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Saturday, July 10, 1999
The sweet smell of a triple-creme torta hung in the air like a good idea. It was morning, summer, and by the time the narrow streets awakened to the Kalashnikov rattle of the newsstand gates, already humid and warm. Up and down the Danube riverbank, old men in sagging underwear and sleeveless shirts hobbled barefoot onto cracked cement balconies, gazing blankly at the sun streaks stalking the rank, still water. At the north end of chestnut-lined Andrassy Boulevard, wisps of steam puffed from the thousand-year-old springs beneath the Szechenyi bathhouse like an eternal Chernobyl.
From the faded royal Hapsburg palace on Castle Hill to the plump pool-green dome of St. Stephen's Cathedral downtown, the opportunities to imagine that nothing was amiss here in the Hungarian capital were indeed everywhere. That was about to change.
Karoly Benko startled from his guard post, a peg-legged chair at the end of a musty hall, and trundled down the jail's pale corridor. Starving and exhausted from a shift that had begun at 6:00 A.M. the previous day, the balding thirty-two-year-old jail guard called out the number of each cell he approached in a nasally semiconscious drone. "Three-oh-nine, three-ten ..."
It was time for the morning walk.
Corporal Benko, who had forgone university for a chance at such employment, was already a veteran of these hallowed, hated halls. He was the top man in charge of three others on duty that day and 298 prisoners in custody at that hour. It wasn't respectable or even modestly paying work, yet occasionally Karoly felt like the mayor of a small city. Inside the copper-fortified cages he opened was an unscientific sampling of Budapest's misguided, misfortunate, or mistaken: thieves, con artists, killers, men with too many scars or too few teeth. But regardless of who they were or what they'd done, the inmates had their rights, and if they didn't get their walk, every one of them knew he had only to yell, "International Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg," and wait for the rattle of the keys. Times had certainly changed in the decade since the fall of communism. Didn't Karoly just love it.
When he reached cell no. 312, Karoly saw a familiar figure through the slot window of the thin, cafeteria-green door. It was Attila Ambrus, prisoner no. 43, wide-awake and standing stiffly in a military posture, as if he were guarding the room. He was thirty-one years old and phone-your-friends handsome: wide shoulders, strong jaw, a scruffy new mustache on his thick upper lip, and a bemused look in his hazel eyes that said, "I know where everything is buried." Attila's expression, and even his pose, had a barely perceptible wink to it that you had to ignore if you didn't want to get caught smiling back. It was a classic Hungarian this-isn't-a-wink wink and Attila had it down pat. But twenty-seven hours into a thirty-two-hour shift, his zookeeper didn't have the energy for even a yawn. "Three-twelve," Karoly announced, opening Attila's door while another guard arranged the black metal cuffs on Attila's wrists.
For a fleeting moment, Karoly had a thought: What was Attila doing in jeans and a bulky long-sleeve shirt on such an oppressively hot day? This was a jail for the accused awaiting sentencing or trial. Normally in summer, the inmates dressed in shorts. Then again, Attila, a former pelt smuggler who'd managed to make twenty-six desperate, booze-fueled heists look like performance art, wasn't much like the others. Sure, he had the mystery scars, the childhood horror stories, and the unquenchable yearning to be somebody. But he also had paparazzi and a coterie of women delivering cured meats and fresh pastries. Yes, he bribed the guards with cash and cigarettes to turn their heads when he returned from visiting hours with soda bottles stinking of his signature spirit, Johnnie Walker Red. But he was discreet about it. He seemed to have his own sense of right and wrong. And since he'd never given the guards any real trouble, Karoly had concluded what Attila assumed he would: the so-called Whiskey Robber was a model prisoner.
Attila's cellmate, a fraud, declined to get out of bed that morning for the voluntary exercise call, so Attila alone was ushered into a single-file line, which, when Karoly finished unlocking two more cells, included eleven men from six units. They marched outside into the concrete courtyard, by then half draped in gauzy sunshine, and continued along the outdoor corridor, where the empty exercise chambers awaited. Each cell was assigned one of the six open-air boxes. Attila, every well-honed muscle and overstressed vein twitching with anticipation, soundlessly stopped at the fourth. The sit-ups, the push-ups, the leg-sits, the years of studying ways out of unpromising places, were about to be put to their biggest test; the stomach cramps had started hours ago. At last, his walk-box door was opened and then closed behind him, and he turned to put his hands through the slot so one of the guards could remove his cuffs. God, did he need a drink.
