From the author: Wipe Out was the third in my series from long ago about an ambitious Vancouver burglar named Mikey that ran in the lamented and brilliant online magazine, Blue Murder, back around the turn of the century. Today’s readers will note that advances in IT render the plot unworkable. But in those days, it was a thing.
by Matt Hughes
Mikey waits by the elevators until the receptionist comes out and heads for the washroom, then he walks into the law firm's offices. He tilts back the baseball cap with the Purolator logo, and says, "Here for a pick-up?"
Several women are in a corral of desks behind the receptionist's empty seat. One of them looks up briefly from her computer screen, says, "Should be right there somewhere."
Mikey makes a show of looking on the chest-high counter that separates the receptionist from whatever drifts in the door. "Nothing here," he says.
"Kay-Lynne'll be right back," says the woman. Her fingers don't stop rattling the keyboard in front of her.
"Sure," says Mikey. His eyes haven't stopped moving since he came in. He's making a list: good quality motion detectors, positioned right where they need to be; a hemisphere of dark glass on the ceiling by the back wall
almost certainly houses a video camera; a wire running under the carpet beneath his feet -- pressure plate, he thinks, and better than even money they got laser trip-wires and maybe even thermal sensors in the walls.
The receptionist comes back in. "Pick-up for Purolator?" Mikey says.
That makes the girl look puzzled, so Mikey gives her a show of him checking his clipboard, then puts on his I'm so dumb face and says, "Sorry. Wrong floor."
Two minutes later, he's in the underground parking garage. He dumps the Purolator hat and clipboard on the passenger seat of the Toyota pick-up and heads up the exit ramp.
"No way to go in and out of that place, nobody sees it," he tells the steering wheel. The thought of giving Angie T the bad news sends an involuntary shiver through his back muscles.
The mid-afternoon traffic around Georgia and Granville is just as crazy as you'd expect in a major city with neither a downtown freeway nor a decent transit system, where the city council has decided to dig up major streets to lay an earthquake-proof water system. Mikey finally makes enough right turns to add up to a left and gets onto the Viaduct heading for East Vancouver.
He decides he's not going to tell the client the job can't be done. "I gotta think about this," he says to the windshield.
Mike finds Angie Tedesco sipping murderous black coffee in the bare back room of a trattoria on Commercial Drive near East First Avenue, a neighborhood they used to call Little Italy before everything got multicultural, though it's still at least as easy to find pasta as Thai noodles.
Angie T is a short, balding loan shark and money mover with a little black moustache and a lank comb-over. The hands that cradle the diminutive espresso cup are big enough to conceal a bocce ball. Mikey has heard that those hands have done things nobody's hands should do.
Sitting next to Angie is Carmine Zuccaro, who would need only a ten per cent increase in body hair to qualify as Bigfoot. Angie keeps Carmine around for when he has to rearrange somebody's agenda.
"You shouldn't deal with this guy," Carmine says, when Mikey sits down across from his boss. "He's a mook."
"Did I ask you your opinion?" Angie says, and looks at Carmine until the big man looks away. Then he asks Mikey, "Well?"
"I guess I got good news and bad news," Mikey says.
Angie turns and gives Carmine a different look. Carmine reaches over and puts a hand on Mikey's shoulder, then somehow manages to insert a thumb between muscle and bone in a way that makes the arm feel like it's coming off.
"Jesus, Carmine!" Mikey says, squirming.
The giant's expression never changes. He keeps up the pressure a few more seconds, until Angie wriggles his thick eyebrows. Mikey rubs the spot where the thumb was, trying to get the blood moving again.
"I'm waiting here, you're gonna come tell me jokes?" Angie says.
"I was just trying to put it in perspective for you, Angie," Mikey says.
"For perspective, I don't hire a burglar. I hire a..." Angie can't think of anybody he would hire for that purpose. "Just tell me how does it look."
Mikey takes a breath. "Okay. How it looks is there's no way I go into that place and nobody knows it. They got the whole catalog, all top of the line. You just walk by thinking about going in, they probably got something reads your mind and speed-dials the cops."
