Thief Coach

It would have been easier just to kill him, but that really isn’t my style.

I approached the Bakas Club at the corner of Fort and Brush, right in the heart of Greektown, at around nine. The tall one made me right away and spread the word. Panos was still on edge after I swung on him during an argument in his restaurant last week. I’m not proud of it. Looking back, I’m lucky he and his didn’t drag me into the alleyway and put two in the back of my head.

That night, he made sure all the hired guns had a picture of me in their breast pocket. He had my winning smile tattooed on the insides of their eyelids. They were on guard, convinced I had come to cause trouble. But after all the build up, I just smiled and calmly handed the short, pudgy one my invitation. The guy was completely thrown. You should have seen the look on his fat, stupid face. He had what seemed like a five minute long conversation with his supervisor.

I wasn’t worried. That invitation was real. I was on the guest list and everything. They had no choice but to waive me in. It was what Panos wanted. He needed something from me. And after fighting for what seemed like forever, I had finally come to surrender.

Now, let me make one thing clear. I’m not some degenerate who makes a habit of chugging a few too many and swinging on guys. Far from it. I had good reason to take my shot at Panos. We used to be partners, you see. I pulled him off of the street when he was barely eighteen, caught him breaking into my Cadillac in the parking lot of Casino Windsor, across the river in Canada. I normally didn’t like Canadians. They talked funny, had stupid haircuts and generally suffered from debilitating inferiority complexes. But Panos was different. He spoke like a human being, for one thing. He was capable and confident. He never felt like he had to prove himself to anybody. I saw it in the kid from minute one… Potential.

I took him under my wing. He was a wild one at first, didn’t like taking orders. “You’re not my dad!” he kept reminding me. Truth is, he never knew his father. And his mother didn’t have much use for him, either. I was the first adult who ever gave a damn about Panos.

All kids crave structure and discipline, even if they don’t know it. Panos was no different. Once he was convinced I actually cared, he let his guard down and started listening. I taught him everything I knew. The kid was a natural. He soaked up information like a sponge. He loved the game, loved the adrenaline rush that came with it. It wasn’t long before I made him my entry man. After just a few jobs, I could say with complete confidence that he was the best I’d ever seen. I was proud of the kid. I thought I had made a man out of him.
Turns out I created a monster.

About ten years back, I met a girl, Marcy. Now, usually when you hear an old fool telling war stories, he’ll claim his girl was the most beautiful, most intelligent, the best thing since sliced bread. I can’t really say that about Marcy. She was attractive enough. She kept clean, did her nails regularly. She didn’t have hair anywhere it shouldn’t be. Marcy certainly wasn’t dumb. She did two years at the community college. Had an Associates, or whatever. What I can, and feel I must, say about Marcy is that she opened me up. I know I probably sound like some limp-wristed jackoff saying that, but the truth is, for a good thirty-five years, I was stuck. I never worried about anything but the next score, the next beer, the next lay.

She made me see the possibilities. I started thinking about the future, about settling down, about kids and dogs and white picket fucking fences. She bought a book on parenting. Made me read it. No one would ever accuse Marcy of being subtle. But she had a point. We weren’t kids anymore. If we really wanted a family, and we did, there was no time to waste. There was just one problem…

I never told Marcy what I did for a living. She wouldn’t have approved, wouldn’t have stayed with me. She was principled in that way. In most ways. She thought I was a locksmith. It wasn’t hard to sell. I had a storefront. I went in and punched a clock everyday.

The game was no place for a family man. And if I was gonna commit to Marcy, I knew I had to get out. But not before I made one last score, something that would set us up for life. I didn’t want to have to worry about money moving forward. Bills. Food on the table. Sure, I was gonna let them retire my jersey, but that didn’t mean I was ready to live like some sad paycheck-to-paycheck sack.

So, while Marcy was impatiently waiting for her ring, I was out looking for my opportunity. On a cold November afternoon, I found it. A couple of Jew jewelers in Bloomfield Hills. Millions of dollars in merch.
This was it. The cliché of every Goddamn heist movie I’d ever seen. One last job. Then we’d start our family and live happily ever after.

But it never works out that way, does it?

Panos didn’t take kindly to me retiring. He felt betrayed, abandoned. “Stabbed in the back,” he said. He felt the need to stab right back and he got me pretty good.

To make the long short, we pulled the job and then he put two in my chest, ran off with the goods and left me holding the bag. When I finally woke up in the hospital a few days later, I was handcuffed to the goddamn bed. I’d be under lock and key for most of the next decade.

Prison was one thing, I could do time standing on my head, it was losing Marcy that really ate at me. She came to see me once, just to tell me she was done. She said she thought she owed me that much. She probably didn’t.

