and splashing onto his hand. The billionaire laughed. He was shaking his hand dry when Sergei returned.

“Sir…are you OK?” asked the servant.

“Oh yes. Come with me. If through some miracle that smug bastard does manage to make his way into my vault, I want you to be there waiting for him, ready to break both of his legs.”

Moreland was waiting in his foyer when he heard the low, sonorous chimes of his doorbell. Noon, on the dot. He grinned. He leapt to his feet and hurried to the door, eager to see the look of defeat in the chemist’s eyes. Sergei had not emerged from the vault, which meant that Stengler had failed to gain entry. Once he told his fellow billionaire of his victory, Tzanakos would complete his set of Czar Nicholas diamonds, and for once the Greek would offer not even a titter of amusement. Perhaps he would have the chemist steal the rest of Tzanakos’s Russian diamonds, just to add insult to injury.

He swung the door open, a wide, beaming smile on his face as he regarded Stengler. Utterly vanished were the effortless confidence, the swagger of accomplishment. To Moreland, the defeated man’s clothing looked disheveled rather than relaxed. His shoulders were still slanted, but it gave him an injured, rather than rakish, look. He seemed malnourished, not lean. With barely restrained delight, Moreland extended a conciliatory hand towards the defeated chemist.

Stengler looked at the hand, but did not shake it. “I failed,” he whispered.

Moreland nodded and put his arm around the chemist’s shoulders in mock sympathy. “Not to worry. It’s not the end of the world,” he said as he escorted the man into his manor.

“Maybe not, but now you’ll make me break into Tzanakos’s vault and steal,” spat Stengler. “I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself after that.” The man sounded as if he were on the verge of tears.

The billionaire paused mid-stride, his instincts flaring to life. Stengler shuffled a few steps more down the hall before he turned to face Moreland. “Sir? What is it?”

Moreland regarded the defeated form of the chemist as he scrutinized the situation. No, something definitely didn’t add up, he told himself. Even if a chemist—a lone chemist, not a team of varied scientists—somehow worked out the means to teleport (or tunnel, or whatever), what sort of person would think to apply such a profound scientific breakthrough to a vulgar profession like safecracking? A person of flexible morals, to say the least, which was essentially the billionaire’s area of expertise. Such a person would not be driven to the brink of tears simply by being asked to steal a few pieces of jewelry from a billionaire. Which meant…“This is an act,” breathed Moreland.

“What was that, sir?” asked Stengler.

“An act, you bastard!” screamed the billionaire. “You entered my vault somehow and you wiped out my entire collection. And now you return to the scene of the crime, pretending to be on the verge of goddamned tears? Now you expect me to send you off to Tzanakos’s manor without a word, without even checking my vault? After which you flee the country, so I can do nothing but assume that Tzanakos caught you and did you in.”

“Did me in? Wh…what?” stuttered the chemist, his eyes wide. “N…no, sir, it’s not like that at all.” Moreland tensed as Stengler reached into a pocket, but the man produced nothing more than a cell phone. “I failed, I admit it, and I can prove it to you. Here, I’ll call up my banker, and he’ll transfer the $1.5 million I owe you into your

“I don’t care about the money,” lied Moreland. “And besides, that wouldn’t prove a goddamned thing. If you took my collection, you can afford to sacrifice a million and a half.”

“Grand Unified International Bank?” asked Stengler, speaking into the phone. “Could you put me through to Mr. Donovan please?”

“Come with me,” snapped Moreland. “You’re not leaving my property until I see that my vault is exactly as I left it.”

“Of course, sir,” answered the chemist, the phone still up to his ear. Moreland led the man through the halls and down a narrow staircase.

“Mr. Donovan,” said Stengler. “Yes. No, not really. I need to transfer some money. A lot of money, actually.” The pair paused at a thick oaken door at the base of the stairs, which the billionaire promptly unlocked. They entered a small room, little more than a cube of sterile, stainless steel. “To Mr. Thomas Moreland,” continued Stengler. “Yes,” he said as Moreland punched a lengthy code into a keypad. After a series of beeps, an enormous door rumbled as the locking mechanism within disengaged. “No, he’ll give you the account information himself, Mr. Donovan.”

Stengler covered the mouthpiece on the phone with one hand as Moreland placed his own hand on a sensor. The massive vault door rumbled again and swung open, revealing an impenetrable slab of gleaming metal over four feet thick. The chemist extended the phone to Moreland and said, “All he needs is your account number, or the name and number of your financial advisor, and you’ll have all of my money.”

Moreland smirked at the thin man, but he grabbed the phone and lifted it to his ear. “Hello?” he asked.

Both the billionaire and the chemist jumped in surprise as they heard a bellow from within the vault. “Mr. Moreland sir!” shouted Sergei. “Mr. Moreland, the little bastard, he’s gone!”

“Good afternoon, sir,” said the voice on the phone. “I’ll just need…”

Moreland looked at Stengler in surprise, slammed the cell phone shut, shoved it at the chemist, and then ran inside the vault. He took only a few steps before he collided into Sergei, who was swearing profusely in Russian. The billionaire landed on his rear and shot a venomous glare up at his servant.

“Sergei, what in the hell is going on?” demanded Moreland.

The brute bent over and helped his employer up. When he saw Stengler enter the vault, he thrust a thick finger in the man’s direction and snarled, “You!” Before he could leap at the terrified man, Moreland cuffed the servant on the side of his ugly head.

“Sergei, goddammit, if you don’t explain to me what’s going on right this minute…”

“That pizdobol,” spat Sergei, his accent heavy, “he was in the vault, and so I grabbed at him, but then he disappears. And then I look, and your Nicholas diamonds, they are gone!”

“When?” growled Moreland. “When did this happen?”

“Now!” shouted the brute.

“Sergei,” snapped Moreland, “Stengler has been at my side ever since he got here.”

“Then he did his tunnel magic,” protested Sergei.

“Enough of your nonsense!” screamed Moreland. “The man is a fraud. He can’t tunnel, and you know…”

“The diamonds!” interrupted the servant, his gargantuan head swiveling back and forth between the main room of the vault and his employer. “They are gone. Come, you will see.”

Moreland swore, but he brushed past the man and continued into the vault. His treasure trove was almost exactly as he remembered it. Almost. There was a stool overturned in the center of the room, as well as a few crumbs and some discarded food wrappers. He was about to berate his slovenly servant for eating in his vault when he noticed the glaring emptiness of the two side-by-side glass display cases that once housed his most prized possessions.

“Sergei,” gasped Moreland. “Put that bastard in the holding cell. I’ll call Phillips.”

Brandon Phillips was, reflected Moreland, without question his most valuable employee. Despite retiring three years earlier, the former detective still maintained the contacts necessary to command the full weight of the law, should Moreland so desire. More importantly, if the billionaire decided that his goals could be more effectively pursued outside of the auspices of the law, Phillips possessed the moral flexibility to make that happen as well.

You were the one in there with the diamonds, you Stalinist bastard,” spat Stengler, protected from the wrath of the hulking Russian behind the cold iron bars of the cell. “Maybe you’ve got them.”

Phillips glanced at his employer out of the corner of his eye, but Moreland shook his head. “Impossible. I trust Sergei with my life.” Despite his words, the billionaire made a mental note to have Phillips comb through every inch of the servant’s room.

“But I was with you, Moreland! Right beside you. And more than that, I’m not a thief!” protested the chemist for the hundredth time. “I was even on the phone with my banker, seconds away from giving you what I owed you.”

“Which proves nothing,” observed the former detective in a dry voice. “If you had stolen…”

“Wait,” ordered Moreland. “Phillips, where’s the phone he used to call the banker?”

Phillips rose and walked over to a locker. He opened it and took out a cell phone. Before handing it to his employer, he said, “Depending on where this banker lives, I might have to contact local law enforcement. Which means…”

“I know what it means,” snapped Moreland as he grabbed the phone out of the man’s hand. “It means that I won’t be able to have Sergei strangle the thieving bastard.” The Russian growled, although the billionaire couldn’t decide whether it was pleasure at the prospect, disappointment at missing out on the task, or just to intimidate the captive.

“It’s not just that, sir,” said Phillips. “If I have to call the cops, he’ll have to go free tomorrow unless we find some evidence.” He chuckled. “The authorities seem to frown upon locking up biochemists without cause.”

“Biochemist?” asked Moreland absently as he searched the cell phone’s contact list. “I thought he was a…what did he say he was, Sergei?”