Angie says a short word, then slams down the little coffee cup and says it again. He looks at Mikey, and his face works its way into an expression the burglar has never seen on the man before -- kind of help me, I'm sinking, Mikey thinks -- as Angie says, "Suppose somebody, maybe a security guard, was to cut the power?"
Mikey shakes his head. "I'm figuring battery back-up, hundred per cent sure."
His client lets his hands lie flat on the chipped formica table top. He looks down at them as if they could give him the answer to his problem, and Mikey is thinking those hands have probably solved most of the problems Angie T has bumped into over the years.
"What did we say, two Cs?" Angie says, without looking up.
"Yeah, but..." Mikey says.
"I don't wanna hear no buts," the loan shark says. Still looking at his hands, he tells Carmine, "Pay him."
Mikey takes the two bills and puts them in his shirt pocket. "I said there was good news."
Angie T looks up. This is where it all happens, Mikey knows. A mouse pulls a thorn out of a lion's paw, it can do the mouse some serious good. But if the mouse messes up, maybe drives the point in deeper, the last thing the mouse is going to know is how it feels to be ripped apart. Mikey swallows.
"You were saying," Angie says.
"You asked me to look over this lawyer's set up," Mikey says.
"I know what I asked you."
Mikey keeps on. "You wanted to know could I go in, get a package out of the safe, nobody knows it's gone. And you said the package was like so big." Mikey holds his hands as if they were molded around a pound of butter.
Angie's jaw moves sideways like a lizard chewing a beetle. A joint under one ear creaks. "I'm not hearing any good news," he says.
Now Mikey goes for broke. "Well, that size," he says, "I'm thinking computer diskettes."
There is a silence in the little room, a stillness so profound that Mikey can almost hear individual dust motes rubbing together in the shaft of light that slides in from the curtained window.
Angie T's brown eyes stay on Mikey. They don't blink or shift their focus by a hairsbreadth. Mikey finds it hard to breathe.
"You don't got to tell me what's on the disks," the burglar says, the words tumbling into each other like falling dominoes in a commercial. "But if that's what's in the package, I can solve the problem."
Angie blinks. His eyes flick toward Carmine. He says, "Carmine, whyncha go put a dollar in the meter?"
The giant's face shifts its placid expression toward a question, an uncomfortable transition, like a man trying on a coat that's too tight in the shoulders.
"Just go and do it," Angie says. Carmine's features reset to blank. He rises from the little square table like a big old moon rocket inching up off the launch pad.
When he's gone, Angie turns back to Mikey. "I know you, what? six, seven years, right?"
"I see you're always trying to get out of this nickel-dime B&E crap."
"I got a brain, Angie," Mikey says. "I see angles, opportunities."
Angie's short laugh has no humor in it. "The thing is this," the loan shark says, "the stuff you do, you screw up, you get six months, maybe a year. The stuff I'm into, a guy screws up and pffft! he's dead."
Mikey nods again.
"Don't sit there nodding at me," Angie says. "I'm telling you something you don't know. This business, it's got floors and it's got ceilings. To you, me and Carmine, we're the ceiling. But there's guys look at us, we're just the floor."
"I get it," Mikey says.
The loan shark looks at the table, looks up at the burglar again. "You better get it. I'm gonna offer you something now. You take it, you take it all the way. What I'm gonna tell you, it can get me whacked, somebody hears about it. You, they step on like a bug."
Mikey's mind shows him a picture of a dark forest, bad things shifting and lurking behind black trees. Somewhere down the trail, made faint and misty by distance, is the golden light he's always wanted to get to. Whatever it is, he tells himself, I can do it.
"I get it."
Angie T looks over his shoulder, although he knows the room is empty. He lowers his voice. "It's this asshole, Terry Alizotto, married my Angelina. For her sake, I give him some things to do, but every time he makes a godawful mess. I mean, forget about it -- there's guys passed out in alleys, you wake em up they gonna do better work.
"So I tell him, Terry, this life ain't for you, and I get him a straight job hauling stuff off building sites. Two grand a week, all he's gotta do is show up, sign in now and then."
