For this round, I chose a more modern e-book to read – The Identity Check by Ken Merrell. This e-book takes us back to the more familiar present day time, although the book may have been first published earlier than today. It’s really not one of my favorite downloads but it has its moments of heart-stopping suspense.
The setting for The Identity Check takes its readers to the less charming parts of Las Vegas. The story revolves around a colorful team of civilians who took the law into their own hands to stop a mobster from his evil and oftentimes oppressive schemes. Vincent “Vinnie” Domenico is your typical mobster boss. Name any crime possible and he’s probably got some people working on those. Everyone who knows Vinnie is afraid of him.
If the villain of this book is your typical mobster boss, the heroes of this tale are unlike any that we’ve been accustomed to. We have Rebecca Lambert (aka Nurse), who is an old motherly woman. We have Laurence Elroy Jackson (aka Cap’n), the strongest of all the team members. We have Clarence Weber (aka Smitty), a mute who learned locksmithing from his father back in the days when his father was still alive. We have Sound who used to be an electronics specialist. We have Trenton Ritter (aka Ritter), a native of Yorkshire, England who migrated to the US. All five of them are homeless folks living along Carson Street. In addition to the homeless folks, we also have Greg Hart (aka Sunny) who is a victim of credit card fraud that Vinnie is running. Lastly, we have Mitch Wilson (aka Lightning) who owns a restored antique car that Vinnie managed to steal. Together they hatch a crazy plan to topple down Vinnie’s reign of terror.
What I love most about this book is how this team of civilians worked together. It is for this reason that this post focuses more on the eight life lessons that I’ve picked out with respect to working in a team and here they are in no particular order:
WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
1. A goal keeps the team together.
All five homeless folks (Nurse, Cap’n, Smitty, Ritter, and Sound) live by Carson Street but only Nurse lives just beside Eddie Alders’ Gym. Nurse and Eddie go way back. In fact, Nurse can be considered a family friend. So when Eddie suddenly disappeared, it was Nurse who rounded up some of the Carson Street homeless folks to search and rescue Eddie. Greg was a new recruit back then, fresh from his attempted suicide with sunburns recently treated by Nurse. He wasn’t exactly homeless but he joined the team to rescue a man who might lose his life to Vinnie. This was their first mission.
Their second mission came along their way through Mitch’s problems with Vinnie. This time, it was Mitch that needed some rescuing. So the Alley Team (as fondly coined by Greg) set in motion a series of actions to retrieve Mitch from the hands of Vinnie’s people. Now, the team is composed of seven.
Their final (and possibly craziest) mission was to topple down Vinnie’s empire of criminal activities. The plan was so complex that it required the cooperation of other members of the community. As the main goal was to put a stop to Vinnie’s evil operations, it wasn’t hard to recruit other members who will support the mission.
In all three situations, the team members were bonded together tightly. The common factor among all the situations is the existence of a goal in mind. In the first mission, their goal was to save Eddie. In the second, they needed to save Mitch. In the third, they opted to fight back and bring Vinnie to justice. Clearly, the Alley Team teaches us that a team exists because of a goal, and not the other way around. How I wish that were always true in real life.
2. Fear is not a reliable motivation.
Vinnie’s “money-making” activities are diverse. He runs gambling joints. He’s got a complex operation of credit card fraud. He even runs a car theft racket. All of these will not be possible if he didn’t have people working for him. So in a way, Vinnie also has his team but it differs from the Alley Team in the way Vinnie motivates his people.
He recognizes talent which is one of the reasons why Mitch got in trouble. Asides from stealing Mitch’s car, he tried all sorts of ways to recruit Mitch on his side. When those didn’t work, he threatened to harm Stephanie Wilson (Mitch’s wife). You see, that’s often how Vinnie controls people around him, by instilling fear within their hearts. Obviously, that didn’t work either. If anything, that fear drove Mitch to fight back.
It wasn’t just Mitch who refused to cooperate with Vinnie. Clint Thurston manages Vinnie’s credit card fraud activity. Clint, being Eddie’s grandson, was able to use Eddie’s Gym to house the operations. When Vinnie found out that Eddie has been collecting evidence against the illegal business, Vinnie was so enraged that he ordered Clint to kill his own grandfather. Clint may have been ready to do a lot of things for Vinnie, but killing his own grandfather was just too much for him.
