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The Burglar Prowls
George Patniks hated his nickname, "Pitty-Pitty." There was no dignity in a name like Pitty-Pitty Patniks, but then Alex Sewell, the boss of cell block C, hadn't been concerned about George's dignity. Sewell had a great nickname, "Steelhead." It implied that nothing could penetrate Sewell's head, not a tool shop knife made from a toothbrush, not a V bar loosened from the bottom of a bunk, not a thought or idea. Steelhead was a risky nickname. It gave a target and defied the other cons to go after it.
But Pitty-Pitty, what the hell sense did that make? George, whose real name was Gregor Eupatniaks, was sure that Steelhead Sewell, who was serving two life sentences for murdering a pair of runaway girls in Moline, hadn't thought about the nickname he bestowed on the skinny kid who had just done the first month of time for his first felony, breaking and entering.
But the name stuck. George couldn't shake it. It followed him to Chicago's Near North Side neighborhood where he had spent his life, except for the two years he had done for breaking and entering and the two more years he had done for breaking and entering again and the year he had done for possession of a weapon, a dinky piece, a .22 he carried in his tool belt under his jacket. It was really the burglary tools in the belt that they had gotten him for, not the Friday night nothing-special, but they couldn't nail him on the tools so they got him for the gun.
Even the police called him Pitty-Pitty. A grown man, now pushing forty-six, with almost six years of down time on three felonies. That was one of the worst things about being picked up, cops yelling his nickname across a squad room.
George considered himself one of the most successful burglars in Cook County. He wasn't sure how many houses, businesses, and apartments he had plucked—two hundred? Maybe three hundred? Maybe more? You'd think he'd keep count, but he didn't, like a movie star on Jay Leno who can't remember how many movies he's been in.
George hadn't worked an honest day in his life since his sixteenth birthday, but the dishonest ones had added up over the years. He practiced his profession once every three or four weeks for a few hours—not counting set-up time—and devoted the rest of his time to eating, sleeping, hanging out with his brother when he was around, and trying, sometimes successfully, to pick up women or girls at Unikle's Tap or the Blue Truck Bar. But what he liked to do most was something that he had picked up in prison. George's passion was painting. He had always liked to draw, but in prison an artist from Chicago named Joplin—guy in denims, hair hanging over his eyes, mess of a beard—had conducted a six-week class in painting. George had taken to it. He was a natural. He could paint what was in his head from the moment he picked up the brush.
Most people thought Steelhead Sewell had given him the name Pitty-Pitty because it was what Steelhead thought it sounded like when George was painting. Trouble was, George was sure Steelhead Sewell did not know he was taking the class or painting.
Joplin the painter had told George that he had talent. Years later, when George was exhibiting in an art fair in Lincoln Park, he ran into Joplin, who was showing his own stuff. They talked. Joplin said he had been out of town a few years. His hands shook. Rummy. Joplin's paintings were for shit. Who had he been to tell George Patniks that he was a good painter? George had a better grasp on reality than that.
George looked at his own paintings—cons leaning lonelily against concrete block walls, smoking and looking at nothing, buildings that looked so tired they might tumble over with a pat on the back from a good wind off Lake Michigan, kids playing in the park on the merry-go-round but not looking like they were having fun. George knew he had the eye. But he didn't have the magic. Wasn't there. No avoiding the truth. No use crying. George could paint. He could paint what he saw, but he was never going to be anything but a summer exhibitor looking for a park district ribbon.
That was fine with George. No kicks. Life was good. Work once every couple of weeks. Make the good score, sometimes big cash in the back of a drawer inside a pair of socks. Sometimes a good sale to one of the pawnshops on Devon or Milwaukee that fenced on the back and down side. You get caught once in a now and then. That was the price. You took it straight up. It was usually bad luck that got you. At least it had been bad luck that got George each time he had been caught, a really good silent alarm connected to a security service, neighbors when there shouldn't have been, a small green-stoned necklace hidden under the floorboard of his apartment and lucked on by an overeager detective on his first case.
But George was older now. A lot older. He had learned from his mistakes. He never talked about his jobs. He cased each one far beyond what any pro might consider reasonable. He'd get the book hard and heavy and not across his knuckles the next time he stood before a judge with decent evidence on the table. George had to be careful.
He pulled out his wallet and extracted the sheet of paper on which he had written a phone number. Then he dialed the number. It rang four times. Music in the background. Classical. George recognized it but couldn't give a name.
"Good evening," the woman said softly.
"Mr. Harvey Rozier," George said, disguising his voice by going an octave higher and a bit slower and more precise than his normal. "Or Mrs. Rozier."
"The concert is about to begin," the woman said.
"Very important," George insisted. "Mr. Rozier won't want to miss this call."
"One moment," the woman said, and George found himself listening to the faint music again. Not his kind. George had a quiet collection of CDs, for him alone, torchy stuff, definitely off limits to his mother, stuff to paint by, Dinah Washington, Linda Ronstadt, Liza Minnelli. Some things just don't ...