"He didn't go for that?" says Mikey.
Angie T rolls his eyes. "He gets my own daughter bitching at me. Then they come for dinner, and while he's in my house he goes into my den, copies some stuff off my computer, gives it to this lawyer to hold. Then he says, 'Put me back on the count, or I start showing your business around.'"
"Sheesh," says Mikey.
"Sheesh, my ass," says Angie T. "It's not just my business on those disks. There's things I'm doing for other people, you know what I'm saying?"
Mikey knows, and now he has an inkling just how bad the beasts in the dark forest might be. But what Angie T is telling him brings the warm golden light a lot clearer and closer.
"I can fix this," he says. "If it's just disks, I can fix it."
"You fix this, I'll give you the opportunities I gave Alizotto. But it's gotta be quick -- I got till the weekend to fix him up with what he likes, or he's back at the lawyer's Monday to collect the disks." Angie looks out into the trattoria's main room, where Carmine is coming back in from the street. "The meantime, any of this gets to the wrong people, all bets are off, you know what I'm saying."
Mikey checks his watch. "It's noon. I can put something together this afternoon, then forty-eight hours and you're clear. You want me to tell you what I'm gonna do?"
Angie looks to see if Carmine is coming back. "No," he says, "Just do it."
"I'm going to need a couple of grand for supplies."
The loan shark reaches for his roll. He peels off twenty hundreds and passes them across the table. Mikey puts them with the other two. "I gotta hurry," he says, and starts to rise.
Angie reaches over and puts a big hand on Mikey's arm. "Stay in touch," he says.
Carmine is outside on the sidewalk. "What's that all about?" he wants to know.
"I can't tell you."
Carmine's face never shows much, but then it never has to. People study it closely, because it can be directly relevant to them to know what Carmine's about to do.
Mikey doesn't like what he sees in the big man's face. "He told me I can't tell nobody," he says.
One of Carmine's hands reaches for the burglar. Mikey says, "You got me scared, Carmine. But he's got me more scared."
Carmine puts his hand down.
"I'm just looking to move up," Mikey says.
"Everybody's looking to move up," Carmine says. But now there is an identifiable expression on his face. Somewhere inside Carmine's head, ponderous wheels are turning. He watches Mikey walk away, then goes back into the trattoria.
Mikey goes four blocks down Commercial to an electrical supply place he almost hit once, when he had a potential buyer for big spools of copper wire, but the guy changed his mind. Now he goes in and buys the materials he needs for under fifty dollars. The rest of Angie's two grand he spends at a coin shop, buying silver in dollars and ten-ounce ingots, along with a couple of commemorative sets from the Montreal Olympics.
He takes it all back to his one-room apartment in a crumbling high rise overlooking English Bay, and spends an hour at his kitchen table, winding thin copper wire around a flat piece of iron, then connecting it through a timer switch to a compact, heavy-duty battery. He sets the timer for ten seconds and watches to see if the switch will open. There is a faint hum, and a pair of needle-nose pliers slides across the table and sticks to the home-made electromagnet.
Now he puts a formatted blank disk into his computer's floppy drive and copies onto it a few files chosen at random. He pops the disk out of the drive and lays it on top of the magnet, waits a minute then puts it back in the drive. Disk error. Disk not formatted, appears on the monitor. Mikey repeats the experiment with another disk, this time letting it sit for ten minutes a foot away from the electromagnet. When he puts the plastic square into the floppy drive, the computer tells him it, too, is unreadable.
Mikey kills the current to the electromagnet and resets the timer switch to reactivate it at nine o'clock that night. He figures the battery is juiced enough to keep it running for an hour. Then he packs it into the bottom of a wooden box that once held a bottle of Okanagan wine, covers it with a page torn from the newspaper, and fills the box with the silver.
Kay-Lynne doesn't recognize him in a suit and without the Purolator hat. When Mikey tells her his name is Ron Fenshaw and he wants to see a lawyer, she takes him to an office that has the name William Takashita on the door.
