It was a few blocks walk from where Joey’s goons dropped him off to where he needed to be, but Connor didn’t care. His mind was awash with problems, and he needed time to think. Dames, betrayal, and crime bosses, his life was getting to be like a bad dime store novel. He wasn’t too bothered, it was good to have a little action every once in awhile. The small time jobs they had been pulling were getting so predictable that Connor knew every little turn the mark would take. The only problem was that in those novels the crook usually ended up dead in an alley somewhere. He didn’t fancy the thought of having some new knife wounds in his gut, so he wanted to make sure he was extra careful. There wasn’t a problem he’d ever met that couldn’t be diffused by proper planning.
This thought grew more cemented in Connor’s mind as he walked. He had been debating exactly how far to go in his safety measures, but now he knew there was no such thing as overkill. It was just a matter of getting his ducks in a row and hoping that none of these precautions would ever be needed. He turned a corner and closed in on his destination.
He was in a side of town forgotten by the world. Most of the shops that had operated on this little cross street were closed down. Some boards were slap-dashed across windows and doors, but a lot had been pulled off in the intervening years. Barrels and makeshift fire pits into which the boards had been thrown dotted the landscape of old parking areas and empty lots where nothing would ever be built. There had been an effort long ago to tear down some of the more ramshackle buildings to try to attract new businesses to build there. Nothing ever came of it, and now it served as a series of vacant spaces for the homeless to gather and drug dealers to peddle their wares. A few of the more hazardous buildings had fences - the kind with green or black plastic inserts - set up around them to keep out the general public and shield the eyesores from view.
The final aesthetic was akin to a forest of brown, green, black, and steel gray, with empty meadows of dirt and crumbling cement that were littered with fairy circles of trash, ash, leftover waste, and old garments. The children of this forest, the fairies who danced these circles, were the ones truly lost from the world. No one observed their rituals, witnessed their appearing, or mourned their passing. He had reached the mystical land where neglect and disregard intertwined to create a world wholly separate and yet wholly ingrained. And in the middle of this forgotten realm stood a pawn shop.
It was no mystery how ‘Hillman’s Pawn and Hock’ had stayed open amidst the wave of closures that had struck this area so many years ago: crime. Francis Hillman, the owner and sole proprietor of the joint, was more than willing to play fast and loose with notions of property when he bought and sold goods.
He also had a reliable network of people with similarly ambiguous morals, meaning that he could always turn a stolen item into profit and could always acquire goods for collectors who were willing to put up with shady dealings to get the piece they wanted. When the whole ‘internet thing’ started up, it was like Francis had been anointed king of the fences in town. He parlayed all of his networking into a system that moved so much merchandise through auction sites that he was the go-to fence for people in the neighborhood for just about any type of good, no matter how hot. The consequence of all this action was that this shop, the last remaining source of commerce in a block overrun with condemned buildings, was a gleaming, bright orange and white beacon that stood out proudly against the forest of foreclosure.
Connor could see Francis’ bald head looking up from a newspaper as the bell rung to announce the opening door. Walking over the threshold, Connor took in the familiar site of the rows upon rows upon rows of shelves filled with every odd and end imaginable. Electronics, sports equipment, musical instruments, art, anything that could be sold for cash was there on the shelves with little price tags stuck to every single item. The pricier stuff was always in the back, but Hillman’s actually did pretty well for itself as a normal pawn shop as well. A lot of folks were desperate enough to put stuff in hock for some cash, and even more folks would come hoping to find a deal on some little knick-knack or doo-dad they just couldn’t live without. Connor strode past the shelves, paying little interest to their contents. His business was with the owner.
“Connor.” Francis Hillman was in his late 40’s. He was black, technically, but his skin was more like that muddy color of dirty river water. He had brown eyes, slightly yellowed on the edges by time. He was pretty tall and had the bearing of a man who could probably still lay a person out if they tried to mess with him. He dressed well, opting for a suit with a bow tie and a straw hat, which sat on a coat rack just behind him. He still had most of his attention on the newspaper as he addressed Connor, his elbow on the glass case of watches and jewelry next to the register.
“Heya, Francis. How’s things?”
“Can’t complain. Heard you might be throwing some business my way.” The way the man talked was slow and deliberate, the way a cow might chew cud. Sometimes people new to town yelled at Francis to hurry up and finish talking. Those people quickly learned the error of their impatience.
“Oh yeah? I tell ya,’ that rumor mill has really been churning lately.”
“It always does. Usually you don’t make much grist for it, though.”
“Well, you can’t be small time forever, right?”
“Some can. Not you, apparently.”
“So I guess that ticks off the box of the first question as to whether you can be ready to handle some potentially big merchandise.”
“Ain’t found an item yet I couldn’t move sooner or later.”
“I’m gonna’ need it sooner, or at least some kind of advance.”
