Standing at the corner, Connor began to have serious doubts about what he was doing. The blonde in the halter was a looker, sure, but what if she pooched the job? He didn’t know her, didn’t even know if she would rat him out as soon as they got inside. Not to mention this was bigger than anything he had ever tried before. Somehow it suddenly seemed foolhardy to be attempting to step up from petty pickpocketing and sideways grifting. He took a deep breath then looked into the warm, wet blue eyes of the dame. Leyla DuBois. He felt a strange confidence in the plan when he looked into her eyes.
“Alright, dollface. The place is just down this street here. Local market and gas type joint.”
“And what? Are we holding it up?”
“Not exactly. It’s a heist, but, if we’re lucky, they won’t know we took anything until after we’re long gone.”
“How do you expect us to accomplish that?”
“Have you ever heard of a Wounded Bird routine?”
“No.” She said flatly. He could see in her eyes that she was reconsidering her complicity in this plan. She clearly thought he was an idiot.
“Look, it’s simple. You’re doing the grift part of the plan. All you gotta’ do is distract the guy at the counter while I sneak back, open the safe and maybe the register, and then get out.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“Didn’t you hear what it’s called? You pretend like you’ve been injured.”
Connor was starting to feel a little exasperated. Was she being purposefully obtuse or was she simply very dense? “You sprained an ankle or hurt a knee. Anything that’s serious but not open wound, blood everywhere serious.”
“Like a dislocated shoulder?”
“Whatever. Just make sure it’s convincing but mundane. Simpler is always better. People sprain their ankles all the time. Someone with a disaffected pelvis gets remembered AND questioned.”
“Okay, so I’m injured, how does that get the guy from behind the counter?”
“You play it up. Limp a lot, he’ll probably want to be a chivalrous gentleman with a mind towards getting in your panties. If he seems unmoved by your tragic state, try to steady yourself on some shelves such that you knock a bunch of stuff over. He’ll be compelled to come over and help in order to clean up the mess.”
“I got it! If I make a big enough show, everyone’s on me, which means nobody will notice you at all.”
“Give a prize to the pretty lady.”
“But then there’s the cameras. Don’t most places have cameras?”
“Not as many as you might think. A lot of places don’t, they just put up a fake camera to scare criminals. This is one of those.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’ve been casing this place for a little while now. Been thinking about hitting it, but I never really had a good way figured for getting the guy away from the counter before now.”
“So, wait. You mean to say you’ve never done anything like this before?”
“Not exactly, no. I did a bit of work with a crew awhile back, so I know how to crack the safe. But this is my first time organizing a job and the first time running this particular play.”
“So you don’t even know if it’s gonna work? What if it fails and everything goes to shit?”
“First of all, the genius of this plan is this: if you can’t get the guy from the counter, then you can just accept some minor help from others and leave. Nobody will be any the wiser. The only risk here is if the guy tries to go behind the counter while I’m back there. If that happens, then you can always deny you know anything about me. What can the cops do? It’s not like there would be anything to tie you to the crime. The only thing at risk here is me and your ability to pay your rent.”
“That seems like it takes a lot of trust on your part. What if I tell them what you’re doing? Or what if I fail and the guy goes and finds you?”
“Well, I’m the one who’s getting the cash. So you could say that I’m placing a little trust in you now, and you’re placing a little trust in me later. As far as failing to do your part, I know you’re gonna’ be great, doll. I can tell you got this in ya.’”
“You seem to have a lot of faith in somebody you just met. Especially when that person stole your wallet.” She seemed sullen for some reason, vulnerable. Her head was down and she looked anxiously away from Connor.
“Hey, you convinced me to help you get that guy off your back, and I knew you were a pickpocket at the time. I figured, if you can do that, you can do anything. Out here it helps to make a habit of reading people, and I’m never wrong about it. So take my word for it: you’re solid on the grifting ability, sweetheart.”
