“Criminals get caught for two reasons,” I said. “They do something stupid or they stay in the business too long. And eventually they do something stupid.” That sounded right. I rolled down the window.
“The business,” Leo said. He smiled and looked in the rear view mirror.
“The business, the job, whatever.”
We were at a red light. On the corner, there was a man in some kind of franchise uniform. It looked fast-foodish. My stomach shuddered. It felt paralyzed. But my mouth kept talking. “You always see these criminals on those videos. You know the world’s dumbest criminals? Where they end up knocking themselves out or something? They don’t think it through.” My ratty shoes touched something on the floor of the car. A McDonald’s wrapper. I was pretty sure I could smell the ghost of the cheeseburger.
I turned my eyes back to the guy on the corner. But that only made my hunger worse. He looked like he probably worked at KFC or Pizza Hut. He looked tired. But he probably wasn’t hungry.
The signal said WALK, but the dude didn’t WALK. This employee was not in any hurry. Probably half-asleep.
The weather didn’t help. Sort of overcast, but in a weird way. The sky looked off, the color all wrong. If clouds had an expiration date—that’s what it looked like. A little too gray, even greenish. And I couldn’t really see the clouds. It was all a uniform ill haze. Definitely not your typical June Colorado weather.
The light changed and we moved on. Even though it was late morning, rush hour lingered. There was nothing rushed about it. It was sluggish than usual. Maybe no one was eager to get where they were going. I never felt elated about my daily trudge to wallow in oil and gasoline at Morton’s Garage. Scouting potential crimes with my new friend Leo was pretty exhilarating, but I was due to punch in to wallow in a couple of hours.
Leo’s drove a ‘77 Lincoln Mercury and it rattled like an emphysemic. From the sound of it, the connecting rod bearings were in bad shape.
“Never panic,” Leo said. “You’re right. A lot of guys get caught because they’re stupid. But a lot of guys get caught because they panic.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Definitely.”
“Don’t lose your cool.”
“Got it. Sustain your cool.”
A blue Lexus drifted over in front of us without signaling and Leo had to brake to avoid clipping bumpers. He didn’t touch the horn. He just scowled a little. He didn’t lose his cool.
Leo was easy-going. That was what had finally convinced me to pitch myself as an apprentice. Most of the low-impact thieves I had met resembled uptight scarecrows—like if someone were to pull a particular thread, they would unravel.
But Leo seemed easy-going.
We drove south on Federal, staking possibilities. He signaled, looked over his shoulder, and changed lanes. “Always act like you belong. You can get away with just about anything if you look like you belong.”
Leo lived in the same building as I did. We got to talking when I spotted him changing the Mercury’s fan-belt. He mentioned that he made ends meet with extracurricular activities and I mentioned that I might be interested in learning a thing or three. I could be an apprentice. He had laughed. But he had clearly liked the idea.
My eyes dropped to the McDonald’s cheeseburger wrapper again. It all came down to a plain and simple fact. Life was food. It was all about food. You had to eat. You had to keep stuffing food into the hole in your head. Otherwise, you died. Every meal was a temporary stay of execution. The governor’s phone call at the eleventh hour. A little bit more life. And you lived another day, in order to make money to buy food, to stuff into the hole in your head.
“We’re just doing small stuff, right? Nothing big.”
“I only do small stuff. That’s why I don’t get caught.”
“And because you’re not stupid.”
Leo smiled. “And because I’m not stupid.”
He looked like a CPA gone bad. Decent clothes and glasses, but the eyes looking through the wire rims balanced people as well as books.
“Another thing,” Leo said. “Shave your face. Or at least keep it trimmed close. A clean face will get you closer to an opportunity without being noticed. And if things go bad, the less grimy you look, the better chance you have of losing yourself in a crowd.”
“Sounds good.” Only problem was, I had three dollars in my pocket. With my stomach gnawing on itself, indulging in razors was not feeling like a real priority.
We met up with another red light. I retied my shoes. They looked like they had a few more days of life. “We’re just scouting today, right?”
“I’m just doing this for thirty days. A thirty-day crime spree. That’s it.”
“That’s what you said.”
“I’m just being up front. This is not a career move.”
Leo chuckled and shook his head.
I kept talking. I guess my mouth figured it wasn’t going to be used for chewing, so it might as well do something. “You got to eat, right? I figure crime does pay, for a little while at least. But only if you don’t overstay your welcome. If you keep committing crimes—like anything else, you get better at it. But if you get better at it, you probably become more confident about it and that increases the chance of you getting caught.”