“Big hurry, eh?” He pronounced these words extra slowly, as if he were establishing irony in gesticulation itself.
“You know how it is, dues to pay.”
“Well I might be able to give you an advance, but it would have to be an exceptional item.”
“Of course. You know me, I wouldn’t give you a pig in a poke.”
“Not unless you thought you could get away with it.”
“Which I know I can’t, Francis. I learned that lesson real quick the first time.”
“Just see that you keep on remembering it.”
“Where’s the trust? Anyway, I actually came to see if I could ask a couple favors of you.”
The older man raised his eyebrow, “Do I seem like I’m in the market of distributing favors? Pawn Shops are a cash business, son.”
Connor winced. “Yeah, I know how you usually operate, but these two are really more …” Connor searched for just the right word, “courtesies than favors.”
“I suppose there isn’t much harm in telling me what you want. Maybe I’ll do it; maybe I won’t”
“That’ll do. Okay, first off, this job might draw some heat. It’s a bit bigger than I’m used to. So if anyone comes around here asking about me, or the job, or a particular piece that’s missing, could you please let me know. That way I know to lay low.”
“That seems to be a little more than a courtesy.”
“The way I figure it: this goes well I’ll have a lot more big business lined up for you. But if I’m in jail, not so much. It serves your interest too and for only the cost of a phone call.”
“That is an interesting point. Okay, I will let you know if someone comes sniffing around. Though, I doubt they will; I am nothing if not discreet.”
“I don’t doubt it, Francis.”
“And the second one?”
“This one’s a little more iffy. I’d understand if you said no.”
“Won’t know until you ask, boy.”
“Okay. Have you ever seen my partner, Leyla, before?”
“Nope. I don’t remember her, at least. Never seen anyone with you, either.”
“Well, she’s blonde, about my height, real pretty, blue eyes.”
“Congratulations. Any reason for the description other than to brag?”
Connor looked around, he suddenly felt a twinge of guilt over this, but he had to be absolutely sure everything would go according to plan. “Um, if she were to come in here to try to move some goods, I would really appreciate it if you would, uh, politely refuse her.”
“You want me to refuse to fence for your partner?”
Connor grimaced, it did sound really bad out loud. “More or less, yeah.”
“Any particular reason I should do that?”
“Well she doesn’t always think in the best interests of the group. If the score were big enough, and I’m not saying that it is, it might tempt some people into acting selfishly. And when you gotta’ make sure that everyone gets their slice, it’s not good to have a person going off-script.”
“You’re worried that she’ll betray you.”
“No! No.” He tried to act nonchalant. It was less than stellar. “I think she’ll be fine, probably, but, if she did decide to betray me, I need to know that everybody’s interests are covered.”
“Everybody? You mean Joey.”
“He’s not the kind of man who likes to wait, and, if his interest in me proved unfruitful, he might have a reason to express his extreme displeasure.”
“I see. So you need me to save you from the gallows should your pretty partner decide to run off without you.”
“I’d owe you big.”
Francis thought for a long moment, sucking on his teeth as he did so. Finally, he reached his decision. “Turning down business is bad for business, Connor.” Connor could feel his shoulders sag. “But I can pay you the same, what did you call it, courtesy of calling you if this Leyla tries to sell something here. Is that good enough?”
“That’s great, Francis. You got my marker, my friend.”
Francis, sensing his business was at an end, turned back to his paper. “I’m not your friend, son. I’m just disinclined to have a reduction in my client list at this time.”
It was good enough for Connor. His steps felt lighter as he stepped out of the shop and hurried off. It was a couple blocks to get over to Securities, Ltd. Once he made it away from that little side street, it started getting a little more populous. Businesses that, for the most part, weren’t closed, people that were looking around shopping, and cars lining the streets and driving to and fro. It was good to be back in a more civilized setting. At last he came to a little coffee shop across from his target.
“Connor.” He nodded back at his pal Mickey, who was doing his best incognito impression. The fat, hirsute man had always been a good go-to. He wasn’t good at lifts or grifts, but he had a great eye. If you put him on a building, he could case it for a week and tell you every camera angle, every exit, and even the guards’ shifts without so much as raising an eyebrow. Right now he was sitting at one of the tables the coffee shop had put out on the sidewalk, sipping a latte and reading a newspaper. The effect of watching him stick his fat, olive skinned finger through the tiny handle of the cup was like watching a man thread a needle with bailing wire.
The coffee shop itself was one of those places that prided itself on it’s small, independent status. As such it had the grungy, well used look of a store that put social justice ahead of a shiny, waxy facade. When Connor walked into the storefront, his feet scuffed on the cement floor. He noted the bulletin board full of local events, items for sale, and lost pets and strode up to the faded and distressed wood counter. He ordered a Coffee Americano and ignored the clerk, who had dreadlocks and a distinctive body odor, when she tried to rail against chain coffee stores. He went back out and sat down with Mickey, his back to Securities, Ltd.