"Yes," came a voice over the phone almost whispering.
"It's me," George said, his voice still disguised. "You asked me to call you at ten. I'm calling you."
"Who is this?"
"Burt Chambers from the Tool and Die," said George.
"I don't know what the hell ..."
"Look, Mr. Dozier, I'm just doing what—"
"Are you Carl Dozier?" asked George.
"Harvey Rozier," the man said with exasperation that George thought was fully justified.
"Look," said George. "Is this or isn't this three-one-two-one-one-one-one?"
"No," said Rozier, looking at the number on the phone. "It is not."
"I'm sorry," George said with a sigh. "I'm having a bad day."
Rozier hung up. So did George.
He had watched the Rozier house for three weeks. Every night. Looking for a house in Saginaw Park with signs of money, a wall or tall trees, and no dogs. The Rozier house, a red brick that looked a little like a castle, stood at the end of a cul-de-sac and down a drive. George had had his handyman card ready when he approached the house the first time, right after the mailman left. George had been ready to whip the card out in case he had overlooked a maid, a pool man, a relative. He'd driven right to the front door and rung the bell. No answer, but George was just setting up, taking no chances. Nice place. Big. He went for the mail, found out he was at the home of Harvey and Dana Rozier.
George returned to the street every few days and nights but never to the cul-de-sac. It wasn't the only house he checked out. He had six others on the line in suburbs as far north as Highland Park and as far south as Morgan Park. It was part of the job. He found Rozier's name and office number in the Chicago White Pages—Harvey N. Rozier, Investment Consultant. The home phone was unlisted. No big problem to go to Rozier's office on LaSalle Street near City Hall, find out what kind of car the man had, and get a look at him. Rozier was a big man, maybe George's age, probably a little younger. Good looking. Worked out. Serious guy with a fake smile. Losing his hair and combing it forward. Good clothes.
Two days after first seeing Rozier, George saw Dana Rozier. Harvey had a tasteful '94 Lexus. She had a red Mazda sports car. From a distance she looked younger than her husband. Up close, when he checked her out when she went out shopping, she looked tight, blond, maybe a little too skinny, at least for George's taste, but sending out signals of money. Just the jewelry she wore for an afternoon out would have been enough to keep George in food, rent, paint, and nights in the local bars for half a year, even if he got only a nickel on the dollar.
The Roziers had no kids and no live-in maid. A couple of black women—looked like mother and daughter—came to the house Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Stayed all day. Left at five on the dot. Had their own key. George was sure they'd be the number-one suspects the night he cleaned the place out.
One night when he was watching the Roziers, a Tuesday, Harvey came out to the Lincoln dressed like Fred Astaire and his wife like Ginger. Tux, gown, the works. George followed them downtown, where they let a valet park them in front of the Bismarck. George considered making it back to their house in Saginaw and doing it fast, but he had learned to be careful. Two times downtime for felony made a thief careful. Maybe they were just picking someone up, having a few drinks, and then having a party at home. Maybe a hell of a lot of things. George wasn't the valet parking kind, but he didn't want to lose the Roziers.
He pulled into a loading zone and jumped out as the couple moved slowly into the hotel. It would probably mean a ticket, but it might not if he was fast. A ticket might make George think twice. What if he became a suspect and they found he had been parked in front of the hotel where the burglary victims were on the same night? What if? What if? What if? If he had a ticket when he came out, George would cross off the Rozier house.
George wasn't dressed for a downtown hotel but he didn't look bad either. He was shaved, wore black denim slacks and a button-down pale gray shirt with a low-key black leather zippered jacket.
The lobby was full of men in tuxes and women with gowns and jewels whose addresses George would have loved to have.
George asked a kid bellhop what was going on.
"Chamber series," he said.
"I guess," said the kid, looking impatient.
"You said series?"
"Every Tuesday this month, next month. There's a program in front of the door," the kid said. "All I know."
George had checked. A black-and-white photograph of a Chinese or Korean or something girl with long hair and a cello between her legs was stuck to the tripod in front of the door through which couples were hurrying.
They were being nodded in by a tall, no-nonsense woman in her fifties whose black-with-white streaked hair was pulled back tight and topped by a tiara worth no more than a few hundred dollars, tops.
"Single tickets?" George had asked innocently.
"Series only," the woman said, nodding more people in, though most of them didn't pause for her approval.
George nodded and checked the schedule on the tripod. There were none being distributed.
It was perfect. Every Tuesday. No holidays in the way. Concert went from eight to eleven. George didn't have a ticket when he went out to his car.
