by Patrick J. Lambe
The new kid had been hinting around that he was interested in doing some overtime work with us for a while now. He'd been particularly pushy during the last couple of weeks. I had been holding him off. I figured he wasn't desperate enough.
I don't know why I called him the new kid: he was neither. He'd been working at the lumber yard long enough that he knew how to operate the knuckle boom on the roofing truck, and although he didn't have an articulate license, he was skilled enough to jockey the 48' flatbed trailers around the yard when there were no other trailer drivers around. I hadn't looked at his application since I hired him, but I guessed that he was probably between thirty and thirty-five.
Hal--the guy who usually drove the sheet rock boom truck--was sitting in my office while I helped him doctor his USDT daily truck driver's logbook. The guy had been driving a truck for years and he still needed help with his logbook on an almost daily basis. He said, "I took George out with me to unload five units of rock at the Jersey Knolls, and we got to talking. He and his wife are having some problems of the financial kind. It seems they've been bidding on some houses and they always come up short. He says his wife has some bug up her ass about home ownership, and if he can't come up with ten grand for a down payment for their latest bid it might be quits for them."
George was the new kid, and I had been sending him out to help the other drivers until his assigned truck, the knuckle boom, came back from the shop with a new transmission.
"What do you think Hal?" I asked him. Hal had been doing overtime jobs with me since the first one and, although he wasn't the sharpest pencil in the pack, I valued his opinion.
"He's a smart one. I always see him reading the New York Times in the break room. He left one on the table once and I glanced through it. The entire crossword puzzle was done: and it was a Friday edition." Hal worked on his New York Post crossword puzzle every day during his lunch break, and I think the best he ever did was filling in 2/3'rds of the squares. "We've been short on overtime help since Rodriguez went back to Puerto Rico, and we're about due for another job."
That's the other reason I've been holding him off. I also thought he was smart--possibly smarter than me--and I made it a policy to never do overtime jobs with guys who were smarter than me.
I looked out of the window past the stacks of lumber and watched George on a fork lift jockey a unit of 2 x 4's onto the bed of a flat bed trailer, and I imagined I could make out that look of desperation that I required in all the guys I let work overtime with me. Besides; how smart can you possibly be if you're driving a knuckle boom truck for a living?
I hadn't planned on being a truck dispatcher in a lumberyard. I hadn't really planned on being anything. I learned rather late in life that if you don't plan and make decisions for yourself, someone else is going to make them for you. I started at the Deck Depot the summer I graduated from high school: helping customers fill their orders, loading trucks, driving the forklifts around. I had to wait until I was 21 to driver a truck because of regulations, but once I got behind the wheel I was the best. I could do twice as many deliveries as most of the rest of the guys, and I rapidly learned how to drive the bigger trucks, the more complicated ones with the hydraulic booms and forklifts attached to the backs of them.
I was twenty-five when the old dispatcher retired and the manager of the company offered me the job. I made a big show about how I didn't want to be taken off the road. He said I could have carte blanche with the drivers and how the yard operation was run, so I 'reluctantly' took the job.
I'd actually been planning things for over a year before the inevitable job offer. The first thing I did was move the small trailer that the dispatcher and the yard supervisor worked out of from its location by the main building to the sole entrance to the yard. I told the manager I moved it so we could get the loads out quicker without the salesman constantly running out to ask us to do them special favors and move their customers' delivery times up.
I really moved it so I could watch everything that was coming in and out of the yard, and get a cut of all the merchandise the yard workers were moving out of the place on the sly. What had once been a haphazard operation of selling certain contractors supplies without them taking a needlessly expensive trip to the salesroom, turned into a sophisticated ring with me in charge. I got a piece of everything. And I made the sure the guys didn't get too greedy.
I eventually moved the operation up to include some of the salesmen. I would have them charge the contactors for a small amount of material, load them up with additional material at a discount, and kick back some of the profit to the guys in the office. It would never have worked if the salesmen were earning a commission, but our company was pretty stingy when it came to sharing the wealth. I wasn't.
The manager was more concerned with getting his deliveries out on time than watching the employees; and I made sure the deliveries went out on time. I can't remember the last time we had a complaint about a late or lost delivery, even if I still had to occasionally drive a truck myself. It was while I was making one of these emergency deliveries that I was inspired to do my first overtime job.
One of our drivers called in sick, and as a result we had a delivery of windows we had to drop off at this plush house. I pulled the truck up to the job site after the contractor had gone home for the day. He had left instructions that the door of the detached garage would be left unlocked so I could leave them there for him to install first thing in the morning.