Leo didn’t say anything for a moment. We eased up to another light. He turned to me. “John.”
“What did you do before this?”
“Before you got into crime.” He smirked. “Before you were a mechanic.”
I draped my arm on the open window. “I went to college to be an engineer. But I had to quit.”
“I had to quit college too. Causes money cancer.”
I laughed a little. “But I like being a mechanic.”
“Yeah, I smelled that.”
I didn’t apologize. “I’m working later today, so I just threw on my work clothes.”
A woman in a faded dress crossed in front of us, hefting a purse the size of a pillow.
“Here’s another tip,” Leo said. “Don’t smell like an oil rig.”
Just before the woman reached the curb, a truck slid up in the right turn lane next to us and hit her.
I sat up. “Whoa!”
The truck didn’t hit her hard. It was more of a nudge than anything. But it was enough to shove her to the ground. Her purse emptied itself all over the sidewalk.
“What?” Leo sounded annoyed.
The woman didn’t look seriously hurt. There was blood on her knees, but she got to her feet.
“That truck just hit that woman!” There were almost a dozen people nearby, but no one rushed over. Incredibly, the driver of the truck finished the turn and drove on.
I flinched. I didn’t know if I should get out of the car and help her. I kept expecting someone to rush over to her. But no one did.
She look composed. There was no look of pain or even anger. She didn’t yell at the truck. She didn’t shake her fist. She simply walked along as if nothing had happened.
“That one. In the blue dress.”
Her purse was still scattered all over the curb. Her wallet had landed open, credit cards displayed. Cash.
The light changed. Leo eased on down Federal.
I turn around in the seat, to get another glimpse.
The woman was gone. But I could still see her purse, abandoned and in plain sight. Everyone walked by it.
“That’s crazy,” I said and turned back around.
The traffic was practically bump-to-bumper now. It was as if everyone had become student drivers—overly cautious but overly clueless. Cars drifted a little out of their lanes, then drifted back. Leo didn’t get riled up at all. His voice was as calm as ever. “Here’s the thing. When you do something, you got to make it worth your while. Pocket change isn’t worth the risk.”
“I don’t want to be a part of anything big.”
“Just a bank or two.”
I looked at him. “Hey, no way.”
“Hey, no way,” he said, smiling. “We’re not going to go too big. We’ll be Goldilocks. We’ll find something just right.”
“So what are we talking about? A convenience store?”
“We’ll just do a little looking around today.”
I hesitated. I wasn’t sure I wanted to say goodbye to my three dollars just yet. “Not so much.”
“I guess I could eat.” My stomach was completely awake now and it was mad.
Leo pulled into a parking lot. It was a place called Walter’s. A sign in the window said “Breakfast Burritos.” My stomach twitched.
“Have you had breakfast?” Leo said as he eased out of the car.
“A little.” Yesterday.
We got out and eased up to the restaurant.
At the door, Leo turned to me. “Is your cell phone working?”
“I don’t have a cell phone.”
Leo studied his phone as we went in.
The place was one step above a dive. A few tables and booths. An old man sat at the counter, hunched over a cup of coffee. The smell of bacon nearly made me stagger. It was incredible. I kept my balance and followed Leo to the counter.
A woman in a greasy apron waddled out from the kitchen. Her hair was out of place and her eyeliner had apparently been applied by Picasso—a little interpretive. She stood in front of the register like someone who had lost her train of thought a few steps ago. She didn’t look at either of us. She didn’t say anything.
Finally, Leo said, “Four breakfast burritos.”
My mouth was excited. I was actually about to eat two breakfast burritos. If you went without eating for a while and then suddenly stuffed yourself, you would probably hork it all back up again. Or was that water? Either way, I started to build some composure. Right then, I made the conscious decision to force myself to eat slowly.
“Four breakfast burritos,” Leo said again. The woman behind the counter still stared at nothing, lost in some thought she had still yet to salvage. She turned her head slightly as if she heard her name in the distance.
Leo laughed a little. “Hello?”
Still using her empty stare, she jabbed the register a few times. It popped open.
Leo tried again. “Four breakfast—” He stopped when the woman turned and went back into the kitchen. We could hear the clatter of cooking. The hiss of the stove. The amazing smell of bacon.
Leo nudged me. He raised his eyebrows at me and twitched his head at the counter. At the open register.