Typically, Attila used the ten-minute fitness allotment to jog circles around the roofless, bare, racquetball-court-size room. He was, after all, a professional hockey goalie for Budapest's best-known team. And by his calculations, which were incessant, 1921/3 laps around the perimeter was roughly five kilometers, or 3.1 miles. But Attila wasn't about to make any unnecessary movements today. His legacy, not to mention his life, depended upon the exactitude of his next series of actions. Attila's round face tightened and his combable eyebrows dropped toward his eyes as he breathed deeply and squinted at the cerulean sky. He figured he had nine and a half minutes.
He pulled up his cream-colored overshirt and his dark undershirt. Beneath them, wrapped tightly around his trim waist, was a pink, red, and blue rope made from the strips of four sets of bedsheets, shoelaces from three pairs of sneakers, and thick strands torn from two towels. He tied a slipknot into the line and threw it lasso-style over the thirteen-foot-high wall. On the second try, it caught on the post of a wrought-iron railing in the guard plank above. With the other end of the rope in hand, Attila stepped back until the cable was taut, gathered his strength, then took a running jump against the wall, hauling himself up to the brim of the jail's interior courtyard.
Phase one complete, but he still had to get into and out of the administration building, which faced him from across the yard.
At 8:54 A.M., the black-and-white monitor inside the central guard station displayed a pair of feet stepping along the thin path atop the walk-box wall in the direction of the brown brick guard tower that stood sentry over the courtyard. On most days, due to staff shortages, the tower was empty. As Attila had chanced, today was no exception. When he reached the unmanned post, he looked down at his open-mouthed fellow inmates and put his index finger to his lips. Then his figure vanished over the far side of the wall.
Attila Ambrus, who had turned a six-year robbery spree into a serialized satire of the times, was at large again.
The emergency decree sealing Budapest was issued at 10:50 A.M. All avenues and highways in and out of the city were roadblocked. Police helicopters hovered low and beelike over the sullen, stately buildings. Then, just as the coast guard set out to check every vessel on the Danube River, the hardest rainstorm in decades began pounding the region. Summer in Budapest was over.
Upon hearing news of the jailbreak, Margit Szabo, Attila's aunt who'd helped raise him in Transylvania, suffered a near-fatal heart attack. But most people who knew the fugitive former gravedigger did not require medical attention.
Lajos Varju, the former chief of the robbery department who had unsuccessfully tracked Attila for five years before dejectedly leaving the force, had warned police two months earlier that Attila would attempt an escape. "They didn't want to listen," he said to anyone who would.
Eva Fodor, Attila's fire-haired former girlfriend who had secured his Hungarian citizenship with a perfume-bottle bribe, then nearly swept him from the crime game with a suburban bartending offer, asked herself: "He's smart enough not to show up here. He is, right?"
Laszlo Juszt, the colossal, albino-like host of the hit television show Kriminalis, veered dangerously close to thrombosis. He was unable to air the latest development in the Whiskey Robber saga, as his top-rated show had been banned from the airwaves following his own arrest on charges of revealing state secrets.
The actress Zsuzsa Csala, who had made headlines by offering (along with roughly a thousand others) to adopt Attila's Bernese mountain dog, Don, when Attila was arrested six months earlier, awoke to the jungle sounds of eight policemen foraging in the bushes of her backyard. "Even if I did know something," she contemplated telling them, "do you think that I would tell you?"
Bubu, Attila's brothel-size former hockey teammate who would soon carry a business card reading UNEMPLOYED HOCKEY PLAYER, laughed so hard, he almost choked on a plate of pig's feet.
Gabor Orban, another of Attila's teammates and his longtime robbery accomplice, settled in for a long day of questioning in his jail cell: "That's right," he told a commando unit. "I'm not surprised at all. But that doesn't mean I knew."
Istvan Szopko, the credit fraud specialist who'd become Attila's cellmate only the previous day but had known the Whiskey Robber legend for years, told police what they already knew: "With him, anything is possible."
And George Magyar, Attila's former-mayoral-candidate lawyer, began to formulate his press statement: "It is unlikely the police will ever find a trace of my client," he would say. "He is much too precise."
All of them, except for Attila's ex-accomplice and cellmate (who were already behind bars), were shadowed by undercover agents and were among the 214 Whiskey Robber associates whose phones were tapped in the apparent hope that authorities might outmaneuver "the century's most persistent, cautious, and most wanted" bank robber.
Thus began the largest manhunt in postcommunist Eastern Europe's history.
Excerpted from Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubinstein Copyright © 2004 by JULIAN RUBINSTEIN. Excerpted by permission.
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