If the wrong side of the tracks had a wrong side, this would be it. This was the thought of the man in the brown jacket wandering down the shabby, crack-worn sidewalk. The street was littered with dingy apartments and track houses that were almost too dilapidated even for squatters. No more than five people were out and about on this, the last corner of desperation in a city that took the call for the ‘poor and huddled masses’ a little too seriously.
Even so, those five were hurrying and scuttling about with that nervous glare that reminded him of his days in juvie. Everyone had somewhere they would rather be, him included. Even though the sun was shining, a dark tinge of grime and shadow left the whole neighborhood feeling permanently overcast. This was the raggedy edge for people like him, so it was the perfect place to find a pickpocket.
As he turned a corner, he reflected on the day that had started out so promising before it had led him to this garbage heap of human detritus. The girl that had smiled at him was gorgeous: blonde, stacked, with the kind of figure that would cause ships to run aground. He had found himself craning his neck slowly up from her feet all the way to her head like his eyeballs were the camera and she was Grace Kelly in her establishing shot.
He had figured himself twice blessed when that angel in a halter and short-shorts was distracted by a honking car and ended up bumping right into him. She really did have the greatest little body, and the ability to play the white knight and steady her on her feet was gratifying. She had given him a wide eyed, pleasant ‘thank you, you’re so sweet,’ and he was on cloud nine.
He was so dazed by her beauty that he almost hadn’t noticed the lift as she took his wallet, despite the fact that her motions were as sloppy as an ice cream cone on the summer sidewalk. He had cleared the cobwebs from his mind just quickly enough to turn and find she had already given him the slip.
What she hadn’t counted on, however, was this being his town and lifts being his game. He had been moving up in the world lately, but he still knew every two bit purse snatcher and thief in the city. He also knew Joey, the man who got a taste of all the action on this side of town. It didn’t take a lot of asking before he got zeroed in on the new blondie who had been lightening the pockets of the gentlemen in the area. He didn’t get her precise address, but he knew her neighborhood and the names of a few people nearby who might be obliged, if he mentioned Joey’s name, to help him narrow it down.
He had been given that info in exchange for his promise that he would direct her to either run her game through Joey or give it up. There was no room for middle ground in this area, he knew. If he couldn’t get her agreement on it, Joey would say it in much harsher and more physical terms. It would look bad if Joey let some dame pick pockets outside of his operation, no matter how pretty she was.
As luck would have it, he had no need for the list of names. Passing the courtyard to an apartment complex that looked like the builders had given up halfway through, he saw a shock of blonde hair storming away from a tall, well-muscled gentleman in denim and red flannel. He couldn’t see the woman’s face, but he knew right away from the walk that it was her.
Straightening his brown jacket, he took a quick turn and walked as fast as he could towards the pair. She spied him from the corner of her eye. He quickened his pace, thinking she was about to make a break for it. Instead she veered straight for him, practically colliding with him as he reached her.
“Quick! You gotta’ help me.”
“What? Are you kidding? Do you even know who I am?”
“Not really, but whatever you need I can get you, just get this guy off my back.”
He looked over at the gorilla in flannel making a beeline for him, “You can’t be serious.”
“Please, he’s going to beat the shit out of me.”
“And if I step in, he’s just gonna beat the shit out of both of us.”
She gazed straight into his eyes. Her eyes were the blue of a deep lake on a summer’s day, warm and wet. They quivered as they silently pleaded with him. Her hands clenched on the lapels of his brown jacket, and her perfectly red lips pouted. Damnit, he thought, I am a double sucker today.
“Okay, fine.” He sighed in exasperation. “Everything’s gonna be okay, doll. Just stand behind me and play along, alright?”
She nodded in that kind of exaggerated way that spoke of relief and extreme fear all at once. She spun and ducked behind him in a smooth motion that made him feel macho right up until the behemoth in flannel came within inches of him. At 5’6”, he was not going to be intimidating the 6’4” wall of brawn that was now considering him the way a hammer considers a nail.
The man in the brown jacket made the most of his 5’6” and took on an imperious tone, “Do we have a problem here?”