The contractor had a small work space set up on a couple of saw horses and I rifled through the papers he had left there. There was a hand written note from the owners of the house saying that they wanted the construction finished in two weeks time so they could enjoy their new addition when they returned from their vacation from St. Lucia. I did the math and figured they wouldn't be home for six more days.
I walked around the house checking things out. I noticed a warning sticker for one of the alarm companies on the window of the living room, and I got to thinking. I vaguely remembered doing a delivery to the house when it was under new construction almost five years before. I went back to the garage and rigged one of the windows up so it looked like it locked, but didn't. Then I left the delivery receipt on the table and went back to my truck.
I stayed late at the yard, looking through the old invoices until I found it. I had delivered something to the plush house; a small hidden security safe.
Rodriguez had worked in construction for years before he blew his back out and had to find less strenuous work. His intimate knowledge of the construction trade and easygoing charm with the customers had caused the managers to hire him as an inside salesman. His avarice and low level cunning had caused me to take him on in my little discount operation.
I called him up at his house from the office and asked him if he would have any idea where a safe would be located in a house, and how it would be installed. He said he did, and I told him to be ready tomorrow night. I then called Hal, a friend of mine since high school. This was before I took him on at the lumberyard, and at the time he was trying to make it with his own contracting business. He excelled at the actual construction, but the planning and estimating process was a little beyond him. His company wasn't doing too well, but he owned his own van and an impressive amount of tools. I made arrangements with him and promised him a slice of the pie.
The next day I told the yard supervisor that we were swamped with deliveries and I would have to pitch in. I loaded up some smaller orders in the company pickup truck and drove out to the house where I had delivered the windows. I made sure the contractor showed up and waited until his guys had started work before I called the alarm company.
The alarms are rigged up from the window to the alarm company headquarters through some special phone lines. If the windows or door are broken or otherwise interfered with the signal goes out to the alarm company through the dedicated telephone line
I told the alarm company dispatcher the windows had been delivered late and they'd have to come back out tomorrow to re-install the alarm system. I then called the contractor who was installing the window and told him I had a deal for him, but that he'd have to meet me at the yard personally just before closing for me to sell him some nice windows at a considerable discount. I figured his workers wouldn't look at Hal twice; but I didn't want the boss man around when he pulled up in his unmarked work van and made an elaborate show of acting like he knew how to install an alarm system.
I let the three of us into the house through the doctored window that night. Rodriguez quickly located the safe and we used a sawzall to cut around it and liberate it from the beams that attached it to the frame of the house. I fixed the window and we left through the back door, locking it behind us.
Later, back at Hal's shop, we used his acetylene torch to cut the lock out. We did better than I dared hope for; splitting $30,000 in cash three ways. That was the first overtime job, and we did a couple a year; taking our time picking the right job and trying not to get too greedy. We were so successful that Rodriguez bought a house in Puerto Rico almost five years ahead of his schedule.
I called George into the office on the intercom after Hal had left. He removed his work gloves and sat down in the chair across from me. I liked that, the fact that he wore work gloves when he was handling building materials. It showed he was careful.
"Hal says you're a hard worker George. You've heard about some of the overtime opportunities we have around here. I'm looking into some projects and we'll probably have something in a couple of weeks."
"I appreciate the offer, but I'm kind of on a time schedule. I have to make a move and I can't wait a couple of weeks; but I've been checking something out too. Something we have to jump on right away if we want to do the job," George said, sizing me up.
"What do you have in mind?"
"You know those two college kids who've been buying shingles off us for the last three summers?"
I knew them. They were students at an out of state school who worked their asses off installing new roofs every summer when they returned home for their break. They had painted a picture of two guys with tool belts slung over their caps and gowns standing under a logo that said: 'We Raise Your Roof to Raise Our Tuition.' I admired their work ethic, and I had recently bought them in on our discount program.
"I've got to know them from going out on deliveries. They've got a job going on in the Watchung Hills off route 22. You should see this place, it's palatial and very isolated," George said.
I looked down at the clipboards scattered on the desk, each one with the name of a truck written on it and the invoices for the next days deliveries attached to it. The one that said knuckle boom had an invoice for the job in the Hills. The delivery was scheduled for early in the morning, as soon as the truck came back from the shop.
"Normally these guys bust their humps six days a week during the summer and they make enough to pay off their tuition. Now they've got a bigger profit margin since they're been buying at a discount, and they've decided to take it a little easy this season. They're planning on leaving work early on Thursday to drive up to Maine for a three-day weekend of fishing. The owners of the house are away for almost the whole summer," George said.
This sounded intriguing. "How far are they on the project?"