It looked perfect. Still, George was taking no chances. He was in the lobby of the Bismarck the following week. The Roziers showed up just before eight with another couple, older, maybe in their sixties, dignified. The man was tall, neatly trimmed white hair and mustache, and the woman a little on the thin side but good looking for her age. For most pros this would have been enough, but not for George. He checked them on the following Tuesday. The Roziers and the old couple were there, and George noted that the woman with the tight hair greeted them by name. He stayed far from the door so she didn't see him, but he could hear her confident voice syruping across the lobby. Someone called her Mrs. Gabriel. It was enough.
Time. George tore up the scrap of paper with the number of the Bismarck concert room phone and flushed it down the toilet. His mother had turned off the television more than two hours earlier and had screamed down to George that she was going to sleep and if he got hungry there was a noodle pudding in the fridge he could stick in the microwave.
George looked around his room, checked his watch. Blanket rolled down on the bed, paintings stacked against the walls, green chair that had been his father's near the window, battered dresser needing glue for loose drawers. Not much, but it beat a cell.
George didn't hide his tools anymore and he didn't use traditional burglary gear. He carried everything in a padded toolbox, only things a decent mechanic, plumber, or handyman might carry: tubing cutter, glass cutter, and mini-cutter, rib-joint pliers, adjustable-end wrench, a pair of screwdrivers, an Allen wrench, a close-quarters hacksaw, a curved-claw hammer, a wood chisel, a utility knife, and a rasp. Handyman. That was his cover. Hard to shake, even with the two neatly folded linen laundry bags at the bottom of the toolbox. Ex-con trying to make it as handyman, claiming that all of his work was small and for cash if he got caught. Always an angle. Call a guy down the street from where you were breaking. Ask if you could come over and give him a no-obligation estimate on fixing his front steps or loose-shingled roof. Bluebots pick you up and you claim you're at the wrong house. Walked right in after you knocked. The door was open. Way beyond suspicious but hard to prove, even if they nailed you inside, providing you weren't carrying goods. Criminal trespass was the worst he figured he could get.
He looked in the bathroom mirror.
Thin guy in the mirror looked OK. Clean shaven, jaw a little weak, blue-gray eyes, clean but not-so-even teeth, a full head of brown-gray hair. Work clothes. Not black, to blend in and wind up looking suspicious, but faded jeans, red-and-black flannel shirt. Shoes, three-year-old faded Rockports. Sneakers might make someone suspicious.
Checked the watch again, not one he'd stolen. One he had paid twenty-five bucks and change for, about what your not-successful ex-con handyman trying to make a living might wear.
Satisfied, George picked up his toolbox and saw something on the canvas resting on the easel near the window. The left eye of the woman at the bar was too large. He would have to correct that or at least check to see if the morning light gave him a better perspective. George went out the door and into the cool spring night. He had a private entrance to his mother's house. After George's father had died, Wanda Eupatniaks had married her husband's best friend, Laslo Skutnik, a widower with a pension from the slaughterhouse, a Swift and Company employee for almost forty years. Wanda and Laslo had vegetated together in front of the television till Laslo died a year and a day after George's father, leaving Wanda a new name and a comfortable, mortgage-paid house.
When he first got out, George had rented a small apartment in the house of the Vivlachkis, a few blocks away off of Diversey. The Vivlachkis were a nice old couple who knew George's mother. They called him Gregor. They went to sleep early and didn't hear too well. They liked Gregor. He painted a portrait of their dead son, Stanley, from an old photograph. It hung over the mantelpiece right next to Jesus Christ Almighty his own self. But money had gotten a little tight. A few jobs had to be canceled. Too many risks. And old man Vivlachki started to get too curious about George's sources of income and late nights out. It was easier to move in with his mother, who couldn't make it down the stairs to his rooms and who watched television most of the day, went to bed early, slept like a mountain, and snored like a volcano.
George shivered with the chill. Couldn't have been more than forty-five degrees. Fine for a Chicago spring. Sky dark, looking like it couldn't make up its mind to piss or snow. If the temperature dropped and it snowed while he was on the way to the job, George would turn around and go home or maybe head for Unikle's bar, maybe get lucky and run into Mary Ann Zdrubecki, whose husband, Cinch, was doing four short ones for holding up a 7-Eleven.
Snow was too many chances. Rain had its problems too, but rain kept people off the streets where they might remember seeing a man with a toolbox.
Among the skills George had picked up was bringing the dead back to life. Dead cars. Both of his brothers were mechanics, Ernie at a Volvo dealer on Elston, Sandor with his own gas station up north on Howard Street. Before he retired with emphysema, George's father had been a mechanic for a series of Brunswick bowling alleys owned by Davey Moran, who was just as big a Litvak as any Eupatniaks but knew which side his alley was buttered on.
George's car was a Toyota Corolla, dark green, three years old. Nothing suspicious on the outside, but it ran almost as silent as a submarine. Part of the job. Keep your tools clean and silent. The Toyota was a tool. Tools don't work and you take an extra chance.
Excerpted from Lieberman's Thief by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 1995 Stuart Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted October 23, 2010
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