The Greatest Thieves tells an enthralling true story of the Pink Panther gang by personalizing the functioning of criminal cartels, the horror of war, and the dissolving of country and family, and showing the results of these bold events on its characters, without relieving them from responsibility.
By personalizing the functioning of criminal cartels, the horror of war, the dissolving of country and family, and showing the results of these bold events have on individuals, was the general theme I tried to dive into with this crime thriller. Humanizing and both warmly and humorously portraying its main characters, without relieving them from responsibility, this novel offers an analytical portrait of people who had different plans for life and their future, which failed due to wars, a devastated economy, corruption, nepotism and societal moral collapse. This novel is the first part of a trilogy that deals with the socio-historical context of the emergence, rise, and (temporary) fall of the famous and powerful international robber group, Pink Panthers, created in the whirlwind of war during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. The background story shows the entire process of the diamond business, how diamonds come to jewelry stores, from relentless exploitation of rich deposits of poor third-world countries and inciting bloody civil wars in them, to intertwining of the diamond business with drug cartels, human trafficking, interests of banks, corporate and military-industrial magnates and diplomatic-political machinations.
Memories - Panthers’ calling (London – Graff 2003, Courchevel – Doux 2003, Tokyo – Comtesse de Vendome, 2004) Lost May 2007
A dreadful scream broke out through the night.
Jumping up out of the field bed, Victor at first couldn’t even apprehend where he was. A cold night desert air and the swaying wall of a military tent reminded him of his current abode. Grabbing a magazine from the nightstand, he rolled it while running and brandished it towards a mouse that was frantically milling remains of food entangled in the thick, tufted, and fatty beard of the fat man lying on the bed next to his. The blow onto the little rodent was more than successful, as he was watching it fly across the empty bed and cram into the tent canvas, then, successfully getting its feet on the ground, it slipped away, scraping through the narrow space between the ground and the tent. The sight of the leftovers of French fries and chicken bones around the fat man only made Victor more enraged. The fatty, still under the impression of having a rodent on himself, beat his beard frantically, clearing himself with funny flustered moves, resembling the best moments of Benny Hill Show.
“Didn’t I tell you that rodents are attracted to food scraps, thus not to bring food into the tent?” the quiet, threatening tone of his voice echoed in the fatty’s head worse than any dangerous predator’s shrieking.
“You did, I know, yes, you said, but… you know I have a hard time trying to fall asleep. I’m having trouble sleeping.”
“Then read a book, count stars and you’ll fall asleep quickly. This theory of yours is just an excuse. What, like, you must eat a ton of shit to fall asleep?”
“Well, when I’m nervous…I get hungry…and I can’t fall asleep when I’m hungry,” the fat man stuttered, not knowing where to look. He finally lifted his head and looked at Victor with his tiny shy eyes, squeezed by the greasy swollen face. A tiny chunk of chips persisted on the tip of his beard, and he couldn’t resist it, but grabbed it and swallowed it faster than a pelican would catch a fish.
“Man, no one forbids you to eat, just don’t eat in the tent… and clean up this crap behind you.”
Victor looked at him with disgust, then left the tent.
The fresh night air surged him over. The silence and gloomy darkness made him look up into the sky and he was stunned to see the countless glittering stars in the sky above the Arabian Desert. As wide as his gaze was reaching, the stars in clusters glittered at each other. At that moment, he realized that he had never seen anything like this in his life. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes lighting one, never taking his eyes off the sky. The soothing component of a cigarette directed his thoughts to all the events that brought him to where he was now.
To die-hard Baghdad desert boondocks.
“To the HotelO Antwerpen Cathedral, please.”
Victor settled down comfortably, watching Antwerp and its streets for the next twenty minutes or so. The 100-meter-tall church tower belonging to the Notre Dame Cathedral caught all his attention, forcing him to stop and admire that lavish beauty for a few moments. Eventually, he realized that he had not come to Antwerp to admire edifices of the past, so he made his way across the central square, avoiding groups of tourists, and after only a hundred meters, to the right of the cathedral, he saw HotelO, which was ultimately his goal. A hotel of an average height of only a few floors, typical Belgian architecture combined with a black and white facade, did not make a significant impression as the cathedral did moments ago.
In the hotel lobby, he made his way to the right, heading for the well-known conference room destination at the end of the hall, where he immediately spotted a distinct brunette sitting on one of the leather armchairs in the corner and headed directly towards her. Recognizing him at once, she stood up and hugged him as cordially as ever, and they kissed each other on the cheek.
“Beautiful and elegant, as always.” Victor smiled at her and little blush on her cheeks looked very likable to him.
“A gentleman as always,” she said, smiling.
To his right, he saw a tall, broad-shouldered man standing by the bookshelf with newspapers, and, letting her hands go for a moment, stepped toward him and hugged him tightly like a brother, tapping one another on the shoulders.
“So, where have you been, Jolly. See what you look like,” Victor’s smile didn’t come off his face.