"They've planned it out pretty good. They're doing the roof in two phases. They've got most of the house done already, except this one small area in the back. They spent today ripping up the shingles and they're planning on spending tomorrow installing them."
"So if we hold off on the delivery..." I said.
"We can have the house to ourselves for the whole weekend."
The way the roofing deliveries work, is that our guy hoists the pallet of shingles up to the roof with the boom, and the contractors unload them and distribute the packs of shingles along the roof line, placing them for installation.
I called the kid on his cell at 8:00 in the morning and told him that we were having trouble with the boom truck and I couldn't have the delivery there until after 4. I apologized and said in order to make it up to them I'd send an extra man out on the delivery, and have our guys unload them onto the roof. The kid almost seemed happy we couldn't make the delivery on time. They could get an even earlier jump on the weekend.
George and Hal drove out to the job site on the last delivery of the day and, after distributing the shingles along the roof line, pulled the blue tarp that was covering the unfinished section of the roof and used a couple of hammers to remove the nails from a 4 x 8 piece of sheathing.
I was always a little nervous when we were doing an overtime job, especially when we were bringing a new guy on for the first time. I was even more nervous about this one because I hadn't had enough time to check it out as thoroughly as I usually did. But I felt a little more relieved when we pulled up to the job site and George went right over to the ladder the college kids had left covered in a tarp under their porch. The fact that he had spotted the ladder's hiding place demonstrated that he was good at paying attention to details.
We set the ladder up and climbed up to the roof. We removed the plywood and let ourselves into the attic. I sensed that there was something wrong the second George found the safe. He had gotten to it too quickly, and there was too much money in it. The biggest take we ever had at one shot had been our first job. People, normal, legitimate people, just didn't keep large amounts of cash lying around sitting in a safe when it could be out multiplying on the stock market or in some other kind of investment. There was a little over $200,000 in small bills in the safe. And, the thing that really bothered me was that he had known the combination.
"Fifty grand a piece, not a bad night's work," George said as he shoveled the money into a tool bag we had brought along for the job. I looked over at Hal. Maybe he wasn't the best at crossword puzzles but he was pretty good with math.
"What are you talking about George? We already went over this. We're splitting the take into equal parts," I said.
"I know but we've got to give a cut to the person who gave me the combo."
"The guy who gave you the combo; what the hell are you talking about?" I turned to Hal. "Do you know anything about a fourth man?"
"This is the first I heard about it," Hal said, starting to look a little nervous.
"First of all there is no fourth man; she's a woman. And second of all she doesn't know either of you. I just told her I was working with two other professionals."
I was tempted to put the money back in the safe and forget this night ever happened. I was pretty sure Hal would do whatever I told him to--we had done enough jobs that even he could see this one was fucked up--but now I had George to worry about.
"Let's get out of here. I want to meet you two guys tomorrow after work at the Court Tavern so we can talk things over," I said, trying to hide the panic in my voice.
We climbed back out of the hole, nailed the plywood back into place and put the ladder back where we found it. We split the money in the car right there, and drove back to the strip mall where we had left the other two cars. I tried to read the expression on George's face, but I couldn't make anything out by the weak light of the dashboard..
I had half expected George to be a no show for the work the next day. In fact I secretly hoped he had tricked us and taken us for half of the take and flown off to some tropical place never to be heard from again; but there he was leafing through his delivery tickets, sipping coffee just like any other workday.
I waited until the drivers had left with their deliveries for the day before I rifled through the order sheets to find the cell phone number of the college contractor. I prayed that he answered it after I had dialed the number. He answered on the sixth ring.
"I had to leave the office early yesterday and I'm just calling to make sure the delivery we made to you got there OK," I asked him.
"Actually we haven't been to the job site today, but I'm sure everything went right. Especially if you had George do the delivery, he's always done right by us."
"Yeah, George said he'd become pretty friendly with you guys. He's one of my best drivers. I understand you guys are graduating after this year. Are you planning on keeping at the roofing business?"
"No way, we're both advertising majors. It's bright lights, big city and banging supermodels after this semester."
"I've got a cousin who's got a side business doing some roofing and he's been a little slow. If you guys have any spare work or if you need an extra hand for the rest of the summer let me know. My cousin is a hard worker."
"We're pretty much set for the rest of the summer, but maybe you should talk to your man George, he set us up with that roofing job up in Watchung."
"Really, I didn't think George would be the kind of guy to know people with that kind of money."
"His girlfriend works there, cleaning up the house once in a while and I think he found out about the job through her."
I went to the main office immediately after I hung up the phone and pulled George's personal folder. I went over to his beneficiary's form and checked everything twice. He didn't have any dependents listed and his marriage status was single.