She looked hollow, dead. Her hair was messed, nail polish chipping. She had obviously been crying on the ride up, her eyes were all red and puffy, her makeup smeared.

The whole bit damn near killed her. Panos damn near killed her. I helped, I know. Maybe I loaded the gun, but he pulled the trigger. All of our dreams, Marcy’s and mine, they were dead too. All that was left was this nightmare.

I did eight long years. Got out early for good behavior. I had nothing in there, nothing but my hate whispering in my ear 24/7. That’s really what kept me going. I knew if I stayed alive, if I walked the straight and narrow, I’d eventually get out. I’d eventually have the chance to shove all this right back up Panos’ ass.
I entered the Bakas and made a beeline for his table. The VIPs, bigwig Greek gangsters in this case, still hung out behind the purple velvet curtain in the back corner.

It wasn’t too long ago that Panos was fetching drinks for the Greek high and mighty. Now, they were all taking their orders from him. I had to admit, he had really made something of himself. He took the money from the jewelry store heist, my money, and spun it into quite the criminal empire. He was into drugs and numbers like anyone, but his bread and butter was money laundering. ‘Bank of Detroit,’ they called him. Every gun with an ill-gotten dollar brought it to him. He set up shell companies, sent their money overseas and after a few creative twists and turns, it can back to them in the form of a fully legitimate paycheck, with a small percentage missing, of course.

“Look at this fucking guy!” Panos shouted, eyeballing me as he stood up from his table. He was surrounded by women, whores probably. And that’s not me being insensitive. I just know Panos.

“Happy Birthday!” I said with a well-practiced smile. It was Panos’ 40th and a massive party was in full swing.

“You got big stones walkin’ in here after that shit you pulled the other day.”

“Believe it or not,” I said. “I came here to apologize.”

Panos looked at me like I had just told him the goddamn tooth fairy existed. Shit, I had a hard time believing it myself. But it was the God’s honest truth.

“What’s the catch? What am I missing here?” he said.

“No catch. I’m sorry, Gerald,” I said. Panos was his last name. His first name was Gerald. Few people knew that. He always went by ‘Panos,’ or his nickname ‘Lefty.’ He hated his given name. For good reason too. It was a pussy’s name. He cringed when I said it. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure his guys hadn’t heard. I had to stifle a laugh.

“I shouldn’t have swung on you like that,” I added, “particularly not in your own joint. It was classless.”

He took a step back, was no longer on guard.

“I was hoping we could sit down,” I said, “you can tell me about this thing you’ve been cooking up. I figure I owe you that much.”

I offered my hand. He took it. Panos shook hands like a prissy woman. He just kind of laid his hand in yours and didn’t squeeze at all. It had always disgusted me, still did.

He turned to his harem. “Beat it,” he said.

They scurried off to the dance floor. We sat down.

“The black girl,” he said staring lecherously after his bought women. “You see those lips? Girl could suck the good out of Jesus.”

While in the joint I had the time to really examine Panos’ obsession with hookers and I think I figured it out. The guy’s got some real abandonment issues. The few people he dared love left him. His father, his mother… Me. Now that he had some juice, he didn’t just want to be your buddy, or your lover. He wanted to own you. The hookers and hoodlums on his payroll were the closest things he had to friends and family now. They needed him, his money anyhow, so they weren’t going anywhere. That’s what he wanted from me. He wanted me to need him.

With an arrogant smile, Panos poured two healthy glasses of Johnny Walker Blue. Just his style. Blue is a marvelously overpriced blend. It’s what lawyers drink. They trade bottles of it at Christmas. It’s how a dickhead lets you know he’s spending money on you.

I raised my glass, beating back contempt.

“To getting back in the game,” I said.

“To getting back in the game,” Panos echoed with an evil smile.

We clinked glasses and drank.

Panos started in, telling me about the high-rise job. He’d been trying to strong-arm me into pulling it for weeks. He made it sound like a cakewalk, like I’d pump a couple of quarters into a vending machine and it would jerk me off and then spit out a few million dollars. He artfully left out the part about his little blood vendetta, the Chaldean smuggler who had crossed him. The smuggler’s private army, who guarded the place like Christ himself was buried there.

This job wasn’t about money. It was about revenge. Panos had a score to settle with this guy. I could understand that, even respect it. But I never appreciate deception. You don’t lie to the men you work with, the men you count on. I tried to teach that to Panos. I guess I failed.

Panos sure-as-shit wasn’t going to pull this job himself. He didn’t get his hands dirty anymore. He didn’t have to. The problem was there weren’t any big game thieves left in Detroit.