The servant knit his brows. “A counter chemist,” he said at last.

Moreland snorted. “Yes. A quantum chemist.” He fixed a penetrating gaze on the prisoner, but the man kept his eyes fixed on the floor.

Phillips shuffled through the papers scattered on the table before him. He finally located what he was looking for, a paper stamped “Do not remove. Property of the Greendale Police Department.”

“No, this says ‘biochemist.’” He skimmed the report. “Apparently, one of his former students accused him of researching biological weapons. The authorities looked into it, but it seems the accuser was a jilted lover. She confessed after ten minutes in the hotbox…”

“Shh!” whispered Moreland, holding up one hand for silence while he scanned the cell phone with his other. “Why would he lie to me about what kind…” he muttered to himself under his breath. His fingers danced, searching through the phone for a clue to the puzzle.

When he at last stumbled upon the key, he couldn’t believe his eyes. The most recent call on the phone. Dialed at 12:03 PM, to a caller labeled “GUIB,” no doubt “Grand Unified International Bank.”

The call ended at 12:35 PM.

“Impossible,” he breathed.

“What?” asked Sergei and Phillips simultaneously.

The billionaire handed the phone to the former detective. “I hung up on this call myself, just before I dashed into my vault.”

Phillips studied the call log for a moment, then confessed, “I don’t see…”

“That phone call wasn’t half-an-hour long! Stengler called just after he got here—12:03 or so, I suppose—but I hung the phone up right after I opened my vault, when I heard Sergei screaming. Not two or three minutes later!”

“So...” drawled Sergei.

Moreland paced about the room, his mind working at a feverish pace. “So Stengler the biochemist used some sort of drug on us. He waited for me to open the vault, drugged me, with the cell phone, probably,” he said, prompting Phillips to drop the phone onto the table and to wipe his hands on his pants. “Then he snuck into the vault, dosed you with the drug, hid my diamonds somewhere, then returned to stand by my side just before his poison wore off.”

“Making it look like he’d never left your side,” said Phillips in amazement.

And making it look like he teleported right out of Sergei’s grasp,” concluded Moreland.

The former detective shook his head. “I don’t know, sir, I’ve never heard of anything like that. I doubt it’s even possible.”

“It’s certainly more possible than a tunneling chemist,” said Moreland with a sneer. “It’s the only reason I can think of to explain why he’d lie about his profession. No, I won’t take any chances. Sergei, get a hose and soak this bastard. Thoroughly.” The big man’s face lit up as he trotted out of the room to find a hose. “Phillips, find out if there’s a Donovan at Grand Unified International Bank. Preliminary work only,” he added quickly before the man could object. “Find out if he’s who he says he is, if the bank is legitimate, and so on. I’m going to research Mr. Stengler here. Based on what I find out, I’ll decide if you can press Mr. Donovan to explain why he waited 30 minutes on a phone call with someone who was temporarily paralyzed.”

As Phillips left the room, Moreland stared at his captive. The chemist—biochemist, he corrected—had his head buried in his hands. His thin body shook, although the billionaire couldn’t decide if he was sobbing gently to himself or shivering in terror. “You arrogant bastard. Just because your tricks worked on that idiot Tzanakos and all the other morons you’ve cheated, you thought you could fool me?” He leaned in close to the cage, prepared to leap back if the biochemist should attack him with a hidden vial of poison. “I will have my diamonds back, and then I will have you steal my dear friend Aristotle’s entire collection. You goddamned thief!”

He turned to leave as Sergei entered the room, hose in hand. “Sergei, my friend. Do not be gentle.”

Thomas Moreland knew he was a clever man—brilliant, even, as his success in unraveling Stengler’s scheme demonstrated—but he had to admit to himself that his brain was not equipped to penetrate the inscrutable world of chemistry. However, the billionaire’s genius was far outpaced by his determination. And so, after a wearying night spent fruitlessly combing through paper after incomprehensible paper, he at last found what he was looking for, buried at the end of a work with the ponderous title “The characterization of natural products from the deep sea sponge Cryptotethya crypta using a combined NMR, HPLC, and TOF-MALDI approach.” Authored by one Rick Stengler, the work concluded with a damning statement, “Although previous work with similar bis-arylated compounds has demonstrated their efficacy in anesthesia, there can be little doubt that the molecules studied in this work will serve as the basis for a new generation of paralytic agents that take immediate effect.”