“Dude! This is none of your business, okay man? It’s between me and this bitch. So just get out of the way and pretend you didn’t see nothin.’”
The guy in flannel really had a way with language. Suddenly the way forward became clear, “I’m afraid I can’t do that son.” Reaching into the pocket of the brown coat, he pulled out a leather wallet. Flashing the badge inside, he said, “My name is Officer Stan MacKenzie. We received reports of a domestic, and I was dispatched to take care of it.”
“Ummmm … okay … I mean, that’s great, dude. I want to report a crime. This bitch stole my wallet!”
‘Stan’ turned and considered the woman for a moment, “Is that true, ma’am?”
“No! Of course not! I’ve never seen this crazy bastard before in my life!” When he had told her to play along, he had wished that he had added in a bit about not overselling it.
“You lying bitch!”
“Get away from me!”
“Enough!” ’Stan’ was reaching the edge of his patience. He took one quick glance at the man then raised his hands to separate the two, “Sir, do you have any proof that she stole your wallet? Any witnesses?”
“Ummmm …. like … no.”
“When was this crime allegedly committed?”
“Less than an hour ago.”
“Ma’am, do I have permission to search you to see if you have this man’s property on your person?”
She eyed him suspiciously, “... Of course.”
‘Stan’ took great pleasure in the frisk, although his main motivation was finding his own wallet. She wouldn’t have it on her, obviously. She wasn’t wearing enough to keep a wallet stashed on her person; her bra, however, was another matter. He could feel the wad of bills, about $500 he guessed, stuffed in there plain as day, but avoided reacting. Better to save it as a trump card for after he found her hiding place.
He noticed that she had eyed a rust-eaten yellow minivan when he had mentioned a search. Her gaze shifted back to it every once in awhile even as he frisked her. He guessed that if the wallet was anywhere, it would be there. But he wasn’t about to tell the lunkhead in the flannel that. Finishing his very thorough pat down he said matter-of-factly, “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t find any wallet on her person.”
“This is bullshit! I know she has it.”
“Sir. I suggest you take a moment and consider the situation. I, an officer of the law, searched her with her permission even though there was no evidence against her. Meanwhile, there’s already a call against you for a domestic disturbance. If you persist in this harassment, then she decides to sue you, her case will be water tight.”
“What? Sue me! You better not sue me, you bitch!”
He raised his hands again, “Hey! I said if she decided to sue you, genius. Look, as far as I’m concerned, you walk away now, I didn’t see a thing. You persist in this ode to single minded profanity, then I’m going to have to make a report. If I do that, you’re looking at losing more than just a wallet.”
The muscular man blinked at him confusedly. He sighed with exasperation, “You’ll lose your shirt too, Einstein. So how about you move along, and retain whatever dignity you have left.”
“But … dude! Man, fuck the police.”
The guy was agitated, clearly, but after a stomp and huff he and his terrible fashion sense stormed out of the courtyard and slammed the door of a truck that had been parked nearby. Only when the loud roar of the engine announced the vehicle turning a corner did ‘Stan’ say, “You’re welcome, darling.”
“Yeah, thanks.” The girl turned to leave.
“Hey, that wasn’t a free show, babycakes.”
She eyed him suspiciously, “Then what was it?”
“I’m here for pretty much the same reason as that mook in plaid was. You took my wallet, but I’m afraid I need it back.”
She stepped back, clearly incensed, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Give it up, sweetheart. If my clothes were as transparent as you, I’d be walking around naked.”
“You searched me already. If I were some kind of … thief, don’t you think you would’ve found them?”
“Mhmmm. And if I were to go search that rust-ridden banana boat over there?” He motioned towards the mini-van.
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“Fine.” He moved towards the vehicle only to have her rush in front of him
“You can’t do that! That’s my car.”
“And I ain’t no cop, doll. What’s more, ain’t no cop coming out to this area ever. So wise up and shoot straight, or I’ve half a mind to take whatever I find in there for myself.”
She chewed her lip as she considered. Under normal circumstances, he would have found the look quite charming, but he was incensed by her little act. Finally her shoulders sagged in resignation, “Fine. I’ll get your wallet.”
