Leyla was coming from around the corner of the side alley by Securities, Ltd. and out onto the main street when Connor passed by her. She was still dressed in the tight sweatpants and Connor’s old t-shirt with a large turquoise bag hanging off her shoulder. She had obviously spent the few minutes it had taken Connor to get across the street and over to that corner getting into character. Her heels clicked angrily on the hard cement, her jaw was set and her bearing aggressive and determined. There was no hint of makeup on her face, and she had the look of a woman who had just spent the last four hours crying. Her skin was blotchy, her eyes moist and puffy, and her lip quivered. Connor knew he’d better hurry; he didn’t have much time.
He rushed to get back into the alley, finding the minivan parked in its hiding spot, unlocked. They had found a small loading dock when they had first scouted the alley that had been used by the little Italian joint where they had shared pizza in years gone by. The cafe had shut down since, and the neighborhood itself had changed substantially. The restaurant itself was still there, though. Its old loading dock providing one last benefit for the pair. It made for a perfect place to hide the van, since the blind corner of the dock and the narrow alley made no sight lines to the van from the street. Connor slid the side door open and retrieved a small device from the side of his bag.
The device was small, about the size of an overly large smartphone. It was black plastic on the outside, smooth except for the hinges that allowed the clamshell lid to open. Inside it was basically an extremely tiny laptop, with buttons on the keyboard that were almost too small for even his thin fingers. Apparently it had been something like a computer when it was first made. His tech guy, Brody, had tried to explain its original purpose, but it hadn’t made much sense to Connor. All that he cared about was the job that it fulfilled now. Connor stowed the black brick in his largest jacket pocket. As small as it was, it still just barely fit inside. Connor slumped his shoulders as he walked away from the van, so that the bulge of it wouldn’t be noticeable to people on the street.
His steps were quick and clipped as he walked down the street. He could see the swaying, hypnotic rhythm of Leyla’s hips as she continued her baleful walk. She was almost to the building, and Connor jogged so that he could get in position. He was ten steps behind her when she entered the building. Slowing his stride, he took his place on the sidewalk right outside of Securities Ltd. He sat down in front of the glass front of the building and put on his best ‘homeless drifter’ expression. Then he pulled out a pocket mirror he had brought for the job and the tiny, black device. From a purely business point of view, he needed to watch was about to transpire. He had to make sure the timing was right for when he pushed the button that Brody had painted red on the small keyboard. But, even if he hadn’t needed to watch, he would have done it anyway. He knew the bit Leyla was about to perform and he wouldn’t miss it for the world.
He could see the mark inside the foyer through the reflection in his mirror. He was a security guard that Leyla had found at some bar. He was the one who had told her about this place, and how crazy it was guarding a hallway while never seeing the room. She had related the tale to Connor, then he had come up with the idea for hitting the place. Consequently, she had gotten pretty cozy with him. Through her time as the mark’s ‘girlfriend,’ she and Connor had learned every habit, every shift, every detail of the schnook’s life. Even with all this clandestine digging, Connor couldn’t for the life of him put a finger on the guy’s name now. He wanted to say it was Jeremy, or maybe Jerry, or Germaine. It wasn’t really important; what was important was that her stringing him along had all led to this, and now it was time to cut him loose. For that very purpose, they had come up with a special grift that he called the ‘ex-girlfriend.’
“Hey baby, what’s wrong?” ‘Jeremy’ was actually a pretty decent guy as far as guys go. But Connor couldn’t do his job if he was sympathetic to the mark, so Connor had instantly decided to hate him upon seeing his soul patch. He focused on it now to keep from feeling any guilt.
“Don’t baby me, you dirtbag!” Leyla had hit him with the turquoise bag on her shoulder. They had dubbed it the ‘comically oversized handbag:’ metallic blue, covered in rhinestones, with a strap that made it go down past her waist, it was perfectly gaudy in every conceivable way. It also featured several metal buckles so that the whole thing jangled and flashed when she swung it. They pulled it out whenever they wanted to make a really big scene. It was working to great effect here; another guard was already looking at them.
“Lana, what is it?”
They had run into the problem of what to do with marks early in their partnership. She had been stringing men along in order for them to run a quick and easy goldbricking scam, where Connor was selling overpriced trinkets from a little street stall that she would ask them to buy her. At first they were nickel and diming it, having her feign interest for a brief period so that they would buy her a twenty dollar locket or a fifty buck hair pin. After a while, though, the pair of them realized that they could keep the act going for a few weeks or even a couple months and really squeeze a tidy sum out of the poor jerks. But this led to the same problem that they were having with Jeremy now: what could they do to lose a guy who had been nothing but nice?