She looked at him, an almost inexplicable warmth spreading from her eyes into the rest of her features. She almost looked like she wanted to hug Connor, but, if she did have that impulse, she didn’t act on it. Instead she straightened and said, “Wounded Bird, huh?”
“You just made that name up, didn’t you?”
“Maybe I did and maybe I didn’t. Either way it’s what we’re calling it.”
“Fine by me as long as it ends with five hundred bucks in my pocket.”
“That depends entirely on you, doll.”
“Well then what am I waiting for?”
Leyla took a few steps down the cross street until she was hidden from the view of the street traffic. When she came back around, she had already started the pathetic limping of someone who was having severe trouble putting any pressure on a foot. She kept up the affectation all the way down the street, going so far as to accept some proffered help from a lady to escort her into the market so that she could get access to a phone to call her brother. Connor had to admire the commitment. He knew that he had made the right choice.
The market itself was dingy and set back from the street to make room for the one gas pump that stood there, sad and solitary like a testament to the decline of the neighborhood. It had perhaps once been modern, but the analog number reels and cracked rubber of the pump’s tube showed that it was now worn out and uncared for. Oil stains were splattered here and there around the pump and the small parking lot itself, giving the whole area the look of an asphalt dalmation or dairy cow. The front of the building featured large windows that had since been covered in elaborate bars and paper ads. The whole thing, bars and facade, had been painted a gray so dull that it looked more prison than shop.
Onto all of this, a fine mix of vandalism had been added. Graffiti, etching, defacing, cracked windows, the place was a testament to the imagination of delinquents. It might seem like a terrible place to stick up, and it was, since the register was emptied every hour. However, all that money sat in its safe for a week, sometimes two if the owner didn’t feel particularly motivated. That made it a prime target for a man with the ability to crack a safe.
He followed casually and at a distance, stopping just outside the market to consider the day’s paper in its vending machine. Though anyone from the street might have seen a joe picking up a paper before going to work, his attention was entirely focused inside. Leyla had dismissed her helper at the door, saying ‘she would be fine.’ This, of course, had allowed her to limp in unaided for everyone in the market to see, all two of them. The guy working the market had started to come around the counter to help, but as luck would have it there was a Gallahad amongst the candy shelves who had rushed to her aid. Connor was worried, but Leyla took it in stride.
“Thank you so much.” She said as the man supported her hand, taking it greedily into his.
“Of course, miss, don’t mention it.”
“You are so …..” There was a great CRASH as she toppled over into a revolving rack of nuts and jelly treats. She had let her foot collapse so that she fell straight onto Sir Dunce-A-Lot and brought him down with her on the rack. Part of a shelf had come down when the rack hit it. Now there were candies and nuts everywhere and the man rushed from behind the counter. Connor knew that it was show time.
“Miss! Miss! Are you okay?” The counter clerk had a thick accent. He was clearly more worried about the woman than the wares as he tried to pick her up for the mess of miscellany and shelving she was tangled up in. Connor walked in a low crouch that was so smooth and silent that he was no more than a shadow on the wall. He slid behind the counter and brought his ear up to the safe.
“I am so sorry about that! I don’t know what happened.”
“That was my fault entirely. I guess I just wasn’t expecting your foot to give out on you like that.” Connor’s face was a mix of disgust and concentration as he worked. He hated false chivalry. His pulse slowed as he focused on the feel of the dial in his hand and the sound of the tumblers inside the door. Particularly in older places like this, it was just a matter of having good ears and a gentle touch to finesse a safe. The first tumbler slid into place.
“Yeah, the darned thing just does that every once in awhile. I don’t know why. I usually just call my brother. He’s in school to be a chiropractor. He knows some kind of trick to realign it, and then it’s all better.”
“In this case I think we should call you an ambulance. You’re clearly not well.” Mr. Gentleman Caller was insistent. He was starting to become a gentlemanly pain in the ass. Connor had the second tumbler secured and was working on the last number now, but an ambulance would make for more attention than he had wanted.
