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“Have you heard about the police van burnt down last night?”
“No, what’s that about?”
“That guy… Oliver or something, was being moved to federal prison, looks like the Citizens broke ‘im out.”
“Didn’t he just escape jail and get re-arrested? And there was like, an explosion too. Ha! So much for effective police work.”
Yen glanced up at his co-workers. They always had to turn the back room of the car wash into some kind of hybrid of a news report and a talk show. Yen rolled his eyes and ignored the older men.
It was relieving to strip off the nylon and get back into his torn jeans and t-shirt. He couldn’t wait to be on the road with the wind in his hair and on his skin. The day had been way too stuffy, the car-wash felt like a damn steam cooker. At least the heat made the roads dusty enough to draw clients in. If he had to sit around doing nothing all day, he preferred doing it in better company.
Yen put on his sleeveless vest and closed his locker. The other men tossed amused glances at his colors, but didn’t comment on the biker patch. The face of a half-skeletal Egyptian pharaoh with a rainbow headdress was well familiar to them by now. The Pharaohs weren’t a big club, not by a mile, but their perseverance in the face of some clubs’ hostility had won the more open-minded locals over.
“See you guys tomorrow.”
The air outside felt as if someone had left a giant oven open. The sun was beating down mercilessly on the dwindling vegetation, and there was not a whiff of wind. Yen walked his Honda V-65 Magna out through the back door. The mirror-like metal of his bike reflecting the summer evening made him smile. There were certain perks to working at a car-wash.
He caught envious glances directed at his shiny bike all the way home. Or maybe people were glaring at the rainbow on his colors. Yen relished the attention either way.
Leaving his bike in the garage, Yen walked into the house with a small bag of groceries. He kicked off his sneakers and progressed towards the kitchen in just socks.
“Hey, Nana Riley, what’s up? I bought Calippos.”
The small energetic old woman intercepted him before he managed to set foot in the kitchen.
“Oh, so you did. Good evening, Yen.” She tore the bags from his hands with the skill of a seasoned mugger. “Sam isn’t back yet, so if you could be a dear and take out the garbage, I’ll serve supper.”
Yen looked down to discover the groceries in his hands had been replaced by trash bags. There was nothing he could do then but comply. When he returned inside, the table in the small dining room was served for two. Nana Riley came in bringing a huge salad bowl.
“Duck and pear salad with mango chutney dressing,” she announced triumphantly. “From that new cookbook Sammy bought me.”
“Sounds like it was a bitch to make.” Yen pulled out a chair and sat down.
“It sure was. Go wash your hands.”
Yen groaned but did not argue. The kitchen was just a few steps away after all. He was wiping his hands dry on a towel, when he heard the front door open followed by murmured greetings. Sam came into the kitchen and started washing his hands next to him.
“Hi,” Sam mumbled.
“Hi yourself.” Yen smirked. “You know you doomed your nana to cooking hell, right?”
Sam shrugged the accusation off.
“Boys, come quick, the salad is growing warm!”
The young men went into the dining room and took their places at the table to each side of Nana Riley, who at once set to filling their plates. While they were gone, she had turned on the radio. And now the host’s voice filled the void left by the prayers neither of them would want to say before a meal.
“… Mr. Viteri, but wouldn’t you agree that we should try to help the police investigation as much as we can?”
“Of course, we should. It is our civic duty,” the interviewee responded in a deep rumbling voice. “However, I do not intend to curb my patriotism just because a bunch of thugs chose the American flag as their symbol. Honest hard-working people shouldn’t have to adapt to criminals. If we let them take the Stars and Stripes from us today, what will we be left with? Do you suggest we drop celebrating the Fourth of July, because it complicates investigations? What other flag should American people fly? We cannot surrender the symbol of this proud beautiful nation to crooks and lowlives. We must reclaim the symbols instead by displaying them proudly. I didn’t fight in Nam to let some thugs limit my self-expression as an American patriot!”
Yen snorted. Nam, patriotic pep talk, this Viteri guy was another rich white nutter. But he did have a point. Being a biker, Yen knew first hand what it was like to be associated by the public with a bunch of thugs. The police still watched the Pharaohs with the same suspicion they held for the rest of the motorcycle clubs in town. The Pharaohs kept on the good side of the law, it was a part of their code. But they weren’t going to give up their biker lifestyle just to make the job of the police easier.
And Hector Viteri, a local businessman and public person, wasn’t going to change his flag-hanging habits because of the Citizens. After some deliberation, Yen nodded in agreement as the big cheese on the radio kept hammering his point in.
“This reminds me, Sammy.” Nana Riley perked up. “Would you take a ladder and hang out that new flag I bought?”
“Nana, it’s still May,” Sam protested quietly.
“So what? I’m not doing it for the holiday, I want to support the Citizens.”
Sam put down his fork and glared at the old woman with righteous anger. “Nana, they are murderers.”
“And who do they kill? Other crooks and coppers. For all I care, they are the best thing that happened to this town.”
“Nana,” Sam said with exasperation.
“Don’t argue with me, Samut. You have no idea what you are talking about. The city you love is a product of their activities. The Citizens cleaned up this place, while you were still sleeping with cuddle toys back on the West Coast. Before the Citizens we had turf wars, Ku Klux Klan and the highest violent crime rate in the state. Then the Citizens moved in. They made the Klan members and their cronies disappear, dominated the other gangs and allowed guys like this Viteri to bring their businesses here. Without the Citizens, Coalport would have become Detroit by now.”
“We don’t know that, Nana,” Sam disagreed.
“Yes, you two don’t. But I do. I actually lived here, I saw things change. What you and your friends do now, would have gotten all of you killed even ten years ago.” The old woman crossed her arms on her chest.
“Times have changed.” Yen tried to support his friend.
“Oh, have they? Why don’t you tell that to the kids in Idaho, who can get locked up for life if they get caught. You are gay bikers of color living in the open, you should be singing their praises, not bashing the Citizens.”
“Well, I personally don’t care about them. Love them, hate them, it’s all the same to me.” Yen lifted his hands in surrender.
Sam looked at him grimly.
“But this salad, now, that’s something I would like to talk about. I have not eaten anything this good since… Let me think… yesterday!” Yen stuffed in another mouthful and chewed.
The demonstration and flattery did their job, and a smile bloomed on Nana Riley’s face. “Aren’t you the sweetest little flatterer. Have some more then.” She filled Yen’s plate a second time.
Sam rolled his eyes and went back to eating in silence. Yen followed his example. The salad really was delicious. Far better than the food from the dumpster, even those cold but untouched pizzas he had once stumbled upon. And those had been some pretty good pizzas. Yen reminisced his days on the streets for a moment. With a roof over his head, a foster grandparent and a self-elected big brother, he was in a very good place right now.
* * *
Culinary flattery apparently worked miracles on Nana, and Yen found himself off dishwashing duty. Triumphant, he went upstairs to the bedroom he shared with Sam. There he collapsed on his bed and studied the rad if unevenly taped assortment of heavy metal posters on his side of the room. It was in every way superior to the Ancient Egypt conspiracy board on Sam’s side. It spanned almost the entire wall, just like Yen’s posters, but, unlike Yen’s posters, it was woefully lacking in the undead, demons and hot guys. Arguably there was that one green guy, who, as far as Yen remembered, was actually dead in some way. And there was a large number of half-naked dudes, but they were all same-looking and standing in that silly pose Ancient Egyptians seemed to think the default for a human body. Yen snorted at the thought.
After a moment, he realized that he was alone in the room and could change in peace, so he pulled off his shirt and jeans.
Yen froze with a roll of banknotes in his hands. Sam stood in the doorway to their shared bedroom, blocking the exit with his boxy shoulders. For a guy that sturdily built, he sure could be stealthy. Yen stared back at him in silence for a moment.
“I can see that. Why do you keep it in your underwear, and where did you get it?” Sam did not budge, strategically blocking the escape route.
Yen considered his chances of jumping over him. Sam was short, but not that short. And with a job where he hauled boxes around most of the day, Yen was quite sure Sam could intercept him easily. The window was the only option.
Yen backed away, towards the window. Sam seemed to read his thoughts, and his expression turned from suspicious to deeply skeptical. “Are you going to jump out the window in just your briefs? And then, what, live on the streets again to avoid answering a simple question?”
“Uh, I guess not,” Yen said. He had to admit his rushed escape plan had some flaws. It was almost painful how well Sam knew him.
“Where did you get this money?”
Now that escape was no longer an option, Yen decided to instead continue changing. He pulled on his shorts and an Iron Maiden t-shirt. “I have a second job.”
“Please, tell me it’s not drugs.”
Yen turned to look his friend in the eyes and said slowly in a deadpan manner, “I work as a courier, delivering voodoo magic for a sexually liberated Catholic priest.”
Sam stared at him wide-eyed for a second, then looked very skeptical again. “Fine. Don’t tell me. Just stay safe, alright? I don’t want you getting in trouble… Wait, it’s not the Citizens you’re working for, is it?”
“Oh, please!” Yen threw his hands into the air, frustrated. “Will everyone stop with the Citizens already, all I hear today is Citizens this, Citizens that, it’s like some kind of marketing campaign. No, I don’t work for them, and I don’t intend to. You should worry about your grandma, she’s their number one fan, not me. Go preach to her.”
After some consideration and a measure of suspicious glaring, Sam headed downstairs to do just that.
Yen snorted and finished dressing. He unrolled the money and counted out his share, which he hid inside his pillow case. The rest, he rolled again and stuffed into his pants. It was time to go to his second job.
* * *
Yen watched an asshole in a tailored suit leave the church and get into an expensive car. Most of the local congregation was white and upper middle class, but this one guy looked loaded. Yen remembered seeing him a few times before and each time wishing a seagull would take a dump on his windshield just to see the dude rage and wipe the shit off with a silk handkerchief. But seagulls were nowhere to be found when one needed them. And once again the fancy car drove off spotless.
Yen grimaced in disappointment, tossed his cigarette butt on the sidewalk and climbed the steps to the church. As always, the lofty interior and the stained glass windows failed to evoke any kind of feeling in him. He headed straight for the confessional, but it was taken, and there was a line too. Bad timing. Yen grunted and went to stand behind a housewife straight out of a sitcom, complete with a toddler in her arms. She glared at Yen.
“What, you think I don’t have sins to confess?” Yen asked.
The woman said nothing and moved away from him and closer to the old man before her in the line.
“You can confess to me,” Yen offered to the housewife. “It would save you the waiting. Not happy you had the baby? No one is. Especially your neighbors, trust me. They don’t like the screaming any more than you do.”
“Sh!” The old man turned to them and shushed at Yen.
“What, are you trying to eavesdrop?” Yen asked.
Now they were both glaring at him. The toddler meanwhile looked at Yen with a googly-eyed expression and reached out very eagerly towards the colorful buttons on his cut-off. Yen grinned at the baby. That did it. The mother evacuated the premises. Yen moved to stand closer to the old man, grinning at him too.
The old man looked at him attentively through thick glasses, then said. “Don’t hope for it, punk. I might die tomorrow. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
“Respect, man,” Yen conceded and waited peacefully behind the old man.
Finally, when his turn came, Yen entered the confessional, closed the door and pressed his face against the lattice, trying to make out the priest on the other side.
“Hi, Dad. Is that you?”
There was a sigh. “What if it wasn’t me? What then, Yen?”
“Then they would chase me out with a broom, and I would be yelling that if I should call your people ‘fathers’, ‘dad’ should be an acceptable alternative.”
“We’re not too big on synonyms around here. You could damage my reputation like this,” the priest noted sternly. “And you don’t want that, or do you now?”
Yen pouted. “You wound me, I would never sell you out. Not even if your pals went all Spanish Inquisition on me.”
“Good boy. But kneel at least.”
Yen got on his knees, fingers digging into the lattice. The position got him thinking. “Do these things have glory holes?”
“No… my dear child, they do not.” The priest said tiredly. “Now, don’t make me pray for your immortal soul, and since you’ve come here again, even after I said it’s not the best idea, do tell me how it went.”
“Swimmingly. As usual. I also got a tip from the friendly black grandpa who was last on the list. He said he liked my bike. Nice customers you have. I have the cash on me, but it won’t fit through these holes.” Yen reached into his shorts and pulled out a roll of banknotes. He poked it against the lattice to illustrate his point. “So you see why a glory hole would have really come in handy at this point.”
“Of course… Well, good job, my boy. And since we are now both so tragically aware of the flaw in the confessional’s architectural design, please put the money in the donation box instead. Just make sure nobody sees you do it. And as apparently your intentions were pure, forgive me for ever assuming.”
“It is not me you should ask for forgiveness, father,” Yen said solemnly. “Would you like to confess? This is kind of the point of this box, ain’t it?”
“Yes, indeed it is.” The priest readily agreed. “The point you’re still missing completely by coming here as often as you do. If not for the seal of confession, I would have problems explaining your peculiar pattern of attending church to others. You are lucky that frequent confession is encouraged. But performing the sacrament of penance as regularly as you do, you should also deign to attend mass once in a while. And spend some time listening to the word of God. Who knows, you might even learn something from my sermons. And if you come, perhaps you could even try to last all the way till the distribution of Holy Communion.”
“For you, I would even take part in the distribution of Communism. Just tell me when to come and what to do, and it will be done, father,” Yen said with exaggerated emotion.
“In case you never noticed, there is a mass schedule on the noticeboard next to the entrance, right next to the confession schedule that you seem to know so well.” The priest pointed out. “Now back to business. Tomorrow, you are off the hook, but I will need you to deliver several more parcels the day after. Come by my house tomorrow night.”
“Yes, sir.” Yen saluted.
“Any questions? If not, then off with you, boy.”
“One! So will the money I am to put into the donation box go towards improving the architectural design of the confessionals?”
“Bah, just go already, Yen, before I feel compelled to exorcise whatever vile creatures nest inside you.”
“Alright, see you tomorrow, Daddy.”
Yen exited the confessional and ambled towards the donation box. When he was sure no one was looking, he unrolled the money and dropped it in. He smirked. This box and him had a history. This box got him this job. Yen took a moment to appreciate the inanimate object, and then headed out before anyone started suspecting him of trying to steal church money, like he almost did once.
After the morning rush of clients at the gas station, the hours dragged out. Wyatt regretted not bringing a textbook to read. He didn’t really want to study, but that still beat being bored out of his mind. He was tempted to flick through one of the newspapers or magazines which sat on display just within his reach from the cash register. But he didn’t dare. Ever since the security camera had been installed behind his back a few months ago, he was afraid to touch anything at the gas station shop, unless he had to rearrange it. The owner didn’t like it when the employees ‘groped the products for no good reason’. The fact cameras started popping up around the city this year stressed Wyatt out. How was anyone supposed to work like this? When he was out thieving, it was already nerve-wracking trying not to get noticed, even without having to additionally worry that you were being taped. And though he never planned to shoplift from his workplace, he hated the fact that he was being watched all the same.
Even if he did bring a book to read, Wyatt was sure that in a few days, his employer would have a conversation with him about how he shouldn’t be reading on the job. A similar thing had happened before. He used to pass the time jotting down random observations about people and places in his notebook. Then, as soon as the camera appeared, the owner put an end to that with the memorable, ‘Real men don’t keep diaries, Mr. Brooks, and if you bring that thing here again, I will throw it out.’, followed by the ‘It won’t make you a real man, but maybe it will be a start’. It wasn’t a diary, it was a journal, and how much of a man he was, was none of his stupid fat employer’s business. But Wyatt was too damn scared to lose this shitty minimum wage job to argue about either part of that statement. So, instead, he decided to write things down at home after work. Recently, he hadn’t been doing even that, but tonight he would turn things around and write an entry. Some fat guy won’t be telling him how to live his life. In a feat of minor defiance, Wyatt resolved to also bring that Walkman to work and listen to some music on the job. He could probably get in a day or two before his employer watched the tapes.
He almost got excited about it, but then remembered that next week he would be working at the gas pumps. He didn’t exactly look forward to that. People were full of contradictions. They wanted someone else to tank up their cars, but then often got way too worked up about their gas-tanks being handled by strangers. He could understand that cars cost a lot of money and therefore were a touchy subject, but he didn’t work for three dollars per hour to get yelled at on a daily basis.
Wyatt sighed. As much as he hated the cashier week, it still beat the gas pump rotation, so he resigned himself to his fate again. It was going to be another long day, and he didn’t even know when he was going to get back home. He had two… appointments to make, as soon as he got off from work.
* * *
“Ocher!” Hunter exclaimed with unusual indignation. “What are my keys doing in your pocket again?!” The older thief lifted his hand and shook the keys before Ocher in a show of displeasure. “You have to control yourself, man. One of these days I’ll have to break into my own apartment because of you.”
“Aw shucks, I know, I’m sorry…” Ocher looked at him guiltily. Normally a question like that just begged for a counter-inquiry as to what the other man’s hand was doing in his pocket, but by now Ocher learnt that there was no point in asking. He was a key-kleptomaniac, and Two Bits had a habit of regularly and undetectably going through everyone’s pockets. That’s just how things were.
Hunter turned the keys in his hand and shook his head a little. “It’s ok. As your teacher, I am proud. But you’ve got to be careful. Or one day you might accidentally steal from someone actually dangerous.”
Ocher nodded and tucked his hands into his own pockets, where he could keep track of them.
“Did you manage to get that fifty bucks yesterday?”
“It took some wallet-fishing, but yes, I did.”
“And you paid up? Didn’t gamble it away?”
“Yes, and of course not. I didn’t have the time.”
They were walking to Hunter’s place together. The upside of having these crazy morning shifts was that Wyatt was often free, when other people were still stuck in their nine-to-fives. Sometimes he would use that time to take pickpocketing lessons from Hunter, like he was going to do now. He preferred that to meetings in the evenings. Everything looked far less suspicious in the light of day.
Speaking of light, there was a lot of it today. It was so sunny that Ocher had to squint, when he looked at the skinny thief walking beside him. Two Bits was a few inches taller than him, and in this bright light his hair, usually seemingly black, looked mousy brown instead. There was stubble on his jawline and the infamous sunglasses were still sitting on his nose, though this time they were finally justified by the weather. They were what saved the whole ensemble from creating an otherwise completely pitiful impression. Or perhaps they only enhanced it.
Hunter’s jacket was stolen. So was his oversized shirt, his jeans and the money he spent to buy his sneakers. Even the bag of groceries in Hunter’s other hand consisted in big part of the food he stole on his way through the city’s public transit system. Snatching items out of people’s shopping bags was how he usually filled his fridge. Stolen money was too easy to gamble away, groceries far less so.
They walked into an apartment building, then into an elevator and Hunter pressed the button for the top floor. The doors shut and for a moment they just stood in silence, listening to the machinery. The tenement Hunter lived in was much less rundown than Wyatt’s. In fact, it was quite nice, in a better neighbourhood, and Hunter actually owned his apartment. Buying it with the lottery prize money was probably the only sound financial decision he’d ever made and selling it was luckily too much of a hassle for Hunter to bother, so Wyatt took some vague consolation in knowing that the older thief would wind up dead sooner than homeless.
Hunter had previously offered him to move in together. It would have been cheaper, and Hunter’s apartment was almost ten times bigger than Wyatt’s. It was too large for most families, let alone a bachelor. There was enough space for all four of their gang to live comfortably. But nobody wanted to live with Hunter and risk their stuff being ‘borrowed’ and sold to pay off gambling debts. Nothing in Hunter’s apartment was safe. Probably not even if you screwed it in. Even the furniture materialized and vanished like mirages in the desert.
Very much like now, when Hunter opened the door for them and Ocher noticed an empty space where the shelves used to be. When they entered the living room, it turned out the couch was also different than the last time. Much shabbier, but at least there was one. Sometimes things went missing entirely. The huge empty living room with an antiquated TV set standing solitarily on two concrete blocks and a wooden board was a silent testament to Hunter’s sins.
Ocher pointed at the couch, “Err, what happened to the previous one? Didn’t you say just two weeks ago that it’s the comfiest one you’ve ever bought and that it’s staying here forever, this time for sure?”
“Uh.” Hunter grimaced. “Like I said, I was going to be late with my dues.” His empty hand went up to grip the fabric of his shirt. Under it, as Ocher knew, was an old circular burn. Old but still fresh in Hunter’s memories. Two Bits got it a couple of years back, just before they met, though Ocher wouldn’t find out about it until a year in. It was a mark branded on the late payers by the Citizens, a warning you only got twice. Anyone branded two times paid his dues on time or died trying. Or more precisely, disappeared and was never heard from again.
Hunter looked at him miserably and Ocher somewhat regretted asking. But hearing this was actually good for him. It was a solid reminder of the consequences of staying in the underworld for too long. Luckily, he was never going to be a thief as good as Hunter was. With his status as a master thief came a larger debt to the Citizens than small-time thieves owed. And since Hunter stole a lot of cash to fuel his gambling habit, and the Citizens had no way to keep track of that, his dues were not deducted from what he got from his fence. Instead it was a fixed amount that was picked from him personally by one of the Citizens’ collectors. And so on top of the hefty condo fees the older thief had another large sum to pay biweekly with a late payment penalty much more sinister than an eviction notice.
“Maybe later I will buy the old couch back from the guy next door,” Hunter said without conviction.
They walked through the equally desolate dining room and headed for the kitchen isle, where Hunter deposited the bag of assorted stolen shoppings on the counter and started taking stuff out of it. They both watched the groceries Two Bits was unpacking with the same bewilderment.
“What is this? A giant breadstick? A baked baseball bat?” Hunter regarded a baguette with a complete lack of familiarity. In his experience, bread came in either burger buns or fine square slices meant for the toaster. “And this is the longest toughest piece of sausage I have ever seen. And a cucumber the size of my arm. I’m gonna cut all this lengthwise and we can have two extra long sandwiches. How about that?” Hunter pulled out several bottles of beer and set them on the counter as well.
Ocher peeked at his watch sneakily. He was kind of in a hurry with another meeting right after this one, but he didn’t want to rush the other man. He rather liked hanging around Hunter. Even though the man was older than him and had never experienced a baguette, somehow he was the easiest to communicate with out of their small gang. The thought was still hard to reconcile with, but Ocher guessed they connected on that subconscious born loser level that Kat and Craig simply didn’t share.
“Huh, sounds good to me.” Ocher looked into the bag. “Any butter here?”
Hunter searched through the stolen items. “No, but I’ve got mayo in the fridge, so that should do. I’ve stolen a lifetime supply of our favorite one from that store down the street. Just walked away with a crate of the stuff when they were unloading the van, so treat yourself.”
Wyatt opened the fridge and beheld the landscape of shelves loaded with countless jars of mayo and a few bottles of beer. His own fridge was often kind of empty, but this was something else. Ocher had a hard time deciding whether he was impressed or horrified, so instead he focused on trying to figure out which jar of mayo was already open. It took him a while but he eventually succeeded and applied a thick layer on both of the baguette halves.
“You can also take some home if you wanna,” Hunter offered generously.
Ocher wanted to say no thanks, but in truth, he realized he could use a jar of mayo. Every buck saved mattered, it brought him a fraction closer to paying off his student loan and getting his life back under control. “Thanks, I will later.”
“Sure, take two or three if you like, those things will expire in like ten years or something.”
Hunter cut up the odd-looking powdered sausage and placed one long half on Ocher’s sandwich and one on his own. Then, he added the cucumber halves and they sat down at the rickety dining table. Hunter brought the end of his sandwich to his mouth and prepared to bite, but hesitated with his mouth open, looking mildly disturbed for a moment. Then he bit off and chewed thoughtfully.
“This sausage tastes weird,” he said. And then cleared his throat and downed half of his beer.
Ocher tried his sandwich. “Yeah, it’s weird. Kind of tastes like camembert,” he said with his mouth full.
Hunter choked on his next bite. He coughed once, twice and then croaked weakly but vehemently, “N-no it doesn’t! Why would you even say such a thing…?!”
Ocher looked at the other thief mildly alarmed, but when he saw Hunter was breathing again, he relaxed. “Um, well, because it kinda does…?” Hunter was still red on his face and teary-eyed from the near-choking so Ocher added, “You okay?”
“… yes.” Hunter gave him a traumatized look and turned away slowly, focusing back on his sandwich.
Ocher frowned. Who knew that although unfamiliar with baguettes, Hunter was apparently a connoisseur of cheeses?
They chatted idly. The abnormally long sandwiches dragged over the table and then slowly vanished into non-existence. Bottles of beer accumulated between them. Finally that was all that was left: empty bottles and crumbs. Hunter regarded this artistic installation for a moment and then quietly burped into his fist. He peeked into the bag of stolen goods and produced a packaged women’s nightgown. It was pink and decorated with lace. Hunter gave it a skeptical look. “Do you think Kat would like this?”
Kat was the only woman in their gang, and so far she’d managed to avoid Hunter’s advances with the skill of a dodgeball veteran. She didn’t wear pink. The only notably feminine aspect of the female thief aside from the makeup was her cleavage, that played an important part in many of their schemes involving any kind of distraction. And she was never too enthusiastic about that particular side of her participation in the group. Unlike the rest of them.
Ocher regarded the item of clothing for a moment. “Err, no, I don’t really think it’s her style.”
“Aw shucks,” Hunter said, looking at the package with disenchantment. “I can never tell with these things. I guess you’re right.” He put the nightgown aside.
After a while even though they both felt full and sleepy after the gigantic sandwiches and beers, they finally got down to practice. They should have probably trained first and drank beer later, but oh well. The lesson started. Two Bits wasn’t exactly dream teacher material and Ocher was pretty sure that was the only student the older thief ever had, but Hunter was trying hard and Ocher was grateful for it, because he wasn’t exactly dream student or thief material either.
Despite Hunter trying to hammer pickpocketing techniques into his head, Ocher’s go to modus operandi after two years was still running or strolling off with bags, backpacks and items that people left lying by them on the ground in parks, street cafés or crowded waiting spaces, or snatching something from the passengers on public transit and jumping out as the doors were already closing. He could always trust his feet to carry him, but he was scared of pickpocketing on his own or even together with the others. But that meant he still sucked. His team expected him to be reliable in all situations. Instead of spending hours looking for an opportunity to steal something like Ocher did, a good thief could spot an opportunity everywhere or even craft it. Besides, a good thief never got caught, and him getting caught was how Hunter first met him and saved his skin. Luckily that was the only time it happened so far, but in order for it to never happen again, he needed these lessons.
Today, Hunter gave him some time to hide and then was strolling through the many rooms of his apartment, first in headphones, listening to Ocher’s Walkman, then without them, pockets stuffed with various items, while Ocher’s task was to follow him without getting noticed and then run past him or bump into him, stealing what he could without arousing suspicion. Each time Hunter would grab him or ask an inconvenient question somebody in the streets could normally ask, Ocher was supposed to quickly come up with a believable excuse to defuse the situation. Luckily that part came relatively easy to him. He was good at making up quick excuses and still rather poor at pickpocketing.
Then it was Ocher’s turn to stuff his pockets with things. They’ve already covered the easy moves during the course of last year, so this time Hunter demonstrated several of the more complicated pickpocketing techniques, fishing all of the cash and items in a manner of seconds. After about two hours of practice at home, Two Bits and Ocher hit the streets to get some real life experience. Now that Ocher knew exactly what he was looking at, the older thief demonstrated some of those higher level maneuvers on live targets. For now, he didn’t ask Ocher to repeat them, just watch and learn and gather his haul into a burlap bag. <Ocher was kind of relieved by that, because half of the time he couldn’t see how Hunter coaxed cash out of someone’s back pocket, let alone notice which finger did what. He knew the theory of ‘winding it up’: the thumb provided leverage, the forefinger pushed up, against the pocket lining, then was used with the middle finger to pinch the cash. But for the life of him he could not repeat that without messing something up. So for now his job was to watch. Which he tried his best to do.
It was just about the time when everyone was leaving work, and Hunter waded through the crowds downtown filling his pockets without anyone ever turning their heads. Ocher was supposed to recognize the moves Hunter showed him back at the apartment but instead it was like watching a magician at work, which meant that most of the time Ocher didn’t even know what just happened. But as always, he was really impressed. Each time they boarded a tram or a bus, Hunter got out with a shopping bag or a wallet. He often told Ocher that the key to it all was the dark sunglasses, because when you wore them, people didn’t know where you were looking, and what you were thinking about — according to Hunter those were also the key to playing poker — but Ocher didn’t quite buy it.
Sunglasses could be a part of it, but Two Bits was just really, really good. He didn’t even finish elementary school, from what Ocher knew, but that only gave him more time to become great at something practical, which in Hunter’s case, was thieving. Hunter could probably lead a high life of a minor street king, so it was a wonder that aside from owning the apartment, he lived like a hobo and was looked down on by all the other thieves.
It all came down to poor money management. Ocher just hoped that Hunter would at least have enough common sense to always pay his dues and not get branded again. It was suspense-riddled last minute scrambling for money with him each single time.
“Okay, I think that’s enough for today,” Hunter said, as they sat on a bench in a small park with a whole bag of groceries and various items Hunter had acquired during their venture. Hunter moved his sunglasses up into his hair to scrutinize the items better. “Do you want any of these? The socks look nice.” He presented the bag’s contents to Ocher.
Ocher contemplated the socks. They did look nice. Seemed warm and cosy, probably perfect for autumn or just walking around the apartment without slippers. “Sure, I’ll have these.”
They spent a while in the park like that. It was pleasant to sit outside. On a sunny day like today with their dues paid and a bag of free stuff to browse, a thief’s life seemed almost carefree and something he could get used to. But that kind of outlook would be tunnel vision. The picture was a dangerous delusion. He had to remember about that, and aim to find his way out of this situation.
Hunter patted him on the back and assured him that he was a diligent apprentice — of course not in those words, because Hunter never learned those kind of words — and that he would teach him everything. And while Hunter reminded Ocher about going back to university every now and then, Ocher felt that Hunter wouldn’t mind if instead he stayed with their little gang forever.
The scraggy thief was sitting beside him, smiling as he pulled a Rubik’s Cube out of the bag marvelling at it with squinted eyes. He was blissfully unaware that in Ocher’s mind he’d long been made into a small shoulder devil that was trying to lead him astray. Hamsi on the other hand had been handed a role of his shoulder angel, trying to get him back on the right track. Ocher was kind of glad his shoulder devil and angel never met. While he slipped and mentioned the sisters to Hunter at some point, he would never ever tell his university friend about his criminal activities. Not because he was afraid she would tell the police, but because he would never hear the end of it from her and Abhilasha.
Ocher stared into space for a moment. He couldn’t end up like Hunter, a sad pushover criminal for life with no further aspirations. But currently he needed that extra money. It was only temporary. Half a year more and he’d be done with this. He fully intended to follow the voice of reason in the end, graduate and find a well paid job in his area of expertise like Hamsi did. Hamsi… Ocher looked at his cheap watch and cursed. He was actually almost late already. He got up from the bench.
“Uh, sorry Hunter, but I gotta get going.”
“Where are you going?”
“Places… I’m meeting some other friends.”
“Oh, okay… see you later Ocher!” Hunter sounded a little sad to see him go. Or maybe to hear that he had other friends and a life outside of this, though the latter wasn’t exactly true at the moment. “Remember we’re doing a thing with others next Friday.”
“Right. I’ll be there.”
“And you forgot your mayo from my place, man. But I guess there’s no hurry….”
“Yeah, I’ll pick it up next time. See you Hunter! And thanks for the lessons and the socks and stuff. We’ll be in touch.”
Luke trudged through the dark, habitually listening for the sound of footsteps and glancing toward the main street that he was walking parallel to. The sounds and lights of the busy street reached him, but not the wishes of the hurrying passersby. As long as he stayed vigilant, matters were going to stay that way. At least for a while. At least until the Citizens decided they needed him again.
Luke shuddered, both with foreboding and cold. He was hungry. Hopefully one of the dumpsters nearby could provide unwanted produce that wasn’t too spoiled. Even when he had a little cash on him, Luke usually found he couldn’t muster the courage to approach a street vendor, let alone a shop. His meals were very opportunistic and irregular as a result.
His stomach growled over the sound of the cars on the next street. But his destination was in sight. The dumpster next to the pizza restaurant stood closed with pizza boxes stacked neatly on top. Someone had been there before him. Luke’s step sped up without him realizing it. He tried hard to make his mind blank and not wish to find leftovers. He would just see. He had no wishes, no desires, no goals. Having those could kill him.
Luke anxiously gripped the first box. Too light, empty. He set it aside, and the next one, the third had a little something in it, judging by the rustling. Luke opened the box to find a piece of lukewarm pizza, tidy and untouched. He gave it a whiff, bit a piece off, decided it was safe to eat and gobbled it up. It was one of those funny ones with fruit in it. But he didn’t mind in the slightest.
The next box had a whole pizza in perfect condition. It had anchovies on it – possibly this was the reason it was left untouched by the person who pulled it out of the dumpster. Luke said his thanks to the heavens and began eating, all the while glancing cautiously to each side. As much as he would have appreciated it, he had to avoid company.
Ten minutes of vigorous chewing later Luke set to folding and wrapping up the remainder of the anchovy pizza in clean napkins. This could keep him well-fed for the rest of the night. He glanced again towards the main street. The sidewalk was maybe ten feet away, a little too close, but what could he do – this was where the dumpster stood. At least there were fewer people now that the rush hour was done. Luke found his eyes drifting over the neon signs and towards a large window filled with TV sets on the other side of the street. He tried to ignore those, but a familiar face caught his eye. He recognized the woman speaking to the reporter on TV, but he couldn’t tell from where. She looked sad and tired and spoke with emotion, but Luke had no idea about what until his face appeared on all the TV screens at once.
Luke dropped the wrapped pizza.
The image on the screens changed. Another photo of him, but this time the blond stubble was replaced by a lush intricately trimmed beard.
No. It wasn’t him. It was David Mance. And the woman was David Mance’s wife.
Luke’s blood ran cold as “have you seen this man?” appeared in capital letters on every screen. And then a promised reward of one million dollars for his safe return.
Luke stared at the screens in growing horror. The Mances were still looking for him. Worse even, they were looking for him nationwide. With a million dollar reward on his head he could have private investigators or maybe even bounty hunters looking for him now, not just criminals. And while finding him could fulfill their goals before they had a chance to come too close, their subsequent desire to bring him home to his family and receive the generous reward was bound to cause massive destruction.
In a panic, Luke snatched the fallen bundle of pizza, and forgetting all about his plan to tidy up the pizza boxes before leaving, he fled into the dark bystreets. Behind his back eight desperate Mrs Mances silently pleaded the world for the safe return of their husband.
“Mm, delicious.” Wyatt praised as he gorged on what was the first decent homemade meal he’d eaten since he visited the Rathi sisters some month back. Silence was dangerous, so he filled it with some words instantly, despite his mouth still being full of butter chicken. “These shpices are sho shpot on. Didsh you bring them from your trip back home? How’sh the family in India?”
“Thanks! As a matter of fact, I did. And the family is doing splendidly.” Hamsi smiled to him. At the same time though, she scrutinized Wyatt through her thick-rimmed glasses like through a magnifying glass. “How are your parents? Still in the dark about your… situation?”
“Yeah, still… trust me, they’re better off that way. Once I pick up studies, soon, they won’t even have to know. And they’re okay. The usual, you know. They’re always asking me how you two are doing.” He knew where this prelude was headed, and he wished coming here didn’t have to always go hand in hand with a veiled scolding session. But it was bound to, because Hamsi was one of the few people in this world who actually cared about him. He was grateful for that. Still, he tried to delay the inevitable. “So tell me more about the trip. How did you spend your time there?” Her and Abhilasha visited home every year, but it was still worth asking. “How did you survive the flight? It’s like sixteen hours, right? Can’t imagine being on a plane for so long.”
“It’s not just one plane, you get to stretch your legs. But I mostly slept. Abhi was reading. We traveled across the country, visited our distant cousins. Lots of big family dinners, that kind of thing.” Hamsi shrugged. “Oh, and I got you this.” She picked a small colorful package from a shelf nearby. Wyatt hadn’t even noticed it was there. The shelves in the sisters’ spacious apartment were cluttered with all sorts of fancy little trinkets and ornaments from India so it blended right in. Hamsi rested the small box in front of Wyatt. “I hope you still collect those.”
“Oh, thank you.” Wyatt set his now empty bowl aside – he knew Hamsi was not going to judge him for quickly scarfing down his meal while talking and not waiting for her to even start on hers — they’ve seen each other devouring food in a way less dignified manner back when they were both still students. Abhilasha meanwhile was always silently judging everything and everyone, as she was doing now, so he was used to that. People working in finance seemed to have that air about them.
He unpacked the gift, already knowing what it was going to be. He didn’t collect too many things. The hourglass was small but intricate, and clearly hand-crafted. Golden grains might have not been real sand, but they shimmered pleasantly in the electric light. He traced the ornate wooden frame with his fingers and smiled, “It’s beautiful. And I sure still do.”
“You’re welcome. I hope it inspires you. You can do it, Wyatt. You’ve got plenty of time, you can still fix things. I believe in you.” Hamsi smiled at him warmly. It was one of those radiant smiles that had once given Wyatt the courage to ask Hamsi out on a date. And then again, a few more times. In the end, they didn’t work out. But that romantic slow-motion trainwreck did nothing to unsettle their friendship.
“I know, I’m working on it. I’ve been preparing a whole lot. I’m going to apply again soon, I promise. And I’m going to pass those exams no problem this time.” Wyatt assured her. He repeated that promise over and over, when they met or talked on the phone, and he was starting to feel like he was just saying scripted lines. He wanted to mean it, to be genuine about attempting to start repairing his life and getting his education back on track. But it just eluded him. Man, when did it become this easy to promise something that wasn’t true?
Hamsi regarded him suspiciously for a moment, but clearly decided not to push it. Instead she looked down at Wyatt’s empty bowl, and then at his prominent cheekbones. “I think someone could use another helping.” She winked and picked up the bowl. “I’ll be right back.” She trotted away towards the kitchen.
Wyatt watched her go, lost in thoughts. The world was flashing a lot of red flags at him lately, like Hunter showing up on his doorstep, or his parents asking when they could come over, and if he could give them a tour around his workplace, or those monitoring systems starting to become more and more widespread across the city. He found it all mildly distressing and appreciated the potentially devastating consequences. And then proceeded to continue doing absolutely nothing about it.
He forgot that he wasn’t alone in the room. When he looked up, Abhilasha was piercing him with her dark, scolding eyes.
“She’s trying to coddle you, but I will not.” She said, her finely chiseled lips barely moving. “You cannot keep running from your responsibilities forever, Wyatt. It’s high time you woke up and got some things done.”
The rest of the meeting had gone without a hitch. After Hamsi came back, Abhilasha laid off his case, and he got to enjoy another meal and then swap some stories with the sisters. As much as he dreaded these meetings for the more or less gentle reminders that they carried, he usually emerged from them well fed and reinvigorated. Hamsi was always cheering him on, and even her older sister, despite her attitude, seemed to think he could still achieve something in his life, if only he put himself to it.
As he was walking back home, he heard a commotion in one of the bystreets. Never the courageous type, he sped up to quickly pass the exit to the alley, but morbid curiosity got the best of him, and he hastily glanced sideways as he trotted by. It was not a sight he expected. Two ladies were kicking a burly man, who was down on the asphalt in a leftover rain puddle. As soon as he was out of their view, Wyatt’s trot turned into a run.
He returned home late again, still fairly disturbed by what he’d seen, but definitely not planning to call the police, now or ever. He supposed that mugging would not make it to the crime column as well, because what manly guy was going to admit that he got beaten up by some ladies? Wyatt kicked off his shoes and passed all across the narrow apartment, reaching his bedroom, where he deposited his gift onto the nightstand, adding it to the collection of several other stolen, bought and gifted hourglasses. It was a weird thing to collect, he knew. Yet somehow it reassured him. Hamsi told him that he had time, but he always felt that he needed more of it and here it was, a lot of time standing right on his bedside table.
Anyway, that was still a lot less weird than his other jangling collection that rested well hidden from view in a shoebox of shame under his bed. A collection of keys was not something that he could easily explain to anyone. Especially since these were not the fancy kind of keys one could collect. Those were keys to people’s apartments and houses, cars, keys to their suitcases, to random padlocks around town, small simple keys and big ornate ones, solitary keys, bunches of keys on keychains, with and without labels, you name it. If it was a key, he probably had it in that box. As far as he could reach back with his memory, he always had stashes like that. He’d been gathering keys since childhood, but over the last few years the current stash had already grown way beyond what he could safely throw out into garbage without drawing suspicion. He’d never accumulated this many before. At this point he should probably be taking a few keys out with him each day and just dropping them in random places around town. That was a good idea but he never remembered to do it, so he just ended up bringing some more every month. Others in their little thief gang made fun of his very selective form of kleptomania. But to be honest, they laughed at him for a variety of reasons.
Wyatt got ready for sleep, grabbed his journal and a pen from the small desk, turned on the lamp above the bed and collapsed onto the mattress. He decided that the key situation called for a little reminder, and that was an excellent excuse to make good on his earlier promise to himself and scribble something in the journal again.
Friday, May 25th, 1984.
Been stuck in place for a while, but maybe it’s time to start searching for a way to get things done. Remember about the keys.
Yeah, that was probably good enough for the first entry in a long while and neutral enough not to worry in case someone read it. He sighed and shut the journal.
Days like this when he had a talk with both his shoulder devil and his shoulder angel left him really confused. If he wasn’t afraid that the journal could once be used against him, he would have long noted down that it’s funny that both their names started with an ‘H’. Hunter got the upper hand today with the thieving lessons, so Wyatt decided to bring things back into balance and reached for one of the textbooks lying on the floor next to the bed. He didn’t steal or buy these. He had to return them to the library very soon, because he wasn’t anywhere close to finishing any, but he couldn’t extend the due dates anymore. Of course, he would borrow them all again right after, because academic geology was not a very popular subject among the public library patrons.
Most of these books were from five years back or older. The ones he was supposed to read back then during his academic course. He had one new book about advances in petroleum geochemistry gifted to him by Hamsi for his birthday in April, but one of its authors shared a surname with him and that successfully discouraged Wyatt from ever wanting to open it. And so he studied another book. He read about organic and inorganic features of oil and gas reservoirs for a while, then skimmed through methods of oil dating and geochemical properties of oilfield waters. Carbon in sedimentary rocks was known to undergo isotopic fractionation with the heavy isotope C13 and the light isotope C12. Good for them. Dispersed organic rock matter could be categorized into insoluble and soluble in organic solvents the likes of chloroform, benzene, alcohol, and some others and the part that dissolved was called bitumen while the other one was kerogen. Yeah, