Sunday, July 21, 2013

Persian Carpet by Ricky Ginsburg

A hapless burglar prepares his dream heist in Ricky Ginsburg's comedy short.

Tingo Skrachaballi was not the luckiest of burglars. Despite only two brief incarcerations over a six-year career, Tingo was a crook who couldn't roll a seven with a loaded pair of dice.

Take for example the appliance warehouse he'd staked out for a week on River Street by the Brooklyn Bridge. There was no way to foretell that it was going to be torched by its owner, just hours prior to Tingo's planned midnight attack. And how was he to know all the jewelry in Fizzetski's window display were fakes; the real stuff locked safely in an eight-hundred pound Briggs and Wattelsy safe? Fortunately, the judge who presided over that case was bogged down with more pressing matters and the slick mouthpiece Tingo had procured through the Yellow Pages was able to sweep the whole thing away as a thirty-day drunk and disorderly lockup in the local jail, although he did have to pay for the smashed window. (The ill-fated thief didn't even know he'd left a can of beer in his work sack nor did he remember taking a Breathalyzer test.)

Having delved into this line of work late in life, after his fourth try at managing a restaurant had ended in bankruptcy like the three before it, Tingo had spent hours watching cop shows on television to learn what not to do in your standard burglary. He'd purchased several cases of disposable gloves to avoid fingerprints, mixing up the batches so they couldn't be traced back to one point of sale. In order to disguise his height and weight, Tingo wore heavy workboots, three sizes too large, and several pair of thick gym socks. Even though he worked only at night, the hapless crook took great pains to wear bulky clothing and sunglasses lest some passerby might notice him approaching his target.

The few successful heists in the fifty-five year old's disappointing profession had yielded enough cash to keep his ex-wife's attorney at bay and cover the expenses of a modest townhouse in a quiet residential community. Yet the real money, the yacht-buying score, the first-class airplane seat to Paris type hit, always seemed to be just out of reach.

Tonight, that would all change.

Jose Salamanca had made his fortune on the streets selling tacos, burritos, and deep-fried tuna fish sandwiches. From a modest start with three rolling carts - one each for his wife and her sister, and the largest of the trio that he pushed several miles each day - Jose, a fugitive from Mexican justice, built a chrome-plated fleet of over one hundred two-wheeled lunch wagons that now served patrons in seven states. (His dalliance on the highway to Tijuana with an underage filling station attendant and her cat, and the standing bench warrant in Mexico City for his arrest on charges of animal cruelty were facts he kept hidden from both his wife and her sister.)

However, the shimmering gem in Tingo's eyes was that Jose Salamanca had no trust whatsoever in banks. An article in the financial section of the Times profiled the wealthy Mexican ex-pat in early September; Tingo had taped it onto his refrigerator door and read it several times a day. According to the interview, inside the house at 577 Whizbang Place was the fat stepsister of Fizzetski's B&W safe - twelve hundred pounds of heat-tempered stainless steel plate, over four inches of metal forming a wall between Tingo's dreams and stacks of freshly minted portraits of Ben Franklin, engraved onto the front of one-hundred dollar bills. It was enough to make him drool each time he looked at the pictures.

For his part, having decided to have a go at the bounty, Tingo had spent a week perched in an old oak tree, boots lodged a bit too tightly into its limbs, across the street from the Casa Salamanca with a digital camera and a zoom lens. Normally, this sort of surveillance would have taken the better part of a single day. However, the lack of circulation to his feet from their position in the tree allowed for only an hour at a time in the lookout; yet just enough to get what details he needed. The resultant collection of stills showed not only what could have been the local branch of the US Mint, but the spots on the dial where Jose Salamanca had stopped to let a cylinder fall and then reverse his spin - the combination to the chubby safe's lock.

But there was more. In addition to the sultan's treasure in the Salamanca vault, Tingo had glimpsed a magnificent red Persian carpet just inside the entrance to the house. From across the street, it was difficult for him to make out any details on the rug, but the way it shimmered in the sunlight when the door was opened and the care those entering or leaving the house took to tiptoe over it, certainly gave credence to its value.

So, on this crisp November night, Tingo Skrachaballi, who had never cracked a safe before, now had the secrets of the queen's chastity belt and he was coming to visit. Because in less time than it took to make toast, the Salamanca family would depart for the theater, tickets compliments of an anonymous devotee of the deep-fried tuna sandwich, and 577 Whizbang would be his for the taking.

Tingo unwrapped the last half of the greasy fish concoction he'd purchased out of curiosity from one of Salamanca's carts and squeezed the balance of the mayonnaise from the foil packet over the wilted lettuce. Five houses in this neighborhood had already fallen victim to the thief's late night visits in the past year and a half. Of course, three of the homes were vacant, one was under renovation, and out of the last one there'd only been a broken laptop, not enough costume jewelry to buy a bottle of decent wine, and a joy ride in the owner's brand new Cadillac convertible. He'd given some thought to selling the car to a chop shop uptown, but it was just too majestic to succumb to that fate; Tingo filled the tank with hi-test before returning it to the owner's garage.

Across the street, from his roost in the oak, Tingo watched as the upstairs lights clicked off - the boy's room, his sister's, the maid - she out the front door moments later. The carriage lights on either side of the door clicked on just as she hit the bottom step, turning and saying something to a figure in the open doorway that Tingo couldn't make out, and then scurrying off down the block toward the bus stop.

Even in the dull artificial light the Persian carpet appeared ready to fly, sparkles of light glinting off its threads as though it was sending signals to distant stars. Tingo slipped on a pair of sunglasses lest the tiny beams ruin his night vision. As he did, Salamanca's wife leaned out the door, looked up and then down the street before disappearing from view, the door slamming closed a few seconds later.

Lifting his sunglasses, Tingo checked the time on a cheap Swatch he had stolen from a sleeping man on a bus earlier that day and nodded. Forty-five minutes until the curtain went up; the family should be out of the house momentarily. Tingo finished the deep-fried tuna sandwich and stuffed the waxpaper wrapping into the top of his boot.

On cue, a few minutes later, the garage door creaked open. Its groans and creaks reminded Tingo of his bad knee and how it sometimes sounded as if it would split. And then the gleaming white Mercedes, the big one that could sleep six in the backseat, chugged up the sloped driveway and cantilevered down to hit the street; the garage door closing automatically with a grunt and a loud thud behind it. Tingo looked at his watch and decided to give them fifteen minutes, just in case someone forgot their glasses.

It turned out to be fourteen minutes too long.

As Tingo was climbing down from the tree, one of those little two-seater Smart Cars, the ones that look as though they've gone through the initial squeezes of a junkyard compactor, pulled up in front of 577 Whizbang and from the passenger side a slender figure, clothed entirely in black, got out. From his angle, lit by the streetlamp, Tingo realized it was a girl - thin as a manikin and not any taller than the roof of the car. Without a moment's pause, she walked right up the stairs and crouched in front of the massive leaded-glass front door.

She was picking the lock! Tingo slapped his forehead, the powder from the disposable gloves dusting his nose and almost making him sneeze. He couldn't believe it - this was his score, his job, his future waiting inside that house. How dare she! Reaching up, Tingo yanked his leather tool bag from the crotch in the oak where he'd stuffed it an hour ago and jumped to the grass. But by the time he turned around to look at the house, the front door was closing; the competition was already inside.

Damn! Tingo kicked the trunk of the ancient tree and winced as his bad knee snapped and crinkled in return. What should he do, go in behind her and claim the loot before she could get to the safe? What if she knew the combination as well? Tingo looked around the park to see if there was anyone watching, someone he might have missed in the shadows. He threw off the sunglasses and peered up at the blackened window of the master's office, staring at the room where he could almost smell the money each time the taco king opened the safe. There was nothing to see; if the girl had a flashlight it would certainly have a piece of red cellophane over the lens - just enough light to see the numbers on the huge Briggs and Wattelsy, just enough to rob him of the treasure trove he was ready to plunder; a treasure that rightfully was his.

Tingo poked around the tool bag and took out a large screwdriver; he'd never even considered a gun in all his years of burglary. Perhaps if he were to confront this interloper as she was leaving, just inside the front door, in the vestibule with the magnificent red Persian carpet he'd seen from the tree, perhaps she would be scared into giving him the loot. But only if he could get to her before the miniature car returned; then there would be two of them to contend with and he was in no shape for a fight.

Hell, this was supposed to be easy.

Scanning the street carefully in all directions, Tingo slipped between the parked cars and followed the shadow of the tree across the street. Again, a glance both left and right to guarantee his solitude before clambering up the brick steps and wedging himself into a corner, clear of the glare of the coach lamps.

The girl had left the door ajar. Amateur, Tingo laughed to himself, always looking to shave a few seconds off the job. You leave a door open like this, some cop strollin' a beat happens to notice, and bang, zoom, you're in steel bracelets. Wrapping the fingers of his free hand tightly around the edge of the door, Tingo eased it open, wary of any squeaks that would announce his entry and then, once inside, turned the knob and softly closed the door behind him.

The Persian carpet in the entrance hallway was more vibrant than it had appeared in his long distance photographs - deep chestnut brown horses with riders in robes of green and blue, a background of red flowering trees interwoven with streamers of gold and orange. There one of the riders was patting his steed on the side of the head, the jewels on the horse's bridal in threads of gold. A ring of silver with some medieval crest was woven with such detail that the man's fingernails were visible. A trio of hawks circled the procession; eyeballs of orange thread glaring at the riders. Tingo stepped carefully around the carpet, stopping to examine it again with each new angle.

For a moment, enough to take a deep breath and release it as a reluctant sigh, he considered rolling up the rug and leaving the house with a bounty far more wondrous than the cash upstairs. However, the image of the money tilted the scales in its favor. Tingo knew now he'd have to take the rug on the way out, there was no question in his mind.

Up the long stairway in front of him, lit by a Tiffany chandelier fit for a palace, there was only silence. With his boot resting on the first step, the burglar listened for a few moments, his head tilted toward Salamanca's second floor man-cave.

A firm clack came from the room just as Tingo was about to start up the stairs - she'd dialed in the combination and dropped the stainless steel handle, probably with two hands as he'd seen how Jose Salamanca threw his shoulder into moving it. Frozen against the wall, one foot still on a woven horse's head the other mid-stair, Tingo could see the safe open in his mind; could see the stacks and rows of hundred dollar bills - walls of thick paper bricks arranged so that at a glance their owner could take stock. And he could see the girl in black stealing his money.

He pulled the screwdriver from his belt and brought it around as if it were a dagger, grasping it blade down, ready to stab, before making his way up the steps. Tingo knew the mere threat of violence would be sufficient in this case; he had no desire to kill anyone, and truth be told, wasn't sure if he even knew how. Although he was short of six feet by at least two inches, with the extra clothing and oversized shoes, Tingo would appear a formidable adversary for the diminutive safecracker in Salamanca's office; as long as she didn't have a gun.

What if she did have a gun? The thought gave him pause and some of his bravado faded. Tingo had learned from television that burglars rarely if ever carried a weapon. They struck when there was little possibility of an intrusion - vacationers, weekends, taco barons with a fistful of theater tickets out for the evening. Knowing his luck however, Tingo worried that the girl hadn't seen those same programs and thus was not aware of the unwritten imperative; the open front door was an obvious clue.

As he reached the top step, Tingo leaned around the corner, the screwdriver held rigid against his thigh, and watched the girl scoop the money off the shelves of the safe and into a black trash bag as though cleaning dust from a countertop. It would take her a few minutes to load all that cash into the bag; Tingo reminded himself to offer her some form of thanks before relieving the second-rate thief of Salamanca's money - his money. And to his relief, if she had a gun, it would have to be in the bag out of reach, because as she turned each time to dump a pile into it, he could see nothing but the outline of her hips and breasts in the formfitting bodysuit she wore.

Even in the dim crimson light of her flashlight and the pale spikes of the streetlamps coming through the Venetian blinds, Tingo could see she was quite attractive. She was shorter than she'd appeared from high up in the oak tree and the opposite side of the street; too short, in fact, to reach the top shelf of the safe. But there was no hint of fat or flab on the girl's body. Her hands, ungloved now as she removed the cash, had manicured nails painted in a soft pink with flecks of glitter that shimmered as she moved. If there was a threat here, he was unable to detect it. Tingo held the screwdriver behind his back, just in case, and stepped into the room.

"You're leaving fingerprints everywhere. Not very professional." Tingo leaned against the doorframe and pointed at the now overfilled plastic bag. "And one rip in that flimsy thing and you'll spread my money all over the sidewalk."

"Your money?" The girl stepped in front of the sack with her hands on her hips. "Who the hell are you?"

As she crossed a sliver of light, Tingo was able to see her face - Salamanca's sister-in-law! He'd seen her picture in the newspaper article pushing a taco cart with a fish sandwich in her mouth.

"Colletta?" He smiled. "Well, isn't this interesting. Am I to assume that Jose asked you to remove some of his cash because the safe was getting too full?"

The pace of her expressions - surprise to indignation and finally to wide-eyed, slack-jawed shock - matched the girl's heart, complete with a series of skipped beats as her posture collapsed. Words, unnecessary, impossible nonetheless, failed her and she suddenly sprung backward, grabbing the trash bag by one corner. Unfortunately for her, the opposite corner was pinned beneath her sneakered foot. The bag split up the seam and the Franklins rolled out for a breath of fresh air.

The two burglars stared at the tumble of green bricks, now a foot high pile spread between them, and said nothing for almost a minute. Neither one looking at anything but what must have been several million dollars. Tingo tightened his grip on the screwdriver, not in preparation to run her through with it, but rather out of anger, thinking about having to stoop down and repack all that money. His bad knee would replace most of the pleasure of the score with pain for the balance of the weekend.

Colletta was frozen into the corner of the office in between a replica of Salamanca's original pushcart and the window. She glanced out only once, looking for the getaway car, and then locked her eyes on his face.

"Look, I'll split it with you. Don't even count it, just take what you think is half and we'll call it even."

He laughed and shook his head. "No, suppose I just take all of it and you have a seat until I'm done." Tingo pointed at the large leather chair behind the desk with the screwdriver. "Right there with your hands on the desk where I can see them."

"You can't have it all." Colletta stamped her foot. "That's not fair!"

Tingo was in no mood for a debate. He tugged a heavy-duty trashcan liner from his coat pocket and was about to flail it wide when the balloon popped and his luck gushed out.

The front door slammed open with a crash, as two men with guns drawn came pounding up the stairs and shouted their customary greeting, "Police! Don't move!" Tingo shoved the screwdriver under the cash and put his hands on top of his head.

Colletta fainted.



Well, as it turns out, Jose Salamanca trusted his wife even less than banks. Seems the wife discovered the truth about the extra pumping that was going on at the filling station back in Tijuana when the Mexican girl he'd impregnated phoned after seeing the newspaper article. Despite Jose's insistence that it was a one-time affair, it was in fact an on-going effort on his part to screw the gas company the way they'd been screwing him. He figured at four bucks a gallon - fifty to fill the tank - he might as well get full service for his money. And to make matters worse, Jose Salamanca had found another willing, young partner selling the same brand of gasoline and extramarital service, two blocks from 577 Whizbang Place, who also came knocking when she learned of his wealth.

The wife, twenty-one years the junior of her husband and furious with his lies, found the combination to the safe scotch-taped to the underside of the deskpad in his office and planned the extraction of his money with her sister. The timing of their plan all came together with Tingo's unexpected donation of the theater tickets. He unknowingly gave the girls the perfect opportunity to stuff old man Salamanca with a divorce and empty his wallet at the same time.

However, one of the things Jose Salamanca put absolute faith into was the local police department. He'd already had his one confrontation with the law and fully understood its power. A van registered to his taco company, up on cinderblocks and parked several doors down Whizbang held a minibar, flat screen television, and two off-duty cops from dusk until dawn seven days a week. Their primary responsibility was to watch the house for burglars and at the top of their list of possible suspects were his wife and her sister.

Tingo Skrachaballi spent two nights in jail - Saturday, since he was arrested long after Central Booking had closed for the night, and Sunday because everyone was too busy watching football to deal with an unlucky burglar and his accomplice. The phonebook lawyer who had done so well on the Fizzetski case, sprung his client before lunch on Monday and immediately got a court order separating Tingo and Colletta as defendants.

The trial took three days. Because Tingo wore gloves, there was no evidence that he had touched either the safe or the money. The only marks on the front door were from the tools Colletta had used to break in. Tingo's defense was that he was just strolling by, saw the door ajar, and took a fancy to the Persian rug he could see from the sidewalk. He spotted the burglar and held her at bay with the screwdriver he always carried for protection on his regular nighttime jaunts. The jury found him not guilty and sent him home with the thanks of the court.

Jose Salamanca gave Tingo the Persian rug, State's exhibit J, changed the combination on the Briggs and Wattelsy, divorced his wife, and married the girl at the local gas station.

Tingo broke into 577 Whizbang Place several weeks later and put the rug back in the foyer; it just didn't go with his décor.

2 comments:

  1. very good main character, i´m sure you could create something interesting with him.
    good Story and nice not over played humour.

    Michael mccarthy

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  2. Poor Tingo - always a day late and a dollar short. I think this could have been stretched out a little more; Tingo has some good potential for future adventures. Even within this story some of the summarizations could have been played out in dialogue. Kept me smilin' though!

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