“You thought you could hide her from me! You thought I wouldn’t find out!” Her back was to Connor, but he could hear that snotty, tearful tone when she was really working up a good cry. Goddamn, that woman could really cry on cue. Jeremy looked dumbfounded.
“Hide who? You know you’re the only one for me.”
“LIES! IT’S ALL LIES! Was anything you ever said to me even true?!” Her crying had turned into a kind of shrieking wail that was turning people’s heads down the street. Looking inside, Connor could see that all the guards had assembled in the lobby by now.
“Baby, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Leyla cocked her head as she stared at Jeremy. It was a constant little tick in all of her performances whenever she was about to deliver the final blow. Connor always thought it looked like the hammer of a gun getting cocked back. She aimed right at the heart and let the bullet fly. “I saw Sheila the other day.” Her tone was flat and merciless.
That’s what made the ex-girlfriend work like a charm: human nature. Everyone had a secret, everyone had a stupid thing they were doing that they wouldn’t want a significant other knowing about. Maybe it was gambling, maybe it was a record, or maybe they were even keeping someone on the side. It was Leyla who had first come up with it. She convinced him that a noisy, tearful breakup would get anyone off of her scent, because they’d be too busy feeling guilty and stupid to see clearly. The first time they had run the con, Connor had worried they’d have to manufacture a situation with strippers and rufies to get something to stick. Leyla told him it would never come to that. She knew the truth: everybody’s a jerk when they think no-one’s looking. You find that deep, dark secret and bring it to the light of day and not only do you tie up the loose ends, but you also keep all the suspicion away from yourself.
She took great pleasure in bringing that truth to bear on Jeremy. “She was coming out of your place. She told me she had just wanted to drop off your laundry for you.”
“Lana, look, I can explain…”
“Explain?! EXPLAIN?!” She smacked him with the handbag again. “You just want to ‘explain’ to me how you got another woman with a key to your place, doing your laundry for you?! I looked her up online; there are lots of pictures up there of you two looking real cozy together. So would you care to explain to me why you’re such a lying piece of shit?!”
The truth was actually pretty innocent, in comparison. Sheila was an ex of his that had never accepted the fact that it was over. She did all sorts of chores and favors for him, claiming that ‘she wanted to keep the friendship alive.’ Maybe a true gentleman would have put her to pasture and not kept stringing her along, but laundry and maid service was expensive. Jeremy would occasionally do a kindness for Sheila. He’d take her for a dinner every now and again, where she’d often proceed to get liquored up and profess her undying love. A real jerk would probably have taken advantage, but the guy never did anything more indecent than paying for her cab ride home. Connor still wasn’t sure if that made him more pitiable or more detestable. Dinner was hardly an acceptable substitute for love, especially when dirty drawers were added to the balance.
“Lana…” It was clear from his face that it wasn’t the kind of information he’d wanted his girlfriend finding out about. Too bad for Jeremy there were two people wholly invested in finding those shameful details.
“Save it! I’ve got too much self-respect to keep going on with a two-timer like you. I’m done.” Now she was putting on the full-on waterworks. Connor could hear wracking sobs coming from her as a man who was obviously the head guard on duty comforted her. This was the moment Connor had been waiting for. Every eye inside Securities, Ltd. was on her, and nobody was watching the camera. Connor pressed the red button, which fed the new feed to the security guards’ computer. There would be a small blip for the changeup if they checked the feed the next day, but by then he and Leyla would be long gone and wealthy beyond belief. He snapped the device shut and put it back in his pocket. He could’ve made his way back to the van, but he really wanted to see the end of the show.
Jeremy looked like somebody just stuck a dagger in his chest. His eyes were tearing up, and his soul patch danced a mournful tango as he sucked in his lip. The small, dark, fuzzy growth was like him, tremulously dancing alone where it might once have had the warmth of a companion beside it. He had that sunken, subdued look of a man who knew he had hung himself. Worse still, none of the stares held a trace of pity for Jeremy. Everyone else in the lobby looked at him like he was the most detestable being on the planet. All the guards just stared and shook their heads like he was the biggest idiot in the world. He had been keeping a girl on the hook doing his dirty laundry while this blonde angel was on his arm clueless. It was clear from their annoyed mutterings how they felt about him. Had there been a category for most detestable scum of the earth, he would have taken the prize without contest.