In the decade I was incarcerated, the laws governing thieving in the city of Detroit had changed dramatically. And when I say “laws,” I don’t mean the nonsense those elected hairdos pass in Lansing. I’m talking about street law, shit that actually means something.

Panos had acquired so much power in those ten years that he was writing most of the meaningful legislation these days and all of it expressly benefitted him. You seriously couldn’t shoplift a six-pack of beer without kicking four cans up to him.

Panos was the only fence in town, the only bank. If you wanted to operate in Detroit, you had no choice but work for him. And he worked you to the bone; forced you to do job after job until you were useless or dead. And then he’d discard you like yesterday’s garbage. As a result, the few high caliber guys Panos hadn’t burned through got the hell out of Dodge a long time ago.

Panos acted like he was doing me a favor, making old wrongs right, helping me get back on my feet. But the truth is, he needed me. I was the only game in town.

Normally, I’d have shown Gerald where to cram it. But that evening, I needed him to think I was into it, that I had put the past behind me.

#

The kids were there when I moved in.

I was fresh out of the joint. My parole officer got me a shitty gig sweeping floors at a tool and die shop in Southfield. I don’t know why I moved back to the old neighborhood. Something called me, I guess. It used to be a nice place, a lot of families and well-manicured lawns. Now, it was all boarded up tenements, graffiti and garbage everywhere. Gunshots ringing out every night like it was the Fourth of July.

The place had turned into a fucking zoo. Jungle is more like it. At a zoo all the animals are in cages.
The kids were out on the corner every day at noon. Denard was the leader. Tough kid, but he was soulful, you know? I could tell right away that he was reasonable, that he had a good heart. His little brother was always following him around. A tiny shit-talking spitfire named Lavelle. Denard had a pretty girlfriend that visited him every evening. Kisha, was her name. She always said hello to me. Nice girl.

TyVon was the muscle. One of those kids that stood six foot plus in eighth grade. From what I’d seen, the boy had the size, but didn’t know what to do with it yet. They called the other kid “Cheeto.” I asked once how Cheeto got his name and TyVon told me, “He eat a lot of Cheetos.” So, there you go.

Cheeto had a gift. He could fix almost anything. Folks in the neighborhood would bring him their broken stereos, their ipods or whatever, and he’d have them working in no time.

The addicts would start lining up at around eleven, jonseing for their morning fix. I’d come out of the building and they’d be laid out on the stoop, shivering, drooling like dogs. The first time I stumbled upon one of those assholes (‘tripped over him’ is more accurate) I thought he was dead. He was unconscious, pulse not perceptible. He had clearly shat himself. Just to be certain though, I nudged him with a foot a few times. Eventually, he stirred and vomited on my dress shoe.

The kids worked that corner until eight or nine, hooting and hollering, music blaring. And if anybody complained, they got threatened, or worse. In two months, I never saw a single cop come by and harass them. But that’s Detroit.

About once a week, their boss, a brutal, Ghoulish-looking cat I’d come to know as Sway, would roll up in a black Cadillac, gorilla of a bodyguard always in tow. Those kids would stop whatever they were doing, rush over and listen to that man as if he were the Lord himself.

#

Beaumont came to me on a Friday. I remember because Friday is payday. I had just cashed my check and was pretty flush. He wanted a quiet meeting, the privacy of my apartment. I wanted music, dregs shouting, cigarette smoke, that good kind of chaos. I wanted to drink. He grudgingly followed me to Skinny’s on Eight and Woodward.

Beaumont didn’t pull jobs. He sniffed ‘em out and set ‘em up. He was a guy that could get a hold of things, talk people into doing shit they didn’t want to do. You need a 100,000 psi waterjet cutter on twelve hours notice? Somehow he’d track one down at a construction site in Romeo. Blueprints for the DPD’s third precinct? That shit ain’t easy to come by, not anymore. But he’d sure as shit be fucking a girl in the city planning office and could have his hands on them in an hour. You need an inside man? He’d figure out who had a drug habit, who owed money, who had a scumbag brother in trouble and then he’d lean on them. It wouldn’t have been possible for me to pull the jobs I did without Beaumont. Guys like me needed guys like him. He was damn good at what he did and he made an assload of money in this game, until Panos started running things, that is. Once old Lefty took charge, middlemen like Beaumont became a luxury few could afford.

If there was one guy in this God-awful world that hated Gerald more than I did, it was Beaumont. The old bastard seemingly spent every waking minute trying to find a way to get back at Panos, to royally fuck him over. When we sat down that Friday evening, he had finally figured it out.

“I got it,” he said. “You’re gonna shit yourself.”

