Things got out of hand. One night Mr. Perlmutter was driving around out in the county after working steadily all evening. It was about nine. He was tired but restless, unsatisfied. He thought of heading home, but then out on the north perimeter of a second-rate mall the plate jumped out at him, flashing from the back of a Chevy Suburban. The letters shone in his headlights like a torch: V1CTR.

This could have meant many things -- a private joke among professionals, some kind of rebus, a play on someone's name. But to Mr. Perlmutter the meaning was clear: a simple distinction or choice of sides, this thing and not its opposite. Me, not you. The curb weight of a Suburban, fully loaded, exceeds 5,000 pounds. He got out of his car and opened the trunk.

He was just getting started when he saw the police lights flash on at the far end of the lot. There was just enough time to jump back in his car, which he'd left running, peel around the corner and duck into the mall garage. Cut off by slower traffic, the police did not pursue.

No joke