It was all tied up in a neat little bow now. Every ‘i’ had been dotted and every ‘t’ crossed. There were no more loose ends that might lead the cops back to their door. Even if somebody thought the robbery and the breakup were connected, they’d probably just blame Jeremy. After all, he was the person of dubious moral quality who had lied to his girlfriend, and after that break-up he had nothing to lose.
“Come along miss, I think it’s time we got you away from here.” The head guard had a kind, almost elderly voice. Connor got ready to move.
“Can you please take me out the back,” Leyla sobbed, “I don’t want people to see me like this.”
“I can’t do that ma’am, for security reasons, but there’s a side door I can take you out of.”
“Thanks.” She choked out the last words as he escorted her out, looking ruefully at Jeremy as they left. Connor stood and walked quickly to the end of the street, leaning against the corner as the door swung open.
“You’ll be alright to get yourself home?”
“Yes, I … thank you.” She had turned to face him and put a hand on his arm; Connor could see that she smiled with pained warmth at him for his kindness. It was a kindness she was abusing. As he was distracted with her hand touching his arm and her tearful expression, she was taping down the door’s latch with her other hand. She wasn’t quite as good at sleight of hand as Connor, he could see the motion clearly, but she could capture a person’s attention so completely that she didn’t need a smooth lift.
As she made her exit, Connor could see that his t-shirt had fallen off her shoulder, revealing her bra-strap. Her hips had an extra sway to them, and he knew she had bought those sweatpants entirely for their ‘exit view.’ The head guard’s eyes were stuck on her the whole time as she walked around the corner. He never even checked the door or heard its failure to latch. This was Leyla’s profession, manipulation, and she was a master at it.
Connor came around the corner as soon as he heard the door close. Leyla turned only slightly, giving him a quick wink until she was concealed by the little alcove that held the loading dock. The doors of the old Italian restaurant had been boarded over, and the dock was chained up. The alcove itself had become a trap for leftover newspaper and trash bags.
He reflected on that day long ago when he had taken her here for pizza. The food really was the best, but sometimes even that isn’t good enough. As he caught the frame of her outline around the corner, it suddenly occurred to him that everything ends, everything decays. He wasn’t even sure why he thought it at that moment, but seeing her there, too cool for school, the feeling overwhelmed him. She smirked playfully at him as she said, “How was my performance?”
“On a scale from one to ten: about an eleven.” He could feel the smile spreading on his face despite his attempts to suppress it. Despite all the little obstacles and emergencies that had cropped up before Leyla’s arrival, her part had gone perfectly. He was reminded in that moment why they had remained partners for so long.
She shot him a dazzling grin that mirrored his own. “What did I tell you?”
He gave her a sheepish look, “Yeah, okay, you were right. He was keeping Sheila a secret.”
He had told her that, if there wasn’t any sex involved, then it probably wasn’t a big enough secret to bury Jeremy over. She had correctly predicted otherwise, and now her tone was gleeful and gloating, “Nobody does laundry out of friendship. That’s a labor of love, and everyone knows it. Any man who lets a woman do his laundry as ‘just friends’ is a man who’s dealing falsely.”
“Ain’t no risk of you doing some cat’s laundry for him. You barely even do your own.”
She looked half-annoyed and half-bemused, “Maybe it’s my long term study of dirty clothes that gave me the insight into Jeremy’s heart.”
“I bow to your keen intuition.”
“So what do we do now?”
“You know the next step of the plan.”
“Oh come on, Connor. Seriously?”
“Yes. We lie low and wait.”
“But I got such a great reason to go out and do some sad shopping! I guarantee I could be up and down that block and never break character.”
“Look, doll, as far as they know, you’re long gone. They watched you walk away, so if there’s an investigation you’re in the clear. On the other hand, a witness puts you in the neighborhood buying petticoats, suddenly there’s questions about where you were about eight o’clock. I’ve told you before: safe way’s the best way.”
Leyla pouted slightly. “And I was going to get something nice to wear for you while we waited.”
“It was going to be really skimpy.”
“Yeah, fine. You wanna play it safe. We’ll play it safe. But I will leave it up to your imagination what I would’ve worn had you let me go shopping. Maybe next time you’ll reconsider that whole ‘safety’ rule.”
“Well that’s something to get me through the hours of waiting.”
She looked at him lasciviously then slid open the door to the minivan. She clearly had her own ideas on how to fill the time. But Connor was already far away. Everything was lined up. It suddenly felt fitting that they had come full circle to this little Italian joint. They were about to realize the promise, the draw of destiny, that he had felt in that first meal they had shared together. Just a few more hours and it would be time for the biggest job of Connor’s life.