Bernalillo “Bino” Daniels is another one of Vinnie’s people who he keeps in check using fear. Bino wasn’t a willing accomplice. He just owes a big sum of money to Vinnie which is really impossible to pay because of the unreasonable interest rates. Bino’s fear of what Vinnie may do to him (or his family) if he doesn’t pay or obey is the only reason why he cooperates with Vinnie. Yet it was Bino who informed Agent Mike Hale of Vinnie’s illegal operations. It was also Bino who cooperated with Reverend Bart Keller to aid in the Alley Team’s final stages of their plan.
At the beginning, it was possible for Vinnie to control his people with fear. He doesn’t realize that fear has its limits. Fear doesn’t create a feeling of loyalty. It only creates resentment. In some situations, it also creates despair. People will not be afraid forever. Once their courage builds up, they will fight back. This is how Vinnie failed as a leader.
3. Assign roles to your team members based on their skills.
When Eddie went missing, the Alley Team members took turns to patrol by Eddie’s Gym to find out what’s going on. Eventually, they figured out that Eddie never left the Gym. Still, something was wrong. None of them, including those who are working inside have seen Eddie. So the Alley Team decided to act in the evening, because what they wanted to do is not something really legal. They’ve decided to break inside the Gym to search for Eddie.
The plan was simple. Smitty will pick the lock. Sound will disarm the alarm. Then Cap’n, with his flashlight, will search the premises for Eddie. Ritter, Nurse, and Greg will remain outside as lookouts. If someone comes along, Ritter will send a signal to the others. Everything was set, but Greg wanted more action. Greg wanted to join the search party within the Gym. It was that particular time that Nurse asked Greg “What’s your asset?” She wanted to know what Greg can do to contribute to the search team. As Nurse pointed out, Smitty has his locksmithing skills while Sound can contribute using his knowledge of electronics. Cap’n possesses a flashlight which qualifies him for the search team. I don’t know how it made sense to Nurse but somehow Greg convinced Nurse that he can add some value by using his computer skills.
“What’s your asset” is my favorite line in this book. It’s a very simple guideline when recruiting members. What’s your asset? What can you do for the team? When Nurse picked out Smitty, Sound, and Cap’n to enter the building, she was thinking of what these people can do to accomplish their goal. She assigned tasks based on their “assets”, which can mean their talent or what they currently have that they can share with others.
4. Each member of a team has a story to tell.
Together, they are known as the Alley Team. Individually, they all have their own back stories. Nurse’s daughter died many years ago but she’s been in denial so she pretends that her daughter’s still with her. Smitty is both mute and aquaphobic and was physically abused as a child. Cap’n accidentally killed his own best friend when he was a teenager. Sound is suffering from AIDS and only has a few months to live. Ritter has brain tumor which causes his irrational behavior at times. Greg is broke and divorced as a result of Vinnie’s illegal credit card business. Mitch lost his car to Vinnie’s car theft racket and is also running for his life because Vinnie has a price on his head.
In a team, it’s so easy to forget that each member is not just an asset. We also have to remember that each member has his / her own individuality carrying with them their own values and personal motivations. In most situations, the member’s back story will not affect the person’s performance within the team. Yet, there may be a situation where it will (as can be seen when Ritter sold out the Alley Team for a sum of $50K). On a more positive note, the member’s back story can also be a source of inspiration to motivate the person to support the team goal (as what happened to Mitch and Greg).
5. Realize that each member may also have a different agenda along with the team goal.
I misjudged Ritter when he sold out the Alley Team to the authorities. For a prize of $50K, he was willing to tell them the plan to topple down Vinnie’s operations. When the Feds didn’t bite, he turned to Vinnie instead. I originally thought that he was doing it out of greed. I didn’t realize that he meant to use the money to send his drug addicted brother to a rehabilitation facility.
I hated Ritter for betraying his friends, but I felt sorry for him when I found out why. It’s not that he doesn’t support the Alley Team’s goal of bringing Vinnie to justice. Just like everyone on the team, he has his own contributions too. It’s just that he’s got other personal goals that he wanted to achieve. I guess that he felt that if he can do both, it’s not really going to be so bad. It’s just sad that he has to sacrifice his own life to achieve both.