It was a good plan. Well, “plan” is little much. We weren’t really there yet. We didn’t know how we were gonna pull it off. Let’s just call it an opportunity.

I told you before that Panos made the lion’s share of his loot laundering money for Detroit’s bad seeds. This is how it worked. At the end of each month, the local drug kingpins, pimps and other gangster-types would show up at Panos’ restaurant, Yelli’s, one-after-another at all hours of the night, and deposit their ill-gotten cash in the basement safe, a rusty old Diebold that was installed when the building was erected in the 1920s. An armored car came by at seven the next morning to pick it up and drive it off to be legitimized.
Now, Panos didn’t skimp on security. He had plenty of overly armed, eager-to-hurt gun thugs patrolling the hallways. There was video surveillance and a pair of attack dogs. The local riff-raff had no reason to believe their money wasn’t one hundred percent safe. But as is often the case with criminals, nobody trusted anybody else, particularly when millions of dollars was involved.

So, Panos made it possible for his clientele to guard their own money. At the end of each month, when the cash was rolling in, Panos held a massive poker game in the basement. The hoodlums would show up, deposit their dough, always keeping a healthy stack to gamble away of course, and then sit there until 7am when the truck picked it up.

The poker game really was a stroke of genius. The fact that it put his clients at ease aside, Panos was a damn good player. Most of the idiots that walked through his doors were not. Though they all watched too much ESPN and all thought they were Phil Ivey. Beaumont figured Panos made an extra eighty grand each month playing poker from seven to seven. Not a bad haul.

Now, normally, with a hundred guns keeping a watchful eye on this money, a lifter like me couldn’t get near it. But that month, things would be different. July 31st, that month’s collection day, was Panos’ 40th birthday. He was throwing a massive party and every nogoodnik in Detroit was going to be there to pay their respects.
In other words, no poker game.

I’ve never been one to celebrate birthdays. Now, I understand that living in Detroit, playing the game we do, making it through another year could be seen as an achievement. But an achievement worth celebrating? Hell, no. Assholes celebrate birthdays. And GIANT assholes throw themselves parties.

Panos redefined the term “GIANT asshole.” The guy went all out, planned everything himself. He strong-armed some fancy pants TV Chef into scaring up the spread. A violinist from the New York Philharmonic played during dinner. The waiters wore tuxedos with white gloves and served on silver trays.
It was a lot of flash, the best of the best if you go for that sort of thing. But it was completely wasted on the crowd of unrefined Detroit gangsters, myself included. White wine being guzzled with beef, red paired with chicken. One guy asked a waiter to add some soda (“or some shit”) to his glass of 1982 Chateau Lafite Rothschiled. Fine cuts of meat were as a rule ordered well done. And I twice caught a brother asking for a bottle of A1 Steak Sauce.

Hundreds showed, eager to bathe in opulence and excess. They dropped their money off at Yelli’s that afternoon, locked it in the old Diebold, and then went home to get gussied up. The security at Yelli’s would still be top notch, don’t get me wrong, but that night, they’d be down about a hundred gangsters…
I didn’t kill people. That wasn’t my style. I stole from them. I wanted to get back at Panos and the planets were going to align that night. It was our chance, Beaumont’s and mine. We wouldn’t get another.

#

Our opportunity was coming, but we didn’t have a crew. The city’s lack of operators aside, nobody would dare cross Panos. Beaumont and I couldn’t pull the job just the two of us. It looked like we might be shit out of luck, until…

I needed a drink. I wouldn’t get paid again for three days, so a trip to the bar was out of the question. I left my apartment and walked down to the corner store.

The proprietor, a one-armed Armenian named Vahe, loved to tell war stories. He claimed to have been some sort of freedom fighter. I swear to Christ I must have heard that asshole tell the story of how he lost that arm two hundred times. With each go-round the particulars were wildly different and he was usually just a little bit more heroic. His accent was heavy, his English was poor, and he talked my fucking ear off. But I needed a drink and Vahe would always pour me a plastic cup of whiskey when I swung by. “A small price to pay for good conversation,” he’d say. Anyway, just as Vahe was pouring me a couple of fingers, things got interesting…

I would learn later that Vahe had spent the last week feuding with the corner boys. He caught TyVon shoplifting a couple of butterfingers one evening and the two had themselves a tussle. TyVon was a big kid and he liked to throw his fists, but Vahe had been around the block more than a few times. He kept a large can of military-grade tear gas behind the counter and he lit TyVon up. It was a terrible sight, I’m told. His face red, eyes swollen shut. The kid was screaming and crying.

To make the long short once again, TyVon swore revenge and he came to get it before I could finish my drink.

