Authors: Robert Ward
Then Dave released him and was back at the mike.
“I just want to say that this is a great and wonderful day for me. I’m here at the Lodge, my favorite place in the world, with the woman I love and my best friend, Bob Wells, and his fantastic girlfriend, Jesse Reardon. And I just want to say that now that this old rebel has fallen, I wonder how long it’s going to be until the two people I love best follow us down the aisle?”
Bob felt intense embarrassment. He loved Dave, he really did, but Dave didn’t respect boundaries. He wanted them to be like teenagers forever, best buddies who went through all of life’s passages together. It was charming in its way. But it was tiresome, too … Bob thought about the money … the money that would get him out of here. Away from the tired old Lodge and, at least for a while anyway, away from frigging Dave.
“Hey,” Bob said, taking the mike, so Dave couldn’t say anything else. “This is totally great. Everything you said to me, Dave, comes right back at you. Jess and I love you and Lou Anne and all of us love the Lodge. I propose a toast to the newly married couple. Here’s to two great people. The best! To Dave and Lou Anne!”
Then Bob and Dave and Lou Anne and Jesse all put their arms around one another, and bowed as the band worked up a drum roll, and Bob stared out at the people who had been his friends for years and saw them all as one gape-mouthed, sweat-stained, many-headed animal, like some mythological beast from a fairy tale, and it was all he could do not to leap off the stage and run screaming out into the street.
A week after Bob first proposed the heist to Ray, he met his crew at Elmer’s bar on South Bond Street, at the bad end of the Key Highway. He’d been by the place a thousand times and always felt a shudder of distaste and, face it, fear. The joint had been a biker hangout in the fifties and sixties, then turned into a kind of hippie/doper bar in the seventies and eighties, and now had devolved into something too sleazy to name. Bob looked around at the cobalt blue concrete walls, the ancient pool tables with their ripped-out pockets, and filthy, stained-glass windows, relics of the hippie thing, Bob guessed. The grill was at the end of the bar and, judging from the smell, Bob thought that maybe they were serving roasted rat. The bartender was a transvestite redneck named Mary Poppins who sported tattoos on both his/her muscular arms. Bob found himself staring at the hissing snakes and other demons that moved like shadows when Mary flexed.
“You looking for Wade?” Mary said.
“Yeah,” Bob said.
“Inna back.” Mary pointed and the snake looked as though it might strike at Bob’s face.
He sat in a worm-eaten booth next to Ray, who had come to the party dressed in his usual black shirt and black Levi’s. Across the table from them was the big safe expert, Cas Jankowski. Cas wore a red shirt with black penguins on it. He ate a monstrous triple burger with double fries and worked on his second schooner of beer. His massive body had a serious triple layer of fat, but one look at his enormous wrists convinced Bob that he was nobody to fuck with.
Sitting next to him was a ferrety-looking guy named Tony Hoy. Tony was a diminutive half-Chinese man who wore an open shirt so he could show off his curly chest hairs. Around his neck he wore a thick gold chain with a pendant hanging off it.
“Ray tells me you’re a head doctor,” Tony said.
“That’s right,” Bob said. “I—”
“So tell me something, Doc,” Tony interrupted. “Why is everything so fucking lame?”
“Why don’t you tell me,” Bob said.
Hoy looked at Jankowski and the big man smirked.
“All right, I will,” Tony said. “No matter where you look, things are less than they used to fucking be.”
“Take the NFL,” Cas said, absorbing another fry. “Few years ago when the Ravens won the Super Bowl, that was exciting, but since then there has been a … falling off.”
“The team’s rebuilding,” Bob said. “I think they’re going to win the Super Bowl again.”
“Really?” Tony said.
Ray was working on a mayonnaise salad sandwich with a shrimp hiding somewhere in it. He looked at Bob and laughed without making a sound.
“But I’m not talking about building or rebuilding,” Tony said. “I’m talking about, you know … bad shit. The feeling that the world is slipping by, the kind of thing where even if say Johnny fucking Unitas came back to Baltimore tomorrow, it wouldn’t amount to shit.”
This was met with a general stunned silence. In Baltimore, Johnny Unitas was a secular saint and it was generally agreed if God ever did come back, he would have number nineteen on his back and be wearing black high-tops.
“That’s a very harsh thing to say,” Ray said, shaking his head. “Very, very harsh.”