“You know which one it is?” He asked as she slid open the door to the mini van.
“I leave the I.D.s in them. Not gonna be too hard to figure it out.” After a minute of rummaging through a pile of brown and black, the blonde spoke again. “How did you do that, by the way?”
Her voice came up half muffled as she continued to search. “Convince him you were a cop. You’re the last person I’d pick out to be a policeman. You’re built like a stick and your badge looked like it came from a dollar store.”
“What’s it to you?”
She appeared momentarily from the van, her eyes boring into his. Her lips took that same pout. “Humor me.”
At first he resisted telling her, but the heat in her gaze set a fire within him. Suddenly he wanted to impress her. He could feel himself shrug, “It’s a number of things. It’s complicated.”
“I think I can keep up.” She sounded petulant as she returned to her search.
“Well first of all, it’s how I dress. Long coat, chino pants, button-up blue collar: it’s like the generic outfit for any job. I keep a clip-on tie in one of the inside pockets. Add the tie, button up the jacket and presto: you’re the new low level office employee. Lose the jacket and you’re the factory guy. Flash a badge and you’re a detective or a government inspector. It’s fancy enough to be someone in authority, but not fancy enough to be someone you’d remember.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“Second is attitude. If you’re confident enough, and if you believe it enough, nobody has room to doubt you. Look people in the eye when you lie to them, and they’ll swallow anything. It’s when you’re shifty that they get suspicious.”
“There’s got to be more to it than that.” He could barely hear her as she searched through a few wallets under the seat.
“Fine. Last is you got to find that thing.”
“That thing?” She asked incredulously.
“Do you want to be someone in authority? You gotta find a reason to make them fear what you can do to them. Do you want to be someone they trust? Make them think they know a secret about you. Someone they want to do business with? Find out their hidden hope or ambition. You think of what you want your relationship to that person to be then you find the thing that will short circuit their desire to question whether it’s legit.”
“Like with that guy, how you made him think you’d report him so that I could sue?”
“Of course. Guy like that is big on fisticuffs, but low on brains. If he’s more than a pool boy or a burger jockey, I’m the Shah of Sweden. If I threatened arrest, he’d have gotten up in my face. Threaten a lawsuit, and suddenly he’s seeing that minimum wage paycheck go bye-bye. How’s he gonna pay for the lumberjack outfit and the upkeep on that jalopy then?”
Her gaze shifted back to him, appraising him in a new light. “You’re smarter than you look, ‘Stan.’”
“Has anyone ever told you talk funny?”
“What’s the matter with the way I talk?”
“Doll? Jalopy? Did you just escape a Humphrey Bogart impersonator contest?”
“What’s wrong with Bogie? Or old words for that matter? People in those days had style and class. You want to insult someone, you called them a palooka or a slack-jawed ninny. What do we got nowadays? Five, maybe six good curse words, and all of them get so overused they amount to a hill of beans.”
“So what, you decided to go on a classics marathon so you wouldn’t have to talk like normal folk?”
“Nah, I’ve been watching those movies since I was a kid. Used to be the only positive part of my day. I’ve been using words like ‘doll’ since before I had a reason to.”
“Well, thanks for the save, joe.” She affected a terrible accent clearly meant to sound like a ’20s gangster as she finally came out of the van with the small, brown, leather rectangle that held his identity. She looked at the license a moment before speaking, “Or should I say … Connor Donnelly.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you before you go off to accost other helpless girls trying to make a living?”
“Yes, actually. There was money in here. I’d like it back.”
She scoffed, “Good luck with that.”
“No, I don’t think so. I guess I forgot to mention I was referred to your location by way of Joey Malone.”
“Joey’s … how do I say this? Joey’s the kind of guy who will send his boys down here to make sure you have an ‘accident’ if he doesn’t like what you’re doing.”
“Close enough. Trust me when I say you don’t want to be on any worse terms with this guy than you already are.”
“You didn’t think you could just operate here, lifting pockets for free, did you?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“You’re kinda’ new at this aren’t you?”
