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I was doing research for my crime novel. The old Don was gracious enough to grant me an audience. We met at The Knights of Geribaldi Social Club. A private club in Little Italy. The Don sat alone at a table in a dumpy room. There was a guy behind the bar and two rough looking guys playing cards in the corner. It looked like a scene from a low budget Mafia movie. The Don offered me a seat and called for an espresso. He offered me one but I shook my head. “No thanks, it keeps me awake,” I said like an idiot.
“What, you’d rather be asleep,” said the Don.
Blushing, I took out my notebook and asked him what it takes to be a good thief.
“What’s it take to be a good thief?” The old man sat and pondered the question for a while before answering, “Balls and luck and smarts of course but something else too. Something hard to describe. I can’t put it into words but I can give you an example. The old gray head nodded as the Don thought back on his days as a young hoodlum working his way up the ladder.
“There was this kid, Vincent Testarosa. He was a little older than me. Already a made guy. His specialty was robbery. He liked the smash and grab. Get in, get the loot, get out. Bing bam boom. Sometimes it’s the best way. No one ever accused Vinny of being smart,” the old Don said settling into his chair. He sipped at his espresso and tented his fingers to signal he had a story to tell. “Cruel? Sure, he had a mean streak. Ruthless? He had a hell of a temper. Lucky? Abso-fucking-lutely. One of the luckiest guys I ever met. But smart? He had his moments but he didn’t have that certain something.
“Vinny was like a shooting star. Only he did his own shooting— from a Colt or a Smith & Wesson, if you know what I mean. Take the Diamond Mart fiasco as an example. As crazy and brazen a heist as I’d ever seen. In broad daylight Vinny and three goons walk into this big jewelry store. They make the security guard, four clerks and four customers lie on the floor while they sweep the contents of the showcases into pillow cases they brought with them.
“Vinny plugs the security guard who he thought was trying to be a hero, and on the way out, he shoots Morty Goldberg, the store owner, just for the hell of it. They walk outside and disappear into the crowd. 250 grand worth of jewelry in their sacks in less than four minutes work. Pretty good and lucky wouldn’t you agree?”
I nodded my head in agreement. This was juicy stuff. Just the kind of story my novel needed. The old man called for a bottle of grappa and two glasses. He poured the clear liquid into two shot glasses and gave me look that said drink up. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I downed the liquid in a single swallow and thought I’d die. Red faced and gasping, I watched the Don take little sips of the fiery stuff and chuckle to himself.
“They probably would have gotten away with the whole thing except one of the goons left behind a pillow case with the name of the hotel stamped on the inside. The cops show the store’s security camera footage to the hotel clerk and find out that Vinny and the gang are still checked in to room 606. They’re upstairs drinking and counting up the loot.” Here the old man has to pause and catch his breath from laughing at the memory. He dries his eyes and continues.
“Wait, it gets better. The cops bust into the room. When the shooting stops the three goons are dead but Vinny’s not there. Where’s Vinny? He’s down the hall, in the linen closet banging the chambermaid.” The old man laughed long and hard. When he regained his composure he sipped his coffee and said, “So what would you call that, lucky or stupid? Probably a little of both. But the point I’m trying to make is something was missing from the heist. Are you following me?”
“I’m following the story,” I told him, “but I don’t understand what your getting at.”
“You want another example of being smart and being stupid at the same time?”
I said I did. The Don poured us each another shot of grappa. This time I sipped it. He smiled. “You’re learning,” he said.
“Remember the old Seaman’s Bank on Avenue B? I remember when Vinny robbed it? He had a foolproof plan he said. A plan which went to shit the minute someone pressed the silent alarm and the cops surrounded the place. It was a scene right out of Dog Day Afternoon. Cops everywhere. SWAT Team, snipers on rooftops, the whole block surrounded. Vinny and his boys trapped inside with a dozen hostages. What a mess. What the cops didn’t know was that the hostages were all blindfolded from the start and couldn’t see a thing.
“Vinny got on the phone with the hostage negotiator and started reading off a long list of demands. He wants a helicopter, he wants bullet proof vests, he wants lunch, he wants this, he wants that. The negotiator is pulling his hair out, frustrated. Vinny won’t let him get a word in. The guy’s about to loose his temper when there’s a white flag at the door and about ten hostages come out. They’re still blindfolded. The cops grab them and take them to the secure area they set aside for hostage de-briefing.
“The negotiator thinks they’re making good progress and he calls Vinny to resume negotiations. Again Vinny gives him a list of demands. He wants a pepperoni pizza, he wants a pair of bowling shoes size ten, he wants a six pack of imported beer. The list goes on and on and again the negotiator can’t get a word in. Vincent won’t answer any questions about how many more hostages he has—nothing, just more stupid demands.” Here the Don gets a wistful look in his eyes and chuckles to himself at the memory of that long ago day.