They struck that place like a lightning bolt. I didn’t even see them come in. It’s like they just materialized. Cheeto took the door. Denard worked crowd control and called shots on the fly. He handled me well, made me lay face down and put my hands on my head. TyVon hit the counter and made Vahe dump the cash drawer into a non-descript paper bag. They clearly had a plan and they executed it to a tee. Denard finally ordered everyone out and the boys disappeared into thin air.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I was brimming with excitement. The kids were a little rough around the edges, but I couldn’t kick the feeling that they just might work. When I told Beaumont the next morning, he thought I was crazy. He reminded me that the last time I tried to train a raw prospect… Well, it’s what got us into our current predicament. He had a point, but still, I wasn’t gonna blow this opportunity. The kids were gonna rob Panos. And I was going to show them how.

#

Back when I was coming up, if you wanted to become a thief, a real deal thief, you had to find someone who could show you how to do things slick. I apprenticed under a master. He taught me everything I’d need to know to make a career out of this. This profession, it requires creativity, ingenuity, planning and patience. My mentor made sure I understood all that. He looked out for me. Matter of fact, he was the closest thing I ever had to a father. I tried to play that role with Panos and I failed. These kids were giving me another chance.
Thief School, they called it. For six weeks, we locked ourselves up in my ratty ass apartment and I held court, taught class. Entry, alarm systems, safe cracking. I finally showed TyVon how to throw his fists around. I’d never tell him this, but I had to start watching how I talked to him. Truth was, after just a lesson or two, he could have knocked me out pretty readily.

Sway wasn’t gonna let them off that corner, so the boys had to pull double duty. They did his bidding by day and trained with me by night. It wasn’t a perfect arrangement, but we didn’t have much of a choice.

Getting through to these kids wasn’t easy. They were all hardasses. They had been through hell and thought that made them special. Like they were the only ones God had ever shat on. I reminded the boys that their situation was not unique. The prisons are filled with guys just like them. And so are the morgues. At the same time, I made them understand that their situation was about to change. They were no longer stray dogs or street rats. They were part of a crew. People were counting on them. They mattered now. They mattered to me. That got to them.

The first time I sat down with my mentor, I started jotting down some notes. The old man ripped that notebook away from me, tossed it in a garbage can, and set it on fire. The lesson there? Do NOT write anything down. Anything important had to be memorized. It wasn’t a hard lesson for me to learn. But these kids? They text, tweet, they facebook… It took me a while to figure out what all that shit meant but when I did, I was Goddamn horrified. While I was locked up, a whole generation grew up thinking everything they did was fit to share with the world. These kids take a shit, they want to tweet about it.

To make my point, I took all of their cell phones, dropped them in the toilet and pissed all over ‘em. The boys took issue with this, of course. Especially TyVon. He had “bitches” calling him all day, everyday. But I made it clear, if they wanted to be thieves, they HAD to remain anonymous. Invisible even. No cell phones, no emails, and no twitter. The “bitches” would have to wait. This was non-negotiable.

I thought I was getting through until one of those damn phones started ringing. It was a distinct ring and the boys recognized it instantly. Denard jammed his hand down into that urine-filled toilet, grabbed his phone and took the call. It was Sway. He needed them for something. Before I could get a handle on what was going on, the kids were rushing out the door. I was stunned.

The moment that phone rang there was honest-to-God fear on those boys’ faces. And fear was something I thought had been beaten out of them long ago. I paced around my apartment for hours, my heart racing, until they finally returned, bloodied and bruised. Turns out, Sway was in the middle of a turf war and he put my guys on the front lines. Cheeto and Denard took their share of hits, but it was nothing a cold shower and a good night’s sleep couldn’t handle. TyVon was a different story. I had turned the kid into a one man wrecking crew and while he was mowing down Sway’s enemies, he ended up with a deep gash in his right arm. I called Beaumont and we rushed over to a doctor friend of his.

It burned me up the way Sway used those kids as pawns in his sick little game. He didn’t give a shit about them. He didn’t give a shit about anything except getting his way. That’s when it dawned on me; that’s how I started out. When I first met those kids, all I saw was an opportunity. They were just actors in my little revenge play. Spare me the Fagin jokes. I rented Oliver Twist. At some point though, things changed.
I started thinking about Marcy again, about our dream of starting a family, how she opened my eyes. And for the first time in a long while, I remembered how it felt. I remembered because something impossible was happening. Slowly but surely, I started to feel that way again. Before I knew what hit me, I started to care about these kids, to love them even. The dream that seemingly died when those two slugs tore into my chest was alive and kicking once again. These kids, they had become my family.