“Tell me one thing’s as good as it used to be,” Tony said.
“Pussy,” Bob said, trying to keep the party upbeat. “Pussy’s still good.”
“But not as good as before,” Tony said. “When I was a young man it was a great mystery, right? Now pussy is, like, on the Internet. You can do a Google search for pussy and come up with ten million sites. You can click a key for it, just like Domino’s.”
“But wouldn’t that be, like, a good thing?” Bob said.
“No way,” Tony said. “Supply and demand. When there’s that much going around, where’s the mystique? Now you get e-mails with girls doing horses. Nah, there’s a relaxation of standards. I think it’s the decline of the fucking West.”
“Well, there’s a lot of truth to what you boys say,” Ray said. “But I know one thing that’s as big a kick as ever.”
“And that would be?” Tony said, with a belligerent stare.
“That would be bypassing a guy’s alarms, entering his house, cracking his safe, taking away his shit, then fencing it off for a considerable pile of cash. That’s still as big a rush as it ever was.”
Tony hesitated a second, then smiled with his big white teeth.
“You are a hundred percent right,” he said. “Thank you, Raymond. You’ve restored my faith in the criminal subculture.”
“Yeah,” Cas agreed. “So when do we go?”
“Soon,” Bob said, surprised at himself for jumping in. “But before we do, we have to get the deal straight. I’m offering you guys fifty thousand apiece. That seems like good pay for one night’s work.”
Tony and Cas exchanged a look and then both of them glowered at Bob.
“Let me explain reality to you,” Cas said. “I get a hundred grand on a big heist like this. And a percentage. Usually five percent. Reason is, I’m the best. Now you’re gonna ask what that means exactly and I’m gonna tell you that it means I open the tumblers without having to use nitro, you see? You get a guy who uses explosives and you might blow the shit out of your mask in there. You don’t want that, and you don’t want to use some punch-and-peel joker using a cheap-ass hammer from fucking Pep Boys who is gonna take two hours, do you?”
“Not at all,” Bob said. “But I know a guy over in D.C., an ace safe guy, and he does it by manipulating the tumblers. Uses high-tech equipment, has his own scope.”
Ray raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t expected Bob to know anything at all about safe cracking. But then he hadn’t been with Bob to the library for the past five days doing his homework, either.
“Good luck,” said Cas. “That can take maybe forty-five minutes. You want to sit in the guy’s house that long, be my guest.”
“No,” Bob said. “It doesn’t take forty-five minutes. I’d rather use you, Cas, but if you’re stuck on a percentage, I’m going to have to go with the other guy.”
“D.C. guys are all assholes,” Cas said. “They don’t even live where they grew up.”
“True, but I guess I can live with that,” Bob said. “Fifty thou. You in or out?”
“I don’t know….”
“I definitely get a percentage, usually six percent,” Tony said. “You don’t want to hire some second-rate alarm man, risk the bells and whistles going off inna gendarmes’ station house, now do you?”
“Same deal for you,” Bob said “I was a psychologist down at Jessups, so I know three security systems guys who served time. Any of ‘em will do the job. So what do you say?”
Tony looked at Cas. They looked away, down at the table, then back at each other.
“Sixty,” Cas said.
“Yeah, or go spread the news to D.C.,” Tony said.
Bob sighed and looked frustrated.
“Okay,” he said. “You guys are tough. Sixty each.”
He reached across the table and shook hands with each of them, trying to keep a straight face in the process. But inside he was ecstatic. All that morning he’d had a serious attack of the jitters just thinking about facing career criminals. But now that he was sitting here in this sleaze bar, he was cool, just like he had been years ago when he was Bobby the Street Guy. If he got through this in one piece, he really ought to write a monograph based on the premise that social activism was a wonderful training ground for a second career in crime.
“I have four clean SIGs for us,” Ray said, lighting a Camel.
“I use a thirty-eight police special,” Cas said. “I don’t fuck around with no SIGs.”
“You’re using the guns I got us,” Ray said, staring hard at him. “They’re clean.”
Cas looked at Ray, but then quickly down at his plate.
“Okay, Ray-Ban,” Cas said. “We’ll play it your way.”
“Good,” Ray said. “I also have the gas we need and the masks. Do we know where we make the exchange?”
“I find out tomorrow,” Bob said.
“Okay, then. That’s all for now,” Ray said. “We’re gonna meet again in two days. Then we go. I’ll call you.”