“Now the reason Vinny wasn’t answering any questions was because Vinny wasn’t on the line. The negotiator was talking to Vinny’s answering machine thing. Vinny already left the bank with the first group of hostages. He’s got his cell phone in his pocket and instead of it saying ‘I’m sorry I can’t come to the phone right now, please leave a message,’ Vinny has programmed it to read off this long list of demands. Makes me laugh just to think about it.” The old Don signals for another espresso and asks me again if I want one. This time I accept. Anything but more grappa. When the little cups of foamy liquid are delivered, the Don takes a sip and continues.
“Of course things got a little dicey in the hostage holding area when one of the goombahs pulls a gun and shoots a detective in the face. There was a big gunfight. Cops and hostages running for cover. Vinny somehow slips away in the confusion. He has about 60 grand taped to his body. The rest of the gang is either killed or captured.
“So you tell me, was Vinny stupid, unlucky, brilliant or what? If he was improvising, you got to admit, it was brilliant. If that was his plan all along, it was also brilliant and he was a little unlucky. And, if that was his plan but he hadn’t worked out the part at the end where you’re supposed to get away with the loot, then he was stupid. Are you starting to understand?” The old man look at me.
“I think so,” I said. "You’re saying it takes more than guts and luck to be a good thief?”
“That’s part of what I’m saying. You want another example? You’re a slow learner.” The Don sighed and looked at me like he was trying to teach a retarded kid how to drive. He refilled my glass and launched into another round of story telling.
“There were so many stories like that about Vinny, he began to get a reputation as a jinx. It wasn’t safe to go on a job with him. Guys were scared to sign on with him. He was forced to recruit from the lowest of the low—psychos, young punks, drunks and junkies. Everyone else thought he was cursed. So all he had was a bunch of amateurs for his last job. This time he was going for the big score. Diamonds again. This time it was the Diamond Exchange itself—a big diamond wholesaler on the top floor of a building on 74th Street.
“Vinny knew a guy who knew a guy who worked in the building and could let Vinny and his crew in through a service entrance. Vinny had the gang dressed in overalls with the name of some elevator repair company on the back. There’s no security on the service door so Vinny and the boys march in and take the elevator to the top floor. They stop the elevators and barricade the exits. Then Vinny pulls the fire alarm. When the Diamond people start coming out, Vinny grabs them and locks them in an office. He grabs the big boss and forces him to open the safe.
“So Vinny has a fortune in diamonds but no way out that anyone can see. By now the fireman are pounding on the doors of the blocked exits. Vinny lets them in and locks them in an empty office. He takes their uniforms. The gang runs down the steps dressed like firemen passing all the cops running the other way. Everything is going great until they get to the ground floor. The fire-chief doesn’t recognize them and raises the alarm. Again there’s a shootout. This time Vinny’s luck runs out. He’s shot, captured, and locked up. They throw the book at the guy. He’s charged with a whole laundry list of crimes including a few counts of murder. The wind up is Vinny gets sentenced to sixty years.
“So we fast forward twenty years. Vinny is now fifty four years old. He’s spent a third of his life in prison. He’s been a model prisoner and finally eligible for parole. The guards are taking him to his first parole hearing. He’s got two prison guards leading him along. Vinny’s in cuffs and shackles. Hands behind his back and ankles chained. So he’s shuffling along. He finally has an opportunity to get out of the joint and maybe start over but he’s still Vinny—smart, lucky, stupid all mixed together. I’d give a thousand bucks to know what he was thinking.
“Anyway, he’s in the elevator with the two guards. They’re in front of him facing the doors, he’s looking at the backs of their heads and feels the railing at the back of the elevator car. It’s firm and solid and just the right height. Vinny grips the rail, lifts his legs high in the air and slams both guards in the back of their heads. They smash into the elevator door and fall to the floor just as the door opens. There’s no one in sight so Vincent finds the key and opens his restraints. Then he takes both revolvers from the guards. One guard begins to stir so Vinny smashes him a few licks. Just to make sure, he smashes the other guard too.
“Then he takes off down the hall and bursts into the hearing room where the parole board has convened. Lots of screaming and shooting. Cops and security guards come running. Another shootout. This time Vinny is mortally wounded. The toll is three dead and six wounded. Vinny bleeds to death before the medics can get to him. So you tell me, was he lucky? Stupid? What’s the difference, he’s dead.”
Now I understood what the old man was trying to tell me. I sipped my espresso and gathered my thoughts. The Don waited to hear what his dim pupil would say. “You’re saying a good thief brings back his gang and the loot. It doesn’t really matter how. A good thief is a successful thief.”
The Don relaxed in his chair. He patted my hand. The audience was over.
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