I realized that I owed those boys. I owed them something real, something more. More than that corner. More than Sway. More than Detroit.

I remember asking each of the boys a question early on. Where do you see yourself in five years? All three of them either said “in jail,” or “dead.”

Detroit, its streets, it was all these kids knew. In their world people are born, live and die all within a five-mile radius. There is no possibility. No hope. No world outside their little bubble.

While I watched that doctor stitch up TyVon, I made God a promise. I promised to show those boys that they have options. I promised to make them see that there was a way out. We were about to make a shit-ton of money. And money makes anything and everything possible. Education. Legitimate business. They needed to understand that the sky was the limit.

I kept that promise.

I helped those kids think beyond the city limits. They started to dream, to make plans. But no matter how hard I tried, I could never make them forget about Sway.

“Don’t worry,” I finally told them one day in a moment of weakness. “When the time comes, I’ll deal with Sway.”

Those words seemed to put the boys at ease.

I only wish they did the same for me.

#

We tried like hell to get one of those boys on the inside, to get the lay of the land over at Yelli’s. We had them apply for busboy and dishwasher jobs, but Panos wasn’t going for it. When things looked bleak, Beaumont reminded me of Panos’ affinity for young black women.

Denard’s girlfriend Kisha was a Godsend. Intelligent, charismatic, she always thought outside the box. I had actually never saw fit to put a woman on my crew before. But after my experience with Kisha, I wouldn’t think twice about it.

She threw on a skimpy outfit and way too much makeup and sauntered into Yelli’s. Panos fell head over heels for her immediately. Ten minutes in, she had a job as a cigarette girl, working the restaurant and more importantly, working the poker games.

Kisha quickly became a fountain of useful information. She nabbed us the make and model of that old Diebold safe two days in. Beaumont got a hold of one on something called Craig’s List and I started in teaching Denard how to crack it. The boy took to it like a fish to water.

The safe was no problem. It was old, simple. The issue would be getting to it. It was tucked away in the basement of that restaurant, in the backroom where the poker game took place, safely sitting behind a ten-inch thick solid steel Gibraltar Vault door. With a normal crew, it would have been cake. I could have gone through the door, or just avoided it all together and cut through the cinderblock wall next to it. But these were kids, and they weren’t going to be able to drag a waterjet cutter down there and move through concrete. We needed another way in. Kisha found it.

Yelli’s being a restaurant, it turns out there was an old dumbwaiter that dropped right down into the Southeast corner of that room. The issue? The damn thing didn’t work. Well, it would have been an issue, if not for Cheeto. Kisha snuck Mr. Fix It into the restaurant one night to inspect the monstrosity. Turns out, all the dumbwaiter needed was a new motor. Beaumont was able to track one down and Cheeto went to work refurbishing it.

We built a replica of the dumbwaiter car in my apartment to test some things, see what kind of load it would carry. Come to find out, none of the boys fit in the damn thing. None except for Denard’s little brother Lavelle that is.

Yep. That’s right. Recruiting teenagers wasn’t bad enough. I had to move on to small children. I’m not proud of it, but I didn’t have a choice. If we were gonna do this, Lavelle had to join the team. He had been begging for a part in our little play from day one anyway.

The night before the job, Kisha gave us the final lay of the land. Most of Panos’ security would be at the Bakas for his birthday party, particularly after I knocked his ass out the week before. Best she could tell we’d just be dealing with two guards in the parking lot. A guy named Wilfred would be stationed downstairs with two troublesome Doberman Pinchers, Max and Mable. Mable was in heat and apparently Max was continuously trying to mount her. A fat Greek goon named Jorgo would be sitting in the security booth cramming ho-hos into his mouth, eyes glued to the monitors, as dozens of cameras recorded every inch of the building.

Easy as pie.

#

I sat at Panos’ table all night. Laughing, toasting away. It was important to put on the show, because when he got word early the next morning that the restaurant had been hit, he’d come looking for me. I’d be the most obvious suspect. I needed a rock solid alibi and who better than Panos himself?

“Isn’t this great?” Panos said.

I looked him dead in the eye and said, “It’s wonderful. I missed you, kid.”

I’ll tell you what was wonderful. At that very moment, the linen delivery truck we swiped was rolling into the back lot at Yelli’s. This is something that happened several times a week and the guards outside didn’t bat an eyelash.

By then, Kisha had finished up her shift and on the way out she fed the guard dogs some baker’s chocolate. When they started wheezing and vomiting, Wilfred freaked out, just like Kisha said he would, and rushed his “babies” to the emergency room. Amid the chaos, Kisha slipped the previous night’s tape into the surveillance system and queued-up a section during which Wilfred had his pups out for a walk. Once things calmed down, Jorgo unwittingly started watching yesterday’s wholly peaceful feed while tearing into the spoils of a McDonalds run.

