Meet Lennon, a mute Irish getaway driver who has fallen in with the wrong heist team on the wrong day at the wrong bank. Betrayed, his money stolen and his battered carcass left for dead, Lennon is on a one-way mission to find out who is responsible--and to get back his loot. But the robbery has sent a violent ripple effect through the streets of Philadelphia. And now a dirty cop, the Russian and Italian mobs, the mayor's hired gun, and a keyboard player in a college rock band maneuver for position as this adrenaline-fueled novel twists and turns its way toward its explosive conclusion.
One thing's for sure: This cast of characters wakes up in a much different world by novel's end--if they wake up at all.
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November 01, 2006
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Excerpt from The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski
I didn't reform, I lost my nerve. I still think it's sensible to want money and if you want money it has to be sensible to go where they have it and make them give you some.
Lennon watched people making their way up and down Seventeenth Street as the brisk March air whipped around the buildings. Had he been a smoker, Lennon would have savored the last few puffs before pressing the window button and flipping out the butt. Just one cigarette--something for the geeks in khaki pants and navy blue windbreakers to pick up with tweezers, drop into a thick Ziploc bag, tag, log, then store in their evidence cases.
Maybe someone would get around to analyzing the brand, try to pluck some DNA from the butt.
Part of Lennon would live forever, somewhere, tucked away in the case files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
But Lennon didn't smoke. He fiddled with the car radio a bit and watched strangers make their way to various duties and diversions. He used to wonder what motivated them--what made them get up every morning, brush their teeth, shower, eat breakfast, kiss a loved one and possibly a child good-bye. That wasn't for him, and that's probably why Lennon enjoyed these last moments before a big job. It put everything into perspective. You could either be outside, burning shoe leather, reporting to a cubicle, thinking about a report, whatever. Or you could be inside a car, waiting for your accomplices.
Then the alarm went off, and everything went to hell.
Holden was right up Bling's ass. NO NO no you idiot. Hang back. Hang two steps back.
But it was too late. The big glass door behind Holden swung shut before Bling had a chance to push open the door in front of him. The hidden ACU--the gunpowder-sniffing gizmo--kicked in. Or maybe someone inside tripped it. Didn't matter. Both Bling and Holden were sealed inside the bank vestibule. Even from twenty yards away you could read the expression on Bling's face as his pistol hand smacked against glass: Motherfuck. Trapped, like two gerbils in a Habitrail.
Lennon slid the gearshift into drive, checked the rearview and side mirrors, then punched the car forward and to the left, blocking traffic on Seventeenth Street. He turned around. The strong late March sunshine blazed off the bank's white stone so fiercely it hurt the eyes. Lennon still had a choice. He could leave them behind. Holden deserved it. Bling was another story. And this whole job was another story still.
Lennon pressed two fingers to his neck, feeling for his carotid artery. He counted quickly.
Everything was normal. His pulse hadn't jumped much.
Hooking an arm around the seat, Lennon looked back at Bling. He was watching Lennon very carefully. Lennon gave him the universal "move to the left" sign with his hand. Bling grabbed a hunk of Holden's windbreaker and yanked him out of the way.
Cars honked and Lennon hammered the gas pedal. He would have given them the finger, but there wasn't time.
In the rearview, the bank came rushing forward like the view from a cockpit in a plane barreling into the ground. Lennon made tiny adjustments, keeping his gloved hands light on the wheel. A nudge to the left, a tap to the right. He had to hit the glass just right.
He had done enough reading to know that ACUs--access-control-units--were designed to be bulletproof from the inside. That way, the bank nabs a crew of stupid Holden-like bad guys, they can't go whipping out their Sig Sauers and blasting their way out. Banks don't like customers getting popped. They do everything in their power to avoid it. In fact, when they first started making ACUs, they forgot to make them bulletproof, and banks got shot to hell when freaked-out heisters panicked. Some models of ACUs even have these little escape holes, so the heisters can go on their merry way without plugging any of the customers.
Not this model, though. This apparently was the Scratch-Your-Nuts-Until-the-Feds-ArriveTM model. Bulletproof inside and, most likely, out.
But car-proof? Speeding car-proof? Speeding, stolen-Acura-proof?
At the last minute, Lennon saw that he was going to smack into a metal support column. He cut it hard, then felt the glass panes shatter.
He shifted up and tapped forward. Bling grabbed Holden's windbreaker again and pulled him through the gap.