I shook my head.
Leo leaned forward. He kept his eyes on the door to the kitchen.
Either they had forgotten to clear out the register the night before or they expected lots of business. The cash drawer was full of bills. There was a thick stack of twenties.
I shook my head again, but Leo didn’t see me. He looked over at the old man with the coffee. The old man with the coffee was bleary and completely unaware.
“Here’s another tip,” Leo said softly. “Make the most of your opportunities.”
“No,” I whispered.
Before I could elaborate, Leo reached over, snatched up two handfuls of cash and left.
He didn’t run. He just eased on out, stuffing his pockets.
Any complaints from me at this point would only draw attention. I rushed out, right on his heels.
In the parking lot, I still whispered. “Wait, wait.”
Leo looked at me and in that single glance, I saw a whole bunch of things. Leo’s calm was dissolving. He had never done this level before. He juggled the keys out and dropped them. His voice was louder than usual. “I’m not waiting. It’s done. I’m going. Come with me or don’t. It’s up to you.”
“Just hold on.”
“We’re way past holding on.” He got in the car.
No one came out of the restaurant. No frantic woman. No cook with a shotgun.
I wasn’t going to stay behind and take the blame. I got in the car.
The engine roared. Leo’s eyes tried to look everywhere.
It finally sunk in. Leo wasn’t big time. He wasn’t even medium time. He had been small time until now and this—it was getting away from him.
The car jerked backwards.
“Take it easy, Leo.”
Leo didn’t take it easy. The only thing he cared about right now was moving fast. This was the getaway. He shoved the car into gear and slammed down on the accelerator.
We lunged out into traffic and Leo tried to swerve into the flow, but all he did was move into the direct path of a van. It hit my side of the car. Neither one of us had bothered with seatbelts. Safety wasn’t first. Getting away was first.
My whole body felt the impact. The force of the collision knocked the wind out of me, stunned my bones. It was like being punched in the stomach, except all over.
The end, I thought. That’s it. Here it was. The criminals being stupid. We’re done.
Leo wasn’t done. He threw the car into reverse again and pulled away from the van. We were going to be trending news in Denver—maybe in the nation. This would be a prolonged car chase on Fox News, with commercial breaks, the grand finale being our bodies scattered across I-25. Did you hear about those two dumb criminals?
Leo had no more wise anecdotes or sage advice. My apprenticeship had become wild escalation. Moments before we were walking into the restaurant. Now the world was all broken glass and screaming tires. From zero to felon in sixty seconds.
Leo got the car lined up again and darted into the next lane, dodging a motorcycle, but he overcorrected and we left the street altogether. Swerving, we skidded sideways into a bus stop bench.
This time, I hit my head on the passenger window and almost blacked out.
The engine raced, but we weren’t going anywhere. The car was crippled. The tires hung up.
“No, no, no,” Leo said. He opened his door and fell out.
I tried to get my own plan together in my mind. But my head really hurt. My vision wavered. I could see Leo get to his feet. He didn’t look back. He left.
Through his open door, I saw a police car pull up next to the van.
We had picked the wrong time and the wrong place. These cops had just happened to be cruising this particular stretch of Federal at the worst possible moment. They had probably seen the whole thing. I was going to jail.
But maybe there was still a chance. With Leo making a run for it, they might be focused on him. With two of us running, I might have a shot at losing them.
I yanked on the handle. My door wouldn’t open. I fumbled with the lock, but it wasn’t locked. It was smashed. The door was crammed up against the bus stop bench.
It was only then, through my open window, I saw the man who had been waiting for a bus. He was pinned between Leo’s car and the bench. The bench was tilted, leaning the man backwards. His eyes were open. I thought he was dead. But he blinked. He looked up at the sky like someone watching an airplane. Then he looked at me.
He wasn’t crying out in pain. He didn’t even struggle. He just looked at me.
I had to get out. I had to get out now. But this guy could be dying. I might be able to help him. But I also thought I should just run for it. Because if he died, this would be murder. Or manslaughter. Wasn’t that what they called it? Leo had slaughtered this man and I was the accomplice.
Scrambling out the driver’s side, I saw the cops get out of their car. My imagination provided a clear picture of the next few moments. The cops would be on me before I reached the curb. They would tackle me, cuff me. Read me my rights.
I’m going to jail.