“How do I look like?”
“Great,” Victor chuckled, managing to catch Jolly’s smile, then turned to the lady in the corner. “And you Jacqueline, darling, what part of the planet are you coming from this time? Africa, Asia?”
Jacqueline smiled sweetly. “From Asia.”
“What about you?” Victor asked Jolly.
“From Italy,” Jolly replied, then he took a magazine and began reading it again.
“Whoa! For the second time in a row?” Victor grinned. “Any kind of engagement plan soon, huh?”
“Victor, the man with a plan… ever since childhood,” Jolly said and smiled cheerfully at the provocation but looked at him sharply, though he was smiling, his voice tone was undefined. “You even plan your night dreams in advance.”
The waiter interrupted the scene, carrying a piece of nice cake on a platter, serving it in front of Jacqueline. The waiter couldn’t help noticing a smile on Victor’s face.
“So, what kind of cake did you order?” Victor asked her.
“A cherry chocolate cake. Why do you ask? Do you want one too?”
Victor had a sweet laugh and looked at Jolly. “Hey, maybe these are the cherries from the old Adjia’s garden? You know he had emigrated to Belgium during the war, maybe he planted it here too?”
Jolly cheerfully fought with himself for a few seconds not to laugh, but he couldn’t stand it. They both laughed out loud, leaving Jacqueline looking puzzled at them. The laughter faded, and Jolly couldn’t resist remembering how he and Victor met each other owing to cherries.
Little boys’ play
From his earliest age, Jolly was dubbed as a bad boy. Strong and fearless, he naturally imposed himself as the group leader of street kids who had always been blamed for all the dregs in the neighborhood.
With each spring fruit trees blossoming, this little gang created headache for the neighborhood, as they browsed budding fruit off their twigs. Although there was never a shortage of food or fruit at home, particularly in the bowl in the living room, the very engaging in theft of neighborhood fruits was more important than the booty itself. That urge and excitement of fruits picked from a neighbor’s garden, lavishing it in his bosom, were unmatched by the world’s most beautiful and exotic fruit in the living room of his home. So, on a spring day, during their school recess, he tried with his friends to devise a plab for them to get cherries from the old Adjia’s yard.
“We looted everything else but his orchard! The old Adjia is a tough one, and he will hit hard if necessary”. Jolly looked at the faces of his mates around him and unconsciously licked his lips, imagining those cherries juicy and sweet. “And his cherries are getting redder and sweeter with each day”.
“What can we do when his house is at the end of a dead-end street,” someone in the group tried to justify their failure. “There’s no other way to get to the orchard behind the house. Every time we went past the house and the yard, the old asshole would spot and clobber us.”
“And why don’t you come to the orchard from another direction?”
All the heads turned toward the voice and Jolly noticed a small, brown-haired and skinny boy. All Jolly knew about him was that he had only recently moved to their settlement and that he had had very little or almost nothing to say during their classes.
“There is no road behind the orchard but a steep slope leading to the wall above the hospital,” the same boy from the group replied.
The brown-haired boy broke a twig from a tree beside them and joined the group of guys, kneeling on the freshly dug earth from which a young tree grew. In a few quick moves, the brown-haired boy drew up a plan that Jolly immediately recognized as the home of old Adjia and the surrounding area.
“If we walk through this courtyard in the upper street next to the fence of the electricity distribution facility, we can reach the fence of the adjacent house from the street above his, and then, hanging on the fence, we can reach the back fence of his yard without being noticed,” he said with a smug smile, strikingly confident about the success of his plan.
“Maybe it could work,” Jolly grimly stared at the rough sketch of the plan. “Only problem is that the old man is always either in the shed behind the house or in the dining room, and from either, he has a view of the orchard. That’s how he always noticed us when we tried to get into his orchard.”
“There’s a time when he is neither in the shed nor in the dining room,” the smile has never vanished from the brown-haired boy’s face.
“When?!” everyone asked excitedly at the same time.
“Sunday evening at eight o’clock. At that time, the whole family is watching the TV series in the living room in the other part of the house.”
“And how do you know that?” Jolly asked.
“His wife invited my parents for a welcoming visit when we moved here. We were there just on a Sunday evening. They’ve just started watching the series when we arrived, and his wife said they never missed a single episode. I yawned from boredom outside in the yard until nine when the old man came out after the episode ended.”
“Well, when you were already in the yard, didn’t you try the cherries?!” the blond boy from the group yelled.
The brown-haired boy grinned from ear to ear. “You’ve tried nothing so sweet and juicy in your life.”
The guys in the group chuckled, each one imagining them so sweet-n-juicy in their mouths.
“Then let’s meet in the street above the electric facility at half-past seven this Sunday?” Jolly asked.
Everyone nodded, agreeing with Jolly when the piercing sound of the school bell called for the end of the recess.
Jolly reached out to the brown-haired boy to help him stand up, considering him one of them.