Her look gave her away. Connor didn’t know exactly what turn of fate led this little, blonde beauty queen to a life of crime, but she was no more than a novice at it. “Whatever. Fine, how much do I owe you?”
“Five hundred! No way. I would have remembered if I had netted that much from a single wallet. Fuck, I don’t think I got that much all day.”
“It’s five hundred if I say it’s five hundred.”
She tried the pouting lips and pleading blue eyes trick again, “You can’t do that. I need that money to pay rent. I’m already behind. If I don’t pay up, the landlord’s gonna’ throw me out on my ass.”
“That sounds like a whole load of not my problem, doll. You need a place to stay, live in this heap you call a van. Otherwise find a way to work it off in trade. You want to use my money, you’d better have a better reason than a please and a pout.”
Her look was livid when she realized the cutesy act wasn’t going to get her out of it. She reached down into the halter and pulled out a wad of cash. The five hundred put a serious dent in what was there, but her look was haughty and defiant as she placed the remainder back in her shirt and thrust the bills out at Connor. “Satisfied?”
He took the time to count every bill. They were warm and smelled slightly of lilac. Pocketing the money, he said, “Seems to be in order.”
“Fuck you.” She began to storm off
Connor wasn’t sure what came over him in that moment. She was stomping out her severe displeasure, her hips wiggling in the short-shorts and the halter bouncing with the effort. Something about the scene just hit him right then and there like a harpoon straight through the heart. He didn’t think it was love, or pity even. It was something deeper. It was an understanding that deep down she was just like him: wounded. Even deeper than that, through this connection he saw an opportunity to do something more. He could use her. They could use each other, and maybe in the circle of that using they might both find the thing that they needed more than anything else: a way out of this hellhole of dirt, grime, and pain.
He hesitated until it was almost too late. There was a part of him that liked to play it safe, and that part was fighting to have its say. It was too much of a risk, too much of a change. She would screw everything up and leave him destitute. Better to stick with easy lifts like he had been doing. It wasn’t much, sure, but it was stable. Mr. Play-it-Safe kept shouting his insistence, but he was slowly being drowned out by the rhythmic motion as she walked away. His decision was made.
“Wait!” He shouted, “Hold on, wait up!” He ran to catch up with her. She had just flung open the door to the run-down apartment complex to the left of the courtyard. It was green on the outside the color of spinach, with yellow trim the color of dijon mustard. The walls had patches of stucco missing and cracks all over. The door itself had been glass at one time but was now mostly plywood. The whole complex was covered with a collage of intersecting graffiti. In this case the wear and vandalism were only an improvement.
He kept up his pleas as he followed her onto the stairwell. Seeing that he wasn’t going to stop making an ass of himself, the girl finally turned with an irritated look, “What!”
“What you said about rent, is it true?”
“What’s it to you? It’s obvious you don’t give a fuck.”
“Just tell me, for Pete’s sake.”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but, yeah, it’s true. I’m out on my ass in two days. And, before you start in again, I’m not spreading my legs for some bald, hair-covered Armenian just so that I can hang my head in shame in this rat-infested hole for another month.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, doll.”
She considered him a moment, her look ponderous, “So are you gonna lend me the five-hundred or what?”
“I’m good for it, I promise.”
“Then fuck off!” She continued her stomping up the stairs.
“Wait! What if I had a way for you to earn the five hundred?”
“If I’m not putting out for the landlord, I ain’t doing it for you either.”
“I didn’t mean earn it like that.”
“Like an honest job?”
“No, a dishonest job, but clearly that doesn’t bother you.”
“I don’t even know you. How am I supposed to trust that you won’t leave me there with nothing once you get what you want?”
“You don’t, but I don’t see as you have any better choices. It’s either come with me and for sure make five hundred clams or hope that you can pickpocket that much without another flannel-clad palooka coming to beat the tar out of you.”
She had to think about it a long moment. She looked him up and down, clearly trying to decide whether he would leave her in the lurch or not. Finally she looked into his dark eyes. He stared back without flinching, and she paused for a moment then said, “Fine. What’s the job?”
“I’ll get to that in a bit. First, what’s your name?”
“Leyla. Leyla DuBois.”