The four of them shook hands again and slid out from the booth.
“You coming, Ray?” Tony said. “We’re going down to Glen Burnie, to the fights.”
“Not tonight, Tone,” Ray said. “I gotta discuss a few things with Bob.”
“Okay,” Tony said. “Later. Nice meeting you, Doc.”
“Yeah,” Bob said. He liked saying “yeah.” You could say it in a way that made it sound like “a real pleasure to meet you, as well, shithead.” Being a criminal was big fun. Like being in a movie, only better.
When the other two partners had gone, Ray shook his head.
“You’re a natural, Doc. You handled those two real well.”
“Thanks,” Bob said.
“Only one thing,” Ray said. “Don’t try to handle me. Our deal is firm.”
“Right,” Bob said. “Totally firm.”
“That’s good,” Ray said. “ ‘Cause I hate guys who try and rip me off. It’s almost a physical thing, like an allergy. I get this itchy feeling everywhere, and then I go nuts and just start fucking people up.”
“Got it,” Bob said.
“Good,” Ray said. “You bring the ten Gs for the gas?”
“Yeah,” Bob said. “Right here.”
He pulled an envelope out of his pocket and slid it across the table to Ray.
“One more thing, Bobby,” Ray said. “If by chance your boy, Emile, comes back early that night, all bets are off.”
“What do you mean?” Bob said.
“I mean, Emile could end up very dead,” Ray said. “We’re not into being ID’d.”
“Hey, wait,” Bob said. “No killing my patient.”
Ray laughed and lit a cigarette.
“That’s not so useful, Doc,” he said.
“Thinking of Emile as ‘your patient.’ “
“Oh no? How
I supposed to think of him?”
“More like ‘your victim,’ “ Ray said.
“All right then,” Ray said. “Think of him as ‘the mark.’ ‘Cause that’s what he is. You wanta be good in this business you gotta, like, suspend your normal human feelings for the ‘mark.’ You get into that ‘he’s a human being, too’ shit, things could go downhill for you and for me, real fast.”
“Thanks for the tip, Ray,” Bob said. “I’ll try to remember to be as cool-blooded as possible.”
“That’s a good idea,” Ray said. “The thing is you’re gonna feel some guilt. But you can, like, lose a lot of it if you concentrate on being professional. You get me?”
“I think so,” Bob said. “I feel better if I think about it as a job well done.”
“That’s it,” Ray said. “You’re a fast learner, Bob. You’re gonna do just fine.”
He reached over and gave Bob a friendly, almost fatherly pat on the cheek. Bob was still wary of Ray, but he felt they’d opened a door. They were actually becoming friends.
A day after his successful meeting with his crew, a newly confident Bob Wells walked with his buyer Colin Edwards up Gay Street. Edwards was dressed in a tan linen suit, looking every bit the successful art dealer that he was. As Bob strolled along with him, it was easy to imagine himself buying a new closet full of fine threads, stylish shoes, and silk ties. Of course, he’d always turned up his moral nose at fashion, but for the first time he wondered if that was only because he’d never had any reason to look fashionable. Who cared how anyone looked in Highlandtown?
Edwards, however, wanted to talk about Baltimore….
“I’m really falling in love with your old town,” he said. “The buildings have such character. And the Dundalk Marine Terminal. That’s really terrific. Baltimore is still an unspoiled place, you know? You’re a lucky man to live here.”
“People who aren’t from here always say that,” Bob said. “That’s because they don’t know how small the place can be, how prejudiced. You live in one neighborhood and go five blocks away, the next neighborhood hates your guts. Why? Because you don’t live there, they don’t know you, and they hate and fear anybody they don’t know.”
“But that’s wonderful,” he said. “It’s tribal. What do you want, Bob, the whole world to be exactly alike? That’s the alternative, you know. Every place is like every other. All the people have a patina of sophistication they got from watching television. They don’t value anything really, though, except ass-kissing celebrities. They’re dead, zombies. People in Baltimore are alive in an ancient, tribal way.”
Edwards was starting to piss Bob off. The last thing he wanted to hear was how bloody lucky he was.
“You like it so much, stay here,” Bob said. “Give up your globe hopping and settle down with a nice Catholic girl from the ‘hood. Visit her family every Sunday for dinner, join the Knights of Columbus, and spend every night in the local bar talking about how shitty the Orioles are.”