Mikey explains that he is holding a box full of silver as security in a business deal and wants somewhere safe to keep it overnight. He opens the lid of the box and shows the lawyer the heaped coins and ingots.
"Cost you fifty," says Takashita. Mikey pays cash and accepts a receipt. The lawyer has him sign Ron Fenshaw on a gummed label that he then pastes over the box's side and lid so it can't be opened without breaking the seal. Mikey asks to see the box put in the safe. The lawyer shields the combination lock while he spins the tumblers, but when the thick door opens, Mikey sees the package Angie T described. The lawyer slides the box in next to it.
He tells the lawyer he'll be back in the morning, then goes downstairs to the shopping mall and phones Angie T. "It's in place," he says. "Ten o'clock tomorrow, I'll go in again, see if it worked."
"Let me know, soon as," Angie says. For the first time, Mikey hears in the loan shark's voice the kind of shake that Angie T must have heard a thousand times. He wonders if his client is as good at bearing pressure as he is at applying it.
Mikey is at the lawyer's a little before ten. There's a small crowd in the reception area: a silver-haired guy in a hand-made suit that might as well have "senior partner" stitched across the back, and a couple of other guys who don't need to have "cop" stenciled on their off-the-racks. The big lawyer scans a blue piece of court paper, then kneels to open the safe.
William Takashita is off to the side, with Kay-Lynne and the women who do the word processing. Mikey puts himself beside the lawyer. "I come for my package," he says.
Takashita keeps his eyes on the cops and talks out of the side of his mouth like he's auditioning for an old-time gangster movie. "It'll be a minute."
"Search warrant," the lawyer says. "Evidence in a homicide, they're saying."
The kneeling lawyer straightens up and hands one of the cops Terry Alizotto's package of disks. The cop tucks it under his arm like he's a running back with a touchdown in his future, then he and his partner are out the door.
Takashita stoops and gets Mikey's box before the senior man closes the safe and hands it to him. "Homicide, eh?" Mikey says. "They say who it was?"
The lawyer has spent his career doing wills and real estate, Mikey figures, or he wouldn't be so excited about what he has been seeing. "It was on the warrant. A client of Mr. Plimley's, guy named Alizotto."
As he boots the Toyota back to Commercial Drive, Mikey is struggling to see the golden glow somewhere up ahead. Black shapes are moving around the edges, shading the light, trying to compress it to a pinpoint and smother it. The closest parking spot to the trattoria is almost a block way, and he leaves the pick-up and legs it fast down the sidewalk. But halfway there, Carmine Zuccaro is standing in a doorway. The giant steps out and puts a hand like a grizzly's paw on Mikey's shoulder. Mikey stops.
"It worked, Carmine. It's totally cool. Just let me go tell the man."
Carmine says, "Forget about it." He is between Mikey and the restaurant, standing sideways to watch the trattoria's front door.
"That thing he was worried about. Man, I fixed it."
Carmine shakes his head, still looking the other way. "We've moved on."
The restaurant door opens. A knot of men in suits comes out, swarming around Angie T. like Secret Service agents around the President, hustling him to a car at the curb. For a second, Mikey sees the loan shark's eyes, wide and flicking around like a cow's when it's being pushed into the slaughterhouse, then somebody puts a meaty, pinky-ringed hand on Angie's head and pushes him down and into the back seat. The car pulls away.
"But he's clear," Mikey tells Carmine. "The disks, they're wiped."
"Don't know about no disks," the big man says. He looks at Mikey. "You're smart, you don't know nothing neither."
"We had a deal, Angie and me," Mikey says.
"Angie don't make deals now," Carmine says. "I do. And I got no business with you." He sniffs and moves his neck like he needs to rearrange its position inside his shirt collar, then heads down to the trattoria. There's a difference in the way he walks. One of the guys out front opens the door for him.
Mikey watches the car carrying Angie T. dwindle in size as it goes down Commercial Drive. A gleam of sunlight reflects from the chrome trim above the rear window. Mikey watches the glimmering spark grow smaller and smaller, until the car turns the corner on East First Avenue and the light is gone for good.
This story originally appeared in Blue Murder.