“It is a good idea. I will call an ambulance.” Connor’s heart started to beat faster as he heard the footfalls of the clerk heading back to the counter to find a phone.
“I’ve got a cell phone right here.” The gentleman said, stopping the clerk’s progress. Connor relaxed a small bit, at least Mr. Do-Right had been good for something.
“You men are just so sweet. I don’t even know what to say.” He realized that she really didn’t know what to say. The third tumbler locked in place and he quietly opened the safe, hoping that he wasn’t going to have to give up the entire score to avoid the attention of the paramedics.
“Think nothing of it, miss.”
“But the thing is, I just don’t have any insurance.” The tone she had taken was tearful and tragic. It was a little overdone, but he could tell that the guys were buying it.
“Well, I can cover your expenses.” Gallahad sure did think he was getting lucky because of this, didn’t he?
“I couldn’t ask you to do that; I don’t even know you.”
“My name is Todd.”
“Thank you, Todd. You are so sweet and kind and noble. I wish there were more men like you.”
Connor was loading all the cash from the safe into his pockets. She was probably delaying now for a reason. ‘Todd’ was really buying into the compliments. “It’s really nothing. I just see a person in need and I help. That’s who I am.”
“It really is an inspiration. Where do you get such charity of spirit?” Connor was peeking around the counter now. She had her hand on the hand that held the cell phone. Clearly playing up the flirting to distract from the phone call. Connor was a blur out of the shop. He could almost feel Leyla’s resentment as he made it out the door. “I don’t know anyone else who’s even half the man you are!”
“It’s just like Gandhi says: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ I try to live that saying every day.”
“And here you are.” She smiled, if somewhat nervously. “If only more people could be like you and save someone in their hour of need!”
Connor swept in, apropos of nothing. “Lana! Lana, I’ve found you at last!”
“Curtis! Oh, Todd, this is Curtis, my brother.”
“Nice to meet you, Curtis.”
“Yeah, same. Lana, I’ve been looking all over for you. What happened?”
“Oh, it’s just my ankle.”
“It went out on you again? Let me take a look.”
“Actually, I was just about to call her an ambulance.” Todd’s chest was puffed out. He was clearly staking his territory.
“What, for a little thing like a sprained ankle? Here let me look at it.”
“I really think …” Todd was clearly resistant to the idea.
“Of course, do that thing you did last time.”
Connor kneeled down, gave Leyla the tiniest wink, and then massaged her ankle slightly. The corners of her lips upturned slightly, then she went back into character. “Oh my God! That feels so much better! You really are a miracle worker, Curtis.”
“Don’t mention it, sis. I’m just glad I got here before they carted you off to the emergency room! What would mother have said?”
“Todd here was only trying to help, brother dear.”
“Of course he was! Todd, thank you so much for looking after my sister here.” Connor helped Leyla up. She stood just behind him, allowing him to be the buffer between her and her would be gallant.
“Let me give you my number. Just in case you ever need any help again.” Todd: full marks on chivalry but a big fat zero on taking a hint. Leyla took the tiny scrap of paper that he had scrawled his number on. They waved goodbye and Connor and Leyla exited smoothly and confidently from the market.
They were back around the block before Connor pulled into a shadowy alcove. He took the money out and counted five hundred bucks and put it into Leyla’s hands. “As promised, doll.”
“For a second there, I thought you were gonna leave me there for the ambulance.”
“No way. I wouldn’t leave you in the lurch. I just needed to make sure I had my story straight before I waltzed in.”
“Sorry I made such a mess of it. I thought if I pulled that guy down on the stuff with me like you said he’d look just as culpable. It kinda backfired.” She looked a little sullen about that fact.
“Hey, it was fine. You got the job done, and that’s all that matters.”
“It was actually kinda fun, pretending to be someone else for a few minutes.”