“I got you, you bastard,” whispered Moreland as he trudged down the stairs to the holding cell, his proof clutched in weary hands.

“Sir, is that you?” asked Sergei from below. His Slavic accent was thick and doused with worry.

“Yes, I’m back. And I have…”

“He’s gone!” interrupted Phillips with a shout.

“Gone?” asked Moreland. “What do you mean…” He broke off as he stepped off the last stair and stared at the empty cage before him.

“He…he vanished, sir,” said Sergei in a high-pitched, pleading voice, totally jarring coming from such a brute.

“He tunneled,” added Phillips in a breathless whisper. “Right in front of our very eyes, he tunneled!”

Moreland slumped down into a chair. “No. It’s not possible. It’s not possible! He was a biochemist. There was no teleporting. He made drugs!” He thrust the incriminating paper hard into Phillips’ chest. “Read it! ‘Immediately effective paralytic agents!’”

The former detective smoothed the paper and read the highlighted words. He dropped the sheet onto the table and stared at his employer, his hands spread wide in supplication. “Sir, I… I came back here after about a half hour, and Sergei was still hosing the guy down. Neither one of us went near the cage, but a few minutes after the hose was turned off, Stengler disappeared. Right before our eyes.”

Sergei snapped his fingers, his voice still an unnerving high pitch. “Like that. Gone.”

“We tried to call you,” said the former detective, “and I went out looking for you, but I had no idea where you were.”

Numbly, Moreland took his cell phone out of his pocket and glanced at it. “17 missed calls,” he muttered. “I had the ringer off. Wait. This last call is from Tzanakos.” He pressed the button to check his voicemail and held the phone up to his ear.

“Mr. Moreland sir!” blared the first message, from a frenzied Phillips. “You’ve got to get…” The billionaire skipped past the message, as well as a cavalcade of similar calls. At last he heard the jolly voice of Aristotle Tzanakos.

“Thomas, my friend, I have not heard from you yet, about the chemist. And so I was wondering…might some of your diamonds be mine now?” The Greek’s laughter sounded tinny through the speaker of the phone. “I hope so! Call me, my friend.”

Moreland ended the call with a push of a button and gently placed the phone on the table. He folded his hands on his lap and took a deep breath. He held it, then exhaled through his nose. “Gentlemen,” he said at last. “My dear friend Aristotle has my diamonds.”

The two employees exchanged glances. “Are you sure, boss?” asked Sergei. “The tunneling chemist, he…”

“I am utterly, utterly certain,” whispered Moreland. “I should have known immediately, when Tzanakos agreed to wager his diamonds.” He sighed again, then quickly gathered his composure. “Mr. Phillips, I want you to call the police and have them meet me at Tzanakos’ss manor.”

“Sir,” replied Phillips in a quiet, hesitant voice. “They won’t search his mansion without a warrant, and I don’t think I can get us one based only on that voicemail.”

Moreland stared up at the former detective. “I know, Brandon,” he said with a sigh. “If Tzanakos is anything like me—and he is somewhat, I’m loath to admit—he has my diamonds hidden away in a place the police would never be able to find.” He rose to his feet and started for the staircase. “No, I want the police there to keep me from strangling that Greek asshole with my bare hands.”

As their defeated boss plodded up the staircase, Sergei and Phillips exchanged a brief, surreptitious smile with each other. The pair then climbed the stairs, on their way to the Tzanakos manor…for the second time that day.

“Are you still hosing him down?” asked Phillips.

Sergei grunted and aimed the stream of water at Stengler’s face. “All day, every day, Moreland gives me shit jobs. But this, this is fun, for a change. You done already?”

Phillips nodded and took a seat. “Yeah. Not much to it. Grand Unified International Bank is real, and there’s a Donovan who works there. I can’t find out if he was in on any scam without doing the sort of prying Moreland doesn’t want me to do yet, though.” He chuckled and leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms overhead. “My best guess is that the phone screwed up, and it showed a 30 minute call instead of a three minute one.”

“Maybe,” said Sergei, “but this little pizdobol really did disappear when I grabbed him.”

“Huh,” said Phillips noncommittally. “Has he said anything?”

“Coughing only,” answered the huge Russian with an evil grin. As if to prove his point, the sopping chemist was wracked by a coughing fit.

“All right, that’s enough,” said Phillips. “Turn off the water so I can ask him a few questions.” With a smirk and a harsh-sounding Russian phrase, Sergei twisted the nozzle shut and threw the hose into a corner. Stengler continued to cough.

“Christ, Stengler, you’ll cough up a lung.” The former detective watched the scrawny chemist continue to cough violently until, accompanied by a gagging wretch, something came shooting out of his mouth.

“Is that his lung?” asked Sergei in astonishment.

“Don’t be an idi…” Phillips bit off his insult as he glanced at the giant’s biceps. He rose to his feet and peered into Stengler’s cage. “It’s…”

“One of Moreland’s Czar diamonds,” finished the chemist, his voice raw from coughing up the gem.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” chuckled Phillips. “How did you…”

“Hand it over, you thief!” shouted Sergei as he surged towards the cage. Despite the solid iron bars between them, Stengler took a step backwards.

“If you take another step, I’ll just swallow it again,” threatened the chemist.

“Do it, and I’ll reach down your throat to rip it out!”

“But then I won’t tell you where the second diamond is,” cautioned Stengler.

“Probably up your ass,” sneered the brute. “I’ll reach in and get that one at the same time.”

“Wonderful image,” muttered Stengler, “but no, I gave it to my employer.”

“Your employer?” asked Phillips.

“Aristotle Tzanakos.”

“Why would you give a diamond to that rich prick?” asked Sergei.

Stengler’s fat lips spread in a wide grin. “It’s my get-out-of-jail-free card. I knew I’d be locked up after Moreland saw his diamonds missing, so…”

Phillips cut him off with a snort. “Nice try, but you’re not getting out of here. Your story doesn’t make any sense. I take it the cell phone wasn’t broken? My boss and my big friend here were paralyzed for half-an-hour?”

Stengler nodded with a grimace. “Yeah. I’m actually pretty impressed that he figured it out, but…”

“Thirty minutes isn’t nearly enough time to steal the diamonds, get over to Tzanakos’s manor, and then get back to Moreland’s side,” interrupted Phillips.

Stengler smirked at the former detective. “I do have a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, so give me a little credit at least.” He rolled his eyes. “Aristotle met me at the front gate.” He shrugged. “Check the security tapes.”

“Bah, he lies!” spat Sergei. “Why would he not just run away with the diamonds?”

Phillips arched an eyebrow at the prisoner, who gave a self-pitying laugh. “If I run, Moreland uses his fortune to track me down. Not a very fair fight. I’d much rather have him pick on someone his own size.”

“Enough talk,” said Sergei, reaching into his pocket for the key to the cell. “I’ll kill you, then give the diamond to Moreland.”

“This one diamond,” said Stengler, lifting the diamond to his mouth. “After you kill me, do you think Moreland will thank you when you tell him that you could have had both diamonds?”

Phillips laid a restraining hand on Sergei’s arm. “So what’re you saying? If we let you out and take you to Tzanakos….”

“…I’ll give you gentlemen both diamonds,” finished the chemist.

“Give?” asked Sergei. “Sell, you mean, and we don’t have—”

Give,” repeated Stengler with emphasis. “If I sold them to you, I’d be a thief. And, as I kept telling your employer, I’m no thief. So I’ll give them to you, and you can return them to Moreland.”

Phillips eyed the chemist and leaned in close to whisper to Sergei. “What do you think?”

Sergei shook his head and answered with a deep rumble that barely passed for a whisper. “If we wait, Moreland will…”

“In a way,” interrupted Stengler, “it’s too bad that I’m not a thief. Because I’m sure Mr. Tzanakos would pay very generously for those two diamonds. In fact, he wrote me a check for $3 million just for poking a hole in Moreland’s invincible arrogance. He didn’t even give it a second thought. I bet writing two more, even bigger checks for the diamonds themselves wouldn’t bother him in the least.”

Phillips and Sergei stared at the bedraggled man, who sat down on the bench in his cell and said no more. The pair looked at each other, each seeing the avarice in the other’s eyes, knowing that the sight was a reflection of their own greed.

“Give me the key, Sergei,” said Phillips.