Even though it was useless, my body wouldn’t stop. I guess that’s what happens to fugitives on the dumb-criminal shows. As the television viewer you get to see it all from the judgmental vantage point of the helicopter. You can sit there with your Pepsi and Doritos and think how stupid and hopeless they look. You can’t hide. They’re going to get you, Buddy. Why are you running?
Now I knew why. They kept going because their body took over. The mind knew it was finished, but the body didn’t give up that easily.
There wasn’t any helicopter yet. If I got some speed on, I could still slip away. I could lose them. But I knew that if they yelled at me to freeze, I would freeze.
I stood there paralyzed by all these thoughts. It all felt so surreal. I noticed how odd it was that the traffic still moved along in both lanes. No one stopped. They worked their way around the accident, moving on. They didn’t stop.
Go, go, my body said.
I ran around the front of Leo’s car. My feet slipped on loose gravel and I went down, landing hard on one knee. My head glanced off the bumper. The fresh pain almost overwhelmed me, but I wobbled back upright. Grabbing my head to steady myself, I saw blood on my hand. It looked almost black under the oddly overcast sky.
The guy on the bench still sat there, eyes blinking, still waiting for the bus.
No one shouted for me to freeze. My back itched for bullets. I wasn’t sure whether or not this situation allowed them to just open fire or not.
But no one called out. No one fired. The only sounds were the hissing of the engine and the sluggish traffic. From the guy on the bench, not one sob or whimper.
I didn’t know what do for him. But other people would know. The police would call an ambulance. The guy would be all right.
I ran full out, sprinting past an antique store. A pawn shop. A music store.
At the first corner, I skidded to a stop. I couldn’t help it. I looked back.
The police weren’t after me. They weren’t even looking my direction. They stood outside their car, next to their open doors. They weren’t talking. They weren’t doing anything.
A cold thought nudged its way into my mind. A thought that had been trying to get out for a while now.
I didn’t have time to try and figure out what it was. I was too busy trying to not end up in prison. It was time to hide. To lay low.
I needed a change of plans. The thirty-day crime thing wasn’t working out too well. Day One had tanked. I must have been out of my mind. It had all been a huge mistake.
Where could I go? I couldn’t go back to my apartment. Leo might have run home too. When the cops came and bashed his door in, they might just pick me up as a matter of convenience.
As they dragged Leo away, he would point down the hall at my door. I didn’t see any reason why he wouldn’t. Any loyalty or honor among these two thieves would probably last about as long as Leo’s cool.
Air leaped in and out of my lungs. My head swirled. I hadn’t eaten anything substantial in two days. Almost all my energy had been used up getting out of the car.
I hunched over, with my hands on my knees, panting. There was no way I could run anymore. Up ahead, a woman with gray hair in a ponytail jogged toward me. She held a leash.
There was no dog on it. There was nothing. She jogged by without looking at me, the leash dragging behind.
Something was wrong. Something was really wrong.
My getaway wasn’t over. I still had to finish the getting away part. I needed to put some real distance between me and the scene of the crime. I couldn’t go much farther. Grabbing the pain in my side, I looked back again. The cops had to be in full pursuit by now.
They continued to just stand there.
As impossible as it seemed, maybe I had slipped away unnoticed. But in the back of my mind, I knew there was only one real reason I had gotten away. The reason was simple. Something was wrong.
I forced myself to walk. I hobbled by a house with a beat-up Volkswagen bug in the driveway. The yard was overgrown with weeds. A man stood next to the car. He didn’t get in. He just stared at the car.
It suddenly hit me. Leo’s car was back there, sitting in plain sight in the middle of Federal. They would trace his car to him and he would certainly plea bargain me onto the table. He was all about panic. He had certainly proven that. That meant I was definitely going to jail.
Unless I just disappeared. I could ditch the debris in my apartment. But there were things there that would lead them to the garage. I would have to walk away from my job too. It was a fair trade. I would lose it all. I would start over.
A bus pulled up.
I found the last bit of strength in my legs and reached the bench in time. The image of the guy at the other bus stop lingered. Why weren’t there any sirens? Surely there should be an ambulance by now.
The guy had just kept looking up at the sky, blinking.
It wasn’t until I got on the bus that I remembered I didn’t have any money. And no bus pass.
I stopped at the top of the steps. But the driver didn’t even look at me. He just closed the door and started driving.
Fair enough. Whatever was causing people to be in a daze was working to my advantage.
There were only a few other passengers. I collapsed in a seat and leaned my throbbing head against the window. I closed my eyes. The world ignored me, so I ignored the world.