The boys had thirty minutes to get in and get out.

I had an extra spring in my step as Panos and I spun over-priced black hookers around the dance floor. It was just after one in the morning. Even if the kids hit a snag, by one-thirty it would all be over. I started dreaming about happily ever after, and then along came the snag.

Sway and that gorilla of his, ever the thorn in my side, stomped over to Panos.

“Who’s watching my motherfucking money?” he shouted.

Sway used the ‘Bank of Detroit’ just like every other thug in town. But he was the only one crazy enough to take issue with how Panos was steering the ship.

“Excuse me?” Panos said, seething.

“Your goons,” Sway continued. “They’re all here. Drinking. Dancing. Running train in the bathroom. Who’s watching my motherfucking money?”

He was right up in Panos’ face, causing quite a scene.

The band stopped playing. The party ground to a halt. All eyes were on Panos. He somehow kept his composure and attempted to assure Sway that his money was in safe hands. “Besides,” he said, with more than a dash of cockiness, “No one would dare–”

“–Then you won’t mind if I head over, hang out ‘til the truck comes by and secures my loot?” Sway asked.

“Be my guest,” Panos replied, with the most strained smile I’d seen in my life. He was clearly hoping Sway was bluffing, that his offer would be enough to assuage the young buck’s concerns. Sway had to understand that not taking Panos at his word would be a huge slap in the face. Sway understood. He just didn’t give a damn. Without so much as a ‘happy birthday,’ he and his gorilla stomped off.

I glanced at my watch. Ten after one. At that moment, Denard and Cheeto were wheeling an industrial-sized laundry bin into Yelli’s, clean linens cleverly concealing a marvelously refurbished dumbwaiter motor and a ten year old boy, eager to lend his brother a helping hand. Yelli’s was less than a ten-minute drive from the Bakas Club. The kids still needed at least another twenty minutes to finish the job. The time had come for me to honor my word.

The time had come to deal with Sway.

Panos was sitting at his table stewing when I approached.

“It was great to see you, kid. I feel truly blessed to have you back in my life.”

“You’ll do that job for me?” he asked.

“I told you, buddy. I’m back in the game. One hundred percent. We’ll talk particulars tomorrow.”

I shook Panos’ limp hand one last time and then headed for the door. I looked at my watch again. 1:15.

#

During a heist, whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. It shouldn’t have taken Cheeto more than a minute and twenty seconds to install the dumbwaiter motor. We timed him in each of our dozen walkthroughs and he always came in under a minute and a half.

The rub? Once he got things connected, a power surge fried the wiring in the main terminal box.
It would have been a death sentence for anyone else, time to cut and run. But Cheeto is a Goddamn wizard. He ripped some wiring out of the restaurant’s commercial dishwasher and rigged up a bypass. The kid was fast, but the procedure cost us five minutes. We had a small cushion built into our timetable, but it was gone now. It wouldn’t be long before Jorgo looked at his monitors and saw a pair of horny Doberman Pinchers who were supposed to be laid-out at the Vet’s office.

#

I exited the building just in time to see Sway’s Cadillac squeal away. I didn’t have my own set of wheels. I needed a ride and I needed one quick. Before one of the valets could spot me, I made my way to the car closest to the road, a Mercedes. The door was unlocked and the keys were in the ignition. The dashboard clock read 1:19.

#

Lavelle climbed into the dumbwaiter and took the trip down, smiling the whole way. That Gibraltar vault door was easy to open from the inside, particularly after Beaumont found a foreclosed mansion in Grosse Point with a similar setup and showed the young man the details.
#
I caught up to Sway’s Caddy at a stoplight about a half-mile from Yelli’s. The light was red. He was idling in the left turn lane. If I let Sway complete his turn, he would probably arrive at the restaurant just as the kids were rolling out the back door with a bin full of cash. I couldn’t let that happen. But if I was gonna be anything more than a bump in the road, I’d need a weapon. Lucky for me, the sled I swiped belonged to local muscle. He kept a loaded Sig 9mm in the glove box.

With just a second or two before the light turned green, I backed the Mercedes up a good ten yards, shifted into drive and put the pedal to the floor…

BOOM! I slammed into the Caddy. The back window exploded, spraying glass onto the street. The airbags deployed, knocking Sway and his goon senseless.

It was 1:22 and there was no going back.

#

Lavelle popped the vault door and Denard was waiting on the other side, basement clear with Wilfred out tending to his horny pups. Denard slipped in and quickly and confidently cracked open that old Diebold, better than even I could have. He’d become quite the Yegg.