Lennon reached down and popped the back trunk, then checked his watch. 9:13 a.m. They were still on track. As long as they could make the next couple of blocks, this might work out after all. The Acura rocked on its suspension as Bling climbed in shotgun and again as Holden hit the backseat.
Lennon stomped on the gas. The car rocketed forward, tires screaming on pavement, and Lennon didn't see her until the last minute.
The woman, pushing a blue baby stroller.
Center City Philadelphia banks are not hit by takeover teams very often, and with good reason: there are very few ways out.
You get a lot of lone-wolf crackheads doing business, but not many pros. Billy Penn designed Philadelphia to be a tightly locked grid of streets named after trees stretching from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River. Colonial homes gave way to brownstone mansions which gave way to tightly packed office towers which gave way to a glut of office space. The streets are narrow and often blocked, especially where they lead to interstates. If you are smack-dab in the center of Center City--which Lennon's team was--Interstates 95 and 76 are barely five minutes away. But it can take fifty minutes to reach them, if traffic is shitty enough.
Bling gave Lennon the background. Bling was a Philly boy; Lennon was not. Lennon owned a place deep in the Pocono Mountains just an hour and a half away, and he had people he knew in Philadelphia, but he would never work there. The closest he'd work was New York, and even that was a bit too close.
However, the bankroll was running thin, and Lennon and Katie were finished rolling off a nice long wasted winter, with no work for either of them. It was a nice winter: mostly cooking and reading and drinking. When Bling called Katie in late February, it was the right time to go back to work.
The setup sounded nice, too. Bling needed a wheelman for a three-man takeover. A Wachovia Bank, three blocks from city hall, was set to receive a fat shipment of cash on March 29, straight from the federal government. It was part of the mayor's "Operation Fresh Start," a scheme where he was planning to dump over $650,000 on the shittiest ten-block area in the shittiest part of town, just to level it flat and hope that a national developer would want to build a Barnes & Noble or Bed, Bath & Beyond in the middle of the drug-addled badlands. Most of the money was going to pay one hundred or so holdouts who wanted to stay in their crumbling row houses. Bling told Katie that the mayor was going to hand out between $40,000 and $80,000 to each holdout--in cash--in exchange for surrendering the property.
Why cash? Mayor comes from that area, Bling said. Folks there don't trust nothing but cash. They want to get paid. Plus, somebody in the mayor's office thought it would be a good visual for the TV crews: the mayor, launching "Operation Fresh Start" by handing out thick stacks of green to the neediest people in the city. Never mind that gangbangers would probably pounce on the recipients the moment the cameras were turned off. That wasn't the city's problem.
Plus, Bling planned to take the money first.
Bling had a city council snitch who told him about the cash. Bling then told Katie how he planned to pull the thing off, and it sounded like a good idea. So Lennon decided to go back to work.
Lennon was a very good wheelman. starting out, he was lucky, but then experience and real skill kicked in, and eventually, he earned a reputation.
The moment Lennon saw the woman and her baby stroller, he knew the Acura was going to hit them.
Impact was two seconds away. Lennon was faced with a choice: aim for the stroller, or aim for the woman. The woman had at least a slim chance of possessing catlike reflexes and leaping the hell out of the way. Based on an ultraquick glance, she seemed agile enough. Maybe she'd been a state champion gymnast as a teenager.
Braking and wrestling with the wheel was out of the question. The risk of fishtailing was too great, and Lennon worried that he would broadside both the lady and the stroller. Steering clear out of the way was impossible. Immediately to the right of the woman and stroller was one of those huge cement planter squares full of mulch and shrubs. The planter would total the Acura, and the team would have to escape on foot--if any of them were conscious enough to do so. And the car was pointed too far right to be suddenly wrenched to the left. No, the choice was still this: woman or stroller.
Holden. He had just returned to his originally scheduled programming.
Lennon's hands floated to the right, and his foot tapped the brakes to ease the impact.
The Acura smacked into the woman cleanly, powerfully, directly below her left hip. The impact folded her in half, then sent her tumbling up the windshield and over the hood. Lennon looked in his side-view mirror, and saw--miraculously--the baby stroller, trembling slightly, but still upright on the sidewalk. She had let go, just in time.
Lennon blessed her, even as she skidded off the side of the roof and fell into the street. It was one less thing to explain to Katie.
Passersby screamed, but that wasn't Lennon's concern. Yes, he hoped the woman was still breathing. He hoped her hospital time would be minimal, and that, eventually, she'd forget all about what had happened to her. But he couldn't get caught up in that now. He still had work to do.