“You definitely got the knack for it, just like I said.”
“Well, thanks for keeping your promise. I’d rather you hadn’t caught me, but at least you took pity on me. I guess I’ll see you around.”
Leyla started to turn to go a different direction, “Hey, wait, doll, you don’t really think we’re done here, do you?”
“What else is there to do?’
“Are you kidding? More of this!”
“You mean hitting more markets?”
“Why not? Or anything else we please, really.”
“That sounds risky.”
“Riskier than picking pockets?”
“Maybe I should just try to find a real job.”
“And earn peanuts doing thankless work while some bald, fat boss with bad breath pinches your ass?”
“As opposed to earning peanuts robbing things while you pinch my ass?”
“Hey, half a grand for half an hour’s work is better than you’ll do anywhere else.”
“That sounds like a line to me. Especially when there’s the risk of jail.”
“Alright look. I’ll cut you in for half, okay? Partners. Whatever I make you make. I’ll even start now.” Turning his body, he pulled out the wad of cash he had taken from the safe and counted it out. “Two grand total, in your pocket, how does that sound?”
“That does sound pretty good for half an hour’s worth of work.”
“Well, that was a bit of a line. If we’re partners, you’re gonna’ have to help me case places, find jobs, and do the groundwork before we do the actual heist.”
“Still better than getting my ass pinched. So give it to me.” She made a motion with her hand for the money.
“Not so fast, sweetheart. By taking this money, you agree. We are partners. I don’t rat you out; you don’t rat me out. We are in it together all the way down the line.”
“No way out?”
“Not if we’re mid job. Once the job’s done, just say so and it’s over.”
“Fine. Partners, all the way down the line.”
“You’re sure you’re okay with that?”
“Why not? You’re obviously smart enough. You know your way around a safe, and you can plan a job. If you want me to reconsider, I can.”
“No! Just wanted you to be absolutely sure.” He laid the money into Leyla’s hand. She added it to the five hundred then tucked the wad into her halter. “Welcome to the crew, Leyla DuBois.”
“The crew? Isn’t it more like a pair?”
“Nah, I got a couple of guys I can bring in when we need a little extra help.”
“When do I get to meet them?”
“I dunno, another time. For now, what’s say we go halves on a pizza and we can talk about my next idea for a job.”
“Yeah, I could eat.”
He took her around the corner to a little Italian joint with a wood-fired, brick oven and homemade crusts. The food was good even if the state of the place was dismal. The walls were two different tones of brick that didn’t really didn’t match together: a golden, almost neon orange and a leathery brown. The owner had given up on the idea of keeping the place up to date. The decor was musty and covered with a fine layer of dust and the tables wouldn’t have been out of place in an eighties movie. He had to talk her into it, but, once she tasted the first slice, she took back her complaints. It was a victory of taste buds over taste.
As he looked into those blue eyes, it felt like the hand of providence was guiding him. He had taken a huge chance, but it had paid off. When he was through, they were going to really be something. With this dame he had a real shot, not just with little heists or short cons. They would be able to do anything, everything. He chatted animatedly about all the little grifts they could use as misdirects on heists. All the tiny ways that she might be able to get people’s attention. She focused on him like a tiger, devouring his words en masse. There was an eagerness there that he hadn’t expected.
About halfway through the meal, she started to let her guard down just a little bit. She was actually pretty engaging too. Connor was seeing dollar signs. He was seeing a life in front of him, a life with this girl as his partner where every door was open and every con was gold. He could feel the momentum of it down in his guts. Things were changing and for the better. As the sun set into the window of the little Italian restaurant, the strain of a violin lilted from the little speakers that hung dusty in the corner of the brown and orange brick walls. It was heartfelt and meaningful, and the call of destiny reverberated in the crackling hum of those recorded strings. Connor let it pull him along as he finished the meal and finally said goodbye to the blonde angel that was about to change his whole, messy world.
It was the best day of Connor’s life.