Ritter really isn’t such a bad character. He just has another agenda along with the team goal. I think all of us can relate to Ritter that way. We may be one with the team to make the team vision a reality, but we also have other obligations in life. We just need to be careful not to do what Ritter did. It’s okay to have other priorities. Just don’t let these priorities become a problem for the team.
6. A suit and tie doesn’t make you a better worker than the rest.
The tale of the Alley Team taking on a mobster like Vinnie makes a great plot for a novel. If this were real life, this whole vigilante operation is a mess, as far as the proper authorities are concerned. It’s not that the government didn’t do anything about it. In fact, there was Agent Mike Hale (aka Mike Hutchings) who went undercover to investigate Vinnie. What probably went wrong was that Mike didn’t get the support he needed from Agent Shane Barnes.
Merrell literally describes Shane as an agent with “manicured nails, styled hair and straight, chalk-white teeth” in a suit. Figuratively, Shane is an agent with some fancy degree who probably thinks that he’s better than most people in his work. Shane looks down on agents like Mike who prefers to be out on the field. That time when Mike asked for support from Shane was a critical point of the story. If Shane had listened to Mike, we might have a different plot for The Identity Check.
Of all the good guys of this tale, I didn’t like Shane Barnes much. I always thought that his decisions were always off. From the time that he refused to help Mike up to the time that he brushed off Reverend Bart Keller’s information, I felt frustrated with this character. Then again, the readers have the advantage over him. Readers get to see both sides, something that’s not transparent to him. Still, I don’t think that he did a very good job because he let his fancy position get in the way.
We all know at least one decorated co-worker. He /she may be that person with a fancy sounding degree, multiple awards, or a rich relative within an organization. True, these people may have worked very hard to be where they are right now, but it doesn’t necessarily make them a better worker than the others. Other people with less celebrated accomplishments have good ideas too so it’s always best to maintain an unbiased position before making any decision. Agent Shane Barnes thought he knew better. So instead of investigating Vinnie, he later found himself investigating Mike’s death, a consequence of his snobbish attitude towards field agents.
7. Know that your team isn’t the only one.
On one side we have the Alley Team. On another side, we have the Feds. They all want one thing – to bring Vinnie to justice but they chose not to work with each other. The Alley Team doesn’t trust the Feds and the Feds doesn’t trust the Alley Team either. Yet in the end, we see both teams defeating Vinnie with contributions coming from both. I don’t think the Feds would have cracked their case without the Alley Team’s plans, but I don’t think the Alley Team would have been successful either if not for the Feds. Both teams needed each other to defeat a most formidable enemy.
When everybody shares the same ideals and committed to the same mission, it’s so easy to forget that other teams also exist that can help along. We always emphasize cooperation among team members. Of equal importance is collaboration with other teams of similar goals. If the Feds and the Alley Team had worked together, the operation may have been less messy. There may have been lesser casualties.
8. We are truly not alone in our mission.
I know that this one’s a bit out of place, but I don’t think I’d be doing Merrell’s work some justice if readers will not see one of his main messages within the work. In the middle of the insane plan against Vinnie is Reverend Bart Keller. Reverend Keller runs a soup kitchen for the homeless folks around the area of Carson Street. In this way, he makes sure that he feeds them every day. His soup kitchen provides physical nourishment. His prayers and spiritual guidance provide food for the spirit.
As the Alley Team’s original plan was falling apart, Greg needed to improvise to make things work. It was in this way that Reverend Keller became another asset of the Alley Team. Vinnie must have been such a bad person for the Reverend to cooperate with the Alley Team, but he also tried to do his best to involve the Feds into the plan. It’s just too bad that Agent Barnes chose not to make a deal with Reverend Keller.
I like the addition of Reverend Keller into the story. He is the silver lining in the cloudy situation of the lead characters. Merrell presents Keller as the faithful servant of God who never forgets to pray both when things are working well and when things are not going as planned. What strikes me most about him was what he asked Mitch – “Do you think you did it on your own?” For believers, we all know what this means. Mitch’s narrow escapes from death were not of his own doing alone. He had help along the way – both divine and human help. This is also true for the Alley Team’s success in the end.
I’m not adding this section to argue for or against the belief in God. That’s a subject matter worthy of another book. I’m just adding this here to show another message that Merrell’s book has for its readers. As I’ve said at the beginning, I wouldn’t be doing justice to his creation if I didn’t acknowledge his personal belief that manifests itself in the pages of his well-told tale of unlikely heroes.