The heist had been all on Bling. The getaway was all on him.
For a good two weeks, Lennon had studied the street maps of Philadelphia that Bling mailed him, looking for elements that other heisters had overlooked. For the first couple of days, he kept coming back to JFK Boulevard, just one block from the target bank. JFK didn't exist thirty years ago; a huge set of train tracks--nicknamed the "Chinese Wall"--used to cover the same ground, originating from a huge terminal a few blocks to the east. The city shitcanned the trains, then built a row of office complexes and apartment buildings in its wake. They named the street after the recently assassinated U.S. president. JFK. Lennon kept coming back to it. It felt right. It felt like the gang's ticket out of the city, out to I-76 and by extension, freedom.
The more Lennon studied, the more he fell in love with JFK. It was a fat street, unlike almost any other in Center City Philadelphia. He took a Martz bus down to study it in person one unseasonably warm day--a Tuesday. His suspicions were confirmed. Even though JFK ran from city hall right to Thirtieth Street Station--arguably the busiest strip of the city--it was wide enough to handle all manner of traffic. Cabbies were able to weave in and out of traffic from Fifteenth Street clear through to Thirtieth. JFK was it: the fat artery that would let the blood spurt away from the heart and straight to I-76.
The only problem: Bling's target bank sat at the corner of Seventeenth and Market. Lennon discovered that Seventeenth Street ran south, away from JFK. And Market ran east, away from I-76.
He studied the maps, drank imported beer, watched DVD movies with Katie. He knew the answer would come.
The morning of the job, Bling and Lennon put on window-cleaners' uniforms, then carried their signs and ladders and wooden horses and ropes out of a rented van with the word jenkintown window masters, inc. painted on the side. (Bling said that all of the decent window-washing companies were based in Jenkintown, a suburb just north of the city.) They set up their gear along the west side of Seventeenth Street, between Market and JFK, arranging the wooden horses in a straight line almost to the end of the curb so that pedestrians would have to walk around them to get anywhere. Chances were, nobody would bother looking up for scaffolding. Besides, it would only have to work for about twenty minutes.
When they had blocked off enough of the sidewalk, Bling and Lennon climbed back into the van, then Bling changed into his second set of clothes--baggy jeans, Vans, oversized basketball jersey. Holden, driving the van, was already dressed for the job. He was wearing an Allen Iverson jersey. Big bright colors, huge fat numbers and names. You want to give them something to look at. That way, they'll keep looking for it later, long after you've changed into something else. Lennon stayed in his window-cleaner uniform. It didn't really matter what he was wearing, not until later.
Bling pulled out his cloned cell phone, dialed in the bomb threat to the U.S. Mint--clear across town--and Lennon drove them to where he'd stashed the Acura.
Lennon wrestled the wheel to the left and applied pressure to the brake pedal. The Acura spun forty-five degrees, give or take a degree, so that it faced the wrong way on Seventeenth Street.
"Jesus fuck yo!" yelled Holden in the back.
"Hey," said Bling. "Brother knows what he's doin'."
Brother knew exactly what he was doing. He just didn't know how he was going to do it. The trick was shooting across Market Street in one piece. Lennon knew he had a fifty-fifty shot at a green light, which would make everything easy. A red light would be tricky.
Predictably, the light was red.
Lennon rationalized it. Only sixty feet across. Just sixty measly feet of Frogger. Lennon looked at Bling and nodded, then turned back and pushed down on the accelerator. The Acura jumped forward and raced through the first thirty feet. An SUV tried to cut him off from the last thirty, but Lennon swerved to the left, then cut back to the right and sailed through a parking meter and the traffic pole, directly onto the sidewalk, smashing through the first wooden horse they'd set up. He crashed the Acura through the rest of the window-washing gear--which had been loosened to ensure easy breakage--clear through to JFK Boulevard. Better the gear than innocent people. One hit-and-run victim was enough for one morning.
"Now that's how you do it," Bling said.
Lennon shot him a glance, then spun left onto JFK and raced forward all the way up to Twentieth Street, weaving in and out of cabs and Mercedes and Chevy Cavaliers. He pressed two fingers to his neck, feeling for the carotid artery. This was his favorite way to gauge stress. He was doing okay, all things considered.
Another rearview check: no flashers. Five blocks away from the bank and nothing. The first five blocks were always the hardest. Lennon took a hard right onto Twentieth Street, going north, then a quick left down a tiny side street that ran parallel to JFK.