#

Sway’s gorilla staggered out of the driver’s seat, bloody and bruised. He reached for his weapon, but I already had the Sig leveled. I shot him in the head and then in the chest. I reached down, grabbed his piece and slipped it into my right jacket pocket. I thought I might need it. I wasn’t sure just how ugly this was going to get. A moment later I got my answer.

Sway emerged from the passenger seat, AK-47 locked and loaded. It was like he just turned on a faucet. Bullets gushed from the barrel. I emptied the Sigs’ clip in the gangster’s general direction, but I might as well have been throwing rocks. Clearly out-gunned, I turned and ran as far away from Yelli’s as my beat up old legs could take me. It was 1:24.

#

At that moment, Denard and Lavelle were sending the cash up the dumbwaiter. We knew we’d be dealing with millions of dollars and we knew we’d be looking at several trips, but it was astounding just how many it took. Most of Panos’ clients were drug dealers and pimps and their customers were bottom feeders who tended to pay in wads of sweaty one-dollar bills.

Cheeto was waiting up top, dumping load after load of small bills into the laundry bin and covering it up with Yelli’s own soiled linens. We were well over our time estimate now. Things were about to get hairy.

#

I raced for cover, an alleyway up ahead. I never made it. Two pieces of hot lead tore into my back and took my breath away. I ended up face down on the concrete. My Sig skipped across the pavement.
Sway approached, calm and cocky. He picked up my piece and let the AK hang from its shoulder strap. He loomed over me, laughing. He droned on for a good couple of minutes. Told me what he planned to do to me, what he’d do to my family afterwards. I couldn’t tell you exactly what he said. It took every fiber of my being just to keep conscious, to keep trying to reach my right coat pocket.
Once Sway was done with his little song and dance, he pressed the Sig to my forehead, smiled wide and pulled the trigger…

Click. The Sig was empty. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He reached for the AK, but it was too late. I had a handful of collar and I pulled him close. I slipped the gorilla’s .38 up under Sway’s chin and pulled the trigger until it was spent.

#

By the time the cash was secured, the boys were six minutes and twenty-two seconds behind schedule.
One minute and eighteen seconds earlier, Jorgo, the Greek blob monitoring the security cameras, had looked up from his Big Mac to see a tastefully framed shot of Max mounting Mable.
Lavelle was climbing back into the linen bin when an utterly flabbergasted Jorgo spilled out of the stairwell, sweat pouring down his fat, panicked face. He towered over the boys, standing between them and the exit door. They had come so far, but it looked as if they wouldn’t cross the finish line. Until…
Someone tapped Jorgo on the shoulder. The behemoth turned around and… WHACK! His eyes rolled back in his head and then he spilled onto the ground like a bucket of water.
TyVon stood over Jorgo, fist clenched, grin on his grill.

“Ya’ll is running late,” TyVon said to his cohorts.

Denard and Cheeto shared a smile.

The boys wheeled the cash out of the restaurant and into our stolen truck. TyVon fired up the old bus and very calmly drove on out of the parking lot, sure to nod to the guard on the way out.
It was done.

#

As I laid there, bleeding out, Sway’s dead body pinning me to the concrete, I actually had a smile on my face. I somehow knew the kids were safe and I was going out on my own terms. I finished a prayer and prepared to meet my maker. That’s when I heard a familiar and wholly annoying sound.
A cell phone. TyVon’s spare. I had to confiscate it from him that very afternoon. He was going to take it on the job.

“TyVon?!” the teenage girl on the other line shouted. “I been callin’ your broke ass all day. You best not be duckin’ me!”

With my last few seconds of consciousness, I hung up on TyVon’s “bitch” and dialed Beaumont.
His doctor friend patched me up pretty good. Things looked hairy for day or two, but I ultimately lived to tell this tale. The down side? My life was saved by a fucking cell phone and those kids will never let me forget it.

#

Panos didn’t know the money was missing until the next morning when the armored car came to pick it up. I called him that afternoon, eager to talk about the high-rise job, but he blew me off, said he was dealing with a shitstorm.

The asshole never even suspected.

His body washed up on the Windsor-side of the Detroit River about a week later. Considering he lost millions of dollars belonging to about a hundred of Detroit’s biggest and baddest, there was a laundry list of suspects.

The kids came out the other side just fine. This whole experience, it made men out of them. I didn’t even have to remind them to keep their mouths shut. Hell, even if they did talk, nobody would ever believe a bunch of teenagers pulled off the job of the goddamn century.
I can hardly believe it myself.

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