They both laughed as they shook hands and then walked toward the others.
On Sunday, punctual like clockwork and armed with desire for the forbidden cherries, everyone gathered in the street at half-past seven in the evening, and slowly, using the outside fences of the electricity distribution facility and the adjacent house from the upper street, they descended to the orchard of old Adjia. In a few quick steps, they found themselves by the orchard fence, and Jolly, as a true leader, hopped the fence first and ran quietly to the shed, checking if it was empty. He turned to the others and waved them to join him, and then in just three steps, he was already at the tree branch and chopping cherries off.
Wasting no time, Victor and the other guys ran to the tree and climbed on it skillfully like panthers. The blond boy, who was the smallest in the group, was designated to keep watch and tell if the old man peeks out of the dining room. The four of them could not resist the charms of sweet fruit on the tree, and besides filling their mouths with red cherries, they also shoved into their bosoms in their shirts. The rapture and call of those beautiful cherries were overwhelming and the blond boy couldn’t resist. Returning to the tree, he started picking the cherries he could reach from the ground, shoving some into his shirt, forgetting about keeping an eye on the possible threat from the house. Enchanted by fruit, all five of them did not notice the old man as he walked across the dining room to the toilet, using a television commercial break to ease himself. He opened the door abruptly, and the blond boy in charge of the guard didn’t hear the danger coming until it was too late.
“The old man! Run!”
Agile as cats, the guys climbed down from the tree in the blink of an eye. Victor couldn’t help looking at the old man, noticing an ax in his hand. More than ever, he wanted to fly faster than the wind. He was just behind Jolly when the ax zipped past his head and stopped at the tree. If only he had been a second slower, he knew it would have hooked him. Adrenaline rushed him faster up the hilly narrow path they had used to come in. Loud profane curses seemed so close to him. He had a feeling that if he stopped, he would be caught and beaten up. Racing up, he overtook Jolly, and as they climbed uphill behind each other, the slippage of stones attracted his attention. He turned his head and saw Jolly in distress as he stumbled, sliding his foot down the yard against the hospital wall. Grasping his arm and thigh, he brought him back out of the abyss into safety.
Breathless and tired, they reached the safety of their neighborhood on the other side of the hill, laughing like crazy, still adrenaline-fueled. Sitting on the steps of a building at the corner of two streets, they felt safe. Finally, when he caught his breath a little, Victor’s eyes looked for the so-called guard.
“Okay, why didn’t you keep watch on the old man?!” Victor shouted.
All eyes were pointed on the guard.
“Well, I kept…I did,” the blond boy murmured. “I saw it, you didn’t! Almost got the old man hitting me with an ax!” Victor yelled.
Jolly left the cherries he had prepared to swallow and hugged Victor.
“Come on, calm down. All went well, and that’s the most important thing. We have our loot, more than enough, and the old man can only screw himself at his cherry, we’ve had it swept off,” Jolly’s laughter, when sincere, was more than contagious.
The discomfort disappeared as wind-blown, and all of them together began guzzling the cherries. The words disappeared; there was only the sound of their thudding mouths.
“Why didn’t you place someone to keep watch in front of the store?”
Jolly laughed at Victor’s question about the guard, remembering their childly ‘action’ twenty years ago. Drinking his third whiskey in a row on the balcony of Victor’s café, Jolly enjoyed every moment of the beauty brought by the spring. The chirping from the tree crowns shading over Victor’s balcony was the most beautiful tune his ears could hear.
“Three of us were scheduled to go into action,” Jolly said, returning to the conversation with Victor. “Nesho and I did the robbery, and Milan oversaw logistics, securing the lodging and so on. He was waiting for us in a side alley on a Piaggio scooter he had previously purchased in Isleworth, west London.”
“Milan did not participate directly in the robbery?”
“No, as we needed him to take the booty over after the robbery, while after the handover, the two of us would continue on foot each on our way, one towards Hyde Park and the other towards Buckingham Palace. The deal was to meet Milan at the apartment in Bayswater.” Jolly went silent, waiting for the waitress to serve them another coffee, so when she got far enough, he continued. “The day before the heist, I walked down that same street and there was no security guard outside. I estimated that two men were enough with a third one to convey the loot. The next day after the robbery, we all part our ways. Nesho by plane from Luton to Zurich, and me by train to Paris after I hand the booty over at an agreed place.”
“Wait, so you don’t take the booty with you but hand it over right away?” Victor asked, wishing he could understand all the facts.
“Immediately after the robbery, I get rid of the clothes worn that day and leave the booty at the agreed place.”
“So, you’re leaving empty-handed from London?”
“Yes, after the handover, my links to the robbery are cut off and as far as I’m concerned, the job is done.”
“And how is it inside? You’d just rush in and smash everything and grab the loot?” Victor asked, eager for details.
“It doesn’t work just like that,” Jolly grinned, sipping coffee.