Now here's where Philadelphia geography gets interesting. Even after ripping out the Chinese Wall, some bits of the old city remained. Tiny streets and alleys that used to run through the industrial blocks sat right next to the new thoroughfares. One of those alleys was the key to the getaway plan.
The alley Lennon took was wide enough for a car, and led downhill. Right next to it, JFK continued at a level elevation and then turned into a small bridge that ran over the Schuylkill River and directly to the front doors of Thirtieth Street Station. This side alley dipped down to river level. Nobody ever drove on this tiny street.
No sirens yet. Anywhere. A good sign.
The Acura sailed down the side street, crossed Twenty-first Street, then continued to Twenty-second. Lennon made a quick right, then a quick left, and pulled into the parking lot. By this time, Bling and Holden had stripped out of their jerseys and windbreakers and shiny pants and tucked them, along with their guns, into an oversized plastic shopping bag. All Lennon had to do was slip off the window-cleaning uniform, which he handed back to Bling, who tucked it away.
The lot was a park-it-yourself deal. They pulled into a spot, gathered up everything out of the car, then walked over to the second car: a 1998 Honda Prelude. They tucked the plastic bag with their clothes in the trunk next to the canvas bag with the $650,000, tossed the keys in, and slammed the lid shut. Then they calmly walked back to Twenty-second Street to the third car--a Subaru Forester--which was parked on the street. There were still fifteen minutes left on the meter.
Lennon took the keys from his inner suit jacket pocket and pressed the orange button. The security system disengaged with a loud thew-WEEP WEEP. He pressed the blue button, and the locks popped. They climbed in, just three business guys carpooling to a meeting in the city.
Except they weren't headed for the city. The gang was headed for Philadelphia International Airport, where they'd take separate flights to different resort hotels in various parts of the world. Holden was headed for a place in Amsterdam. Bling was looking forward to some time on the Left Coast--Seattle. And Lennon was headed for Puerto Rico, to the El Conquistador Hotel and Casino and to Katie, who would be waiting there for him. The $650,000 would stay parked in the trunk of the Prelude. It was a long-term parking lot.
In the first meeting, Holden had had a problem with that part of the caper. "You mean we're going to let it just sit there? What if someone boosts the car?"
"Someone boosts that shit," Bling said, "that's fate. We move on."
"You got to be fucking kidding me."
"It's the safest thing. Trust me--you don't want to be caught with one buck from Wachovia on you. You get nabbed, they ain't got nothing."
"Shit," Holden said. "Someone's gonna boost it."
"Nobody's going to boost it."
Hopefully, nobody was going to boost it.
Lennon pulled the Forester out onto the street, drove up to the parkway, then hooked a right around the art museum and caught Kelly Drive. He had spent a lot of time mapping out this part of the getaway. Lights--only three between the art museum and I-76--were timed; curves studied; proper m.p.h. noted. This was the tiny bit of science involved in Lennon's job. After a few trial runs, Lennon knew that when the light at Fairmount Avenue and Kelly Drive flicked green, he had three seconds to achieve a speed of 38 m.p.h., which would take him to the I-76 entrance without interruption. Lennon was impressed with the city planners; they had obviously taken time to craft this roadway. On some roads, he had to slow down/speed up for particular stretches. Not Kelly Drive. Lennon practically fell in love.
Past the art museum, past Boathouse Row, then deep into Kelly Drive, Lennon finally felt his stomach muscles unclench. The needle of the Subaru was firmly pointed at 38. The rest of the getaway was academic. There was nothing in the car to incriminate them; there were no obstacles between their car and the interstate out of town to the airport.
Lennon smoothly took a curve, looking at the geese assembled by the side of the river. They'd been here a few weeks before, when he'd been scouting the job. A few of them honked. Goozles. That's what Katie called them. Something from her childhood. The goozles honked and suddenly fluttered their wings in near-panic.
And that's when Black Death came racing at them.
A van, with reinforced steel crash bumpers, rocketing out of the side of the road. Smacking right into Lennon's car. Driver's side.
The Subaru flipped at least six times. Lennon lost count after the first two.
His first thought: Grab the gun.
His second thought: I don't have a gun.
They were all headed for the airport. He was headed for Puerto Rico. And Katie.
Glass shattered around his head, beads grinding into his scalp. The engine whined and complained and finally settled into a low hum.
Lennon had a limited view out of his side window. Grass--some burned, some green. Shoes. Walking toward the car.
There was a dull roaring sound. Lennon could smell his own burning clothes. The last thing he heard was himself, trying to scream.