“Heya, Mick. How’s it looking?”
“Your diva hasn’t entered the stage yet, but I’m sure you knew that already.”
“Yeah, she always has been good at schedules. Four means four, and she won’t be so much as five minutes early. You ready for your part?”
“Yeah, I got my little, red heap just down the corner from where you told me she was parking. I’ll watch the door, and, if she tries to leave you in the lurch, I’ll pull the car out and stop her.”
“You gotta’ be ready, Mick. We could be in there as long as eight hours, so you need to be watching the door that whole time. Think you can handle that?”
“What do I look like? Some bumpkin just rolled in from the country? This is me you’re talking to. Of course I can handle it.”
“Ten percent of my cut, as always?”
“That’s the going rate for lookout duty. Though y’know, after two and a half years I don’t know why you bother. You could save yourself a lotta’ dough.”
“And how would you feed those two darling kids and that two-timing wife of yours if I didn’t give you some extra business?”
“Hey! I do just fine with my share from the jobs. Besides, Joey’s been having me run book for him sometimes, when Eddy ain’t up for it. I do just fine. Seriously, Connor, you go through a lot of trouble making sure that little blonde ain’t gonna pull one over on ya.’ The first year or so I thought you were being careful, but now I just think you’ve got trust issues.”
“I work with people who steal for a living, Mick; trust issues go with the territory.” Connor started stirring his coffee. His tone was agitated.
“Hey, forgive me if I’m butting in, I’m just sayin.’ If I found a nice piece like that who I could line up scores with and was always on time and always got the job done right, I’d put a ring on it and call it a day. Me, I can’t even trust my wife to take the trash out for fear the garbage man might be out there waiting to pick up more than the refuse.”
“Your ability to read women is about as bad as your ability to read that paper.”
“Oh really, wise guy? Well how ’bout this, you go up there and you ask her.” Connor was chuckling. “No, I’m serious, you go there and you say, ‘Hey, dame, I’m in the market for a smart, blonde, beautiful woman to make an honest criminal outta me. You interested?’ I will bet you, no, seriously, I will bet you $5,000 right now that she will say yes.”
“You’re nuts, Mickey; it’s what I love about ya.”
“What have you got to lose? Even if she says no and runs away screaming, 5k will cover the loss till you get another partner, and, if she says yes, you’ll make it up after a few jobs of not paying me to sit here and do absolutely nothing yet again.”
After the morning he’d had, Connor wasn’t really in the mood. Mickey was a good guy, but he aspired to that whole mafioso idea of honor and loyalty. To him, if you could trust someone once, you could trust them always. That, coupled with the fact that his wife had a reputation for stepping out with every joe who rang the doorbell, made Connor feel like he wasn’t the best source of advice on matters of the heart. Besides, there was some information he wasn’t taking into account. “Even if I were to consider that an option, Mickey, and I’m not saying that I am, this would not be the job to do it on.”
“Why? Because the score’s too big?”
Connor looked around, then gave Mickey the ‘confidential’ look, “Joey says I owe him ten large whether the job pays off or not. He says it’s the cost of being big time in this town.”
“Ten grand! What the hell. That’s highway robbery!”
“Whether it is or it ain’t, I got no way of knowing, but facts are facts. Joey says I owe 10k, so I don’t need any complications on the job. I don’t need this to be the one time I’m lax on the precautions. It’s a tight ship or I’m sunk.”
Mickey looked at Connor with a face that was already in mourning. “That’s bad luck, Connor. Hey, if it helps any, you don’t have to pay me for the lookout duty.”
“We’ll see. Hopefully we’ll find enough loot inside that we’ll all be millionaires and that ten thousand will be so small we’ll laugh about it.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Mickey’s voice trailed off suspiciously.
“What is it, Mick?”
“You said we couldn’t afford any complications?”
“Not so much as a hiccup or a sneeze.”
“Then there’s probably something I should have told you about.”
Connor felt a sudden surge of panic. “And what would that be?”
“Look down the street, three shops down. You’ll see a white car. Make it look casual.”
Connor stretched and let his head loll. His eyes drifted down the sidewalk until he found the place that Mickey had mentioned. Sitting out in front of the shop was a white sedan. It was pretty unassuming looking at first glance. It looked like pretty much every other white sedan on that street, of which there were many. It was a little dirty but otherwise was in decent condition. Connor was about to ask what Mickey was on about until he noticed a slight rustling. Inside the car, barely visible, sat two people. They had the seats most of the way back to avoid detection, and, as far as Connor could tell, they were both looking at his side of the street. Great, Connor thought to himself, the last thing I need is someone running surveillance on this block.