I went back out to the dispatcher's office and called Hal on the radio.
"You said that George was having problems with his wife right?"
"Yeah, we talked about it the day we delivered all that sheet rock."
"You're sure he said wife. Not girlfriend or main squeeze or anything like that?"
"No. He said wife. He said he'd been married for ten years."
There was only one more thing to check out. I took off for an early lunch break and went back to my apartment and put the address of the Watchung house into a search engine. I recognized the name of the owner as soon as it came up. I went into my bathroom to wash my face and saw that look of desperation I required in all the guys who did overtime jobs with me reflected in the mirror.
I drove back out to the house in Watchung and pulled into the driveway. I got out of the pickup and walked around the house. I had no idea what I was looking for, and I didn't find it. I was back at the pick up fumbling with the key, when a dark BMW 745 pulled into the driveway. A guy got out of the car and walked up to me. He was in his mid thirties, dressed in a patterned sports shirt and a pair of freshly pressed kakis. He had gold around his neck and his slightly graying hair was slicked back with some type of styling gel.
"Are you with the roofers?" the guy said, smiling.
I saw a woman with hair so platinum blond that it had to come out of a bottle let herself out of the passenger seat and walk to the front door.
"No I work for their supply company. We had a problem with their shipment. We shorted them some shingles so I drove out here to drop off what we owed them."
The guy reached into his wallet and pulled out a twenty, handed it to me. "Thanks a lot man, get yourself some lunch on the way back to the yard on me."
I started up the truck and tried to grip the steering wheel hard enough to stop my hands from shaking.
I called Hal on the radio as soon as I returned to the yard.
"Get back here, right away."
"I've got a pallet of spackle to deliver to the Johnson and Johnson Corporate Headquarters job, then I've got to drop off some plywood in Highland Park. I'm just about to hit their driveway."
"Forget about it. Get back here, hop on a fork lift and put the spackle on Joe's flat bed and put the plywood on the box truck. Then come here into my office. It's about the overtime job."
"You don't sound too good boss."
"We'll talk about it when you get back here."
I hoped I didn't look as scared as Hal after I told him whose house we had robbed the night before.
"Tullio 'Trifecta' Mazzucco. We ripped off Tullio 'Trifecta' Mazucco."
"I drove out there this afternoon to check the place out. I told him I was dropping off the rest of a delivery when he pulled up in his beemer. He gave me a twenty dollar tip."
"Wait a second, he pulled up in his beemer? I thought George said the home owners would be away for the rest of the summer."
"That's just the start of it." I filled him in on the rest of the stuff I learned about our other partner.
"What the hell are we going to do? I heard Tullio had a state trooper killed. A fucking state trooper."
"We've got to think of something," I said as I saw George pull the knuckle boom into the yard. "Whatever we do, I want you to remember that George is not our partner."
Hal and I got down to business as soon as I placed the pitcher of beer down on the table we had taken at the back of the bar.
"You lied to us George," I said.
"What the hell are you talking about?" he said.
"You told me you were having problems with your wife, and it turns out you're not even married," Hal said.
"And you said the home owner was going to be away for the rest of the summer, the fucking guy pulled up in his driveway early this afternoon," I said.
"I've been setting this up for months and I only had a certain window of opportunity to work with. I tried to get you guys to take me on for a long time so I made up the story about my wife when Hal started bitching about his."
"The thing is George; we only do jobs when we know the homeowner is going to be away for an extended period of time. If you do it too close to a construction time period they get suspicious of the contractor."
"The homeowner was away, if you guys didn't drag your feet we would have had more time."
"And the other thing George. Do you know who the homeowner is?"
"Some rich guy. My girlfriend has her own cleaning business and she cleans up the guys house once a week."
"Did you bother to check out how this rich guy got that way?" Hal said.
He looked puzzled. "Who cares?" He could tell by our eyes that we did. "What does this guy do for a living?"
"You ever see a movie called The Godfather?" Hal said.
George went white and I believed he didn't know whose house we had robbed.
"There's not going to be any police investigation on this break in. This guy has his own enforcers. I think you'd better tell me everything, the whole set up," I said.
His girlfriend spoke much better English than she let on in front of her clients, and she had somehow found out two things: the combination to the safe and the fact that Tullio's house needed a new roof job done, preferably when he was on his vacation to Vegas. George set the college kids up with the job through his girlfriend and started to work on us to get us in on the deal.
"We should have broken open the safe using our normal method. Tullio's going to eventually figure out it's an inside job," I said.
"How do you normally break open the safe?" George asked.
"If it's small enough we cut it out of the frame work and bring it with us. If it's too large we set up a torch and cut the lock out. That's another reason we make sure the homeowner is away for an extended period of time: it can take days to cut through one of the better quality safes. If we see an alarm we cut our losses and clear the appliances and silverware out, if we have enough time," I explained.
"We're fucked," Hal said before he drained an entire pint glass in one huge gulp.
"Not necessarily," George said. "You guys have been doing this for years and you never got caught. If we all keep our heads together we can get through this."
I wanted to believe him so I said, "It all depends on how often Tullio checks out the safe. I figure he's got two hundred grand in there for emergency funds. How often does a guy like that have an emergency?"
Five days later, first thing Wednesday morning, one of the salesman jogs out to my trailer from the main office.
"You've going to have to cancel an order for me."
"Which one?" I asked as I shuffled through the paperwork.
"Those two college kids. They had a little accident."
"What happened?" I tried to keep my voice steady.
"They fell off a roof in Edison. One of them was DOA, the other one's on a respirator. He may pull through."
"They both fell off a roof at the same time?"
"Yeah, some guys just have the worse luck."
I called Hal on the radio and asked him what he thought about this accident.
"The construction trade is pretty dangerous, accidents happen all the time, I wouldn't worry about it if I was you."
I took his advice and I didn't worry. Until two detectives knocked on the door to my trailer.
"I'm Detective Levy of the New Brunswick Police Department," the black one said. "This is Detective Lueken. We have some questions to ask you in regard to an investigation we're conducting."
"What do you guys want to know?"
"George Vrenith works for you as a truck driver. Is that correct?"
"Yeah, he's been with us for something like four or five years now."
"Was he anywhere near New Brunswick today?"
I pulled out the delivery scheduled and read off the information to the detectives. "He dropped a door off in Scotch Plains this morning on his first load, then he had to boom some shingles to a roof in Metuchen on the way back. Then he came back to the yard and took out another load up to Basking Ridge. He was no-where near New Brunswick today, and judging by this schedule, he didn't have enough free time to sneak there as far as I can tell."
"Can we make a photo copy of your log and the receipts to the deliveries he made today?"
"What's this all about Detective?" I asked Levy as he leaned against the photocopy machine after we had gathered all the paperwork together and brought it to the main office.
"This looks like it checks out and it's going to be all over the news anyway. George's girlfriend had an accident at that new high-rise condo place that used to be the municipal building. She fell down an elevator shaft. We automatically check out the boyfriend or husband when something like this happens to a woman."
"Excuse me officer," Hal said as he bumped into Lueken when we passed the break room on our way back to the yard. "I'm glad I ran into you boss. I'm going to need a helper on that delivery this afternoon."
I was distracted so I said something like, "Take whoever you want. I'm kind of busy right now."
There was a note from Hal on my desk when I got back to my office after talking to the cops. "George's truck wouldn't start so I took him along to give me a hand with the sheet rock load."
I cursed under my breath. The last thing I needed with all the trouble I was having with the overtime job was trouble with our normal workload. It took me a little over a half hour to re-arrange the afternoon deliveries now that I was a truck short, but I eventually went over to the knuckle boom and lifted the hood. Several of the spark plugs cables were removed from their housing.
The manager came running up to me as I was closing the hood. "You better get down to that condo job on Joyce Kilmer as soon as possible."
"What's wrong?" I asked. I had never seen him so upset.
"There's been an accident."
They hadn't begun to remove the pile of ruined sheetrock that George was lying under. Hal was sitting on a spackle bucket, smoking a cigarette. The police had already interviewed him.
"I don't know what happened boss. I guess a gust of wind caught the sheetrock when I had it three stories up."
"Don't worry about it Hal. This is construction; accidents happen all the time."
I worked late that night, beginning to go through the mound of paperwork an accident of this magnitude would require. I didn't think that Hal had it in him. We had always gone for the subtle approach, never hurt anyone on a job; but the fear of Tullio Mazzucco must have been too much for him. It was obvious that Tullio would track us down eventually. He hit the college kids first, then George's girlfriend; the next logical step in the chain was George, then Hal and me. I hoped that Hal had taken George out of the chain before it was too late.
I looked up from the paperwork as a familiar car pulled into the yard. It was Hal, probably forgot something in his locker with all the commotion of the day.
Then something gelled in my head and I checked the delivery schedule lying on the top of a pile of papers. Hal's first delivery had been to a job in Edison. His third was to the new condo where George's girlfriend worked. He was walking slowly towards the trailer.
Hal's not that cunning, I thought, he couldn't have planned all this out. The friggin guy can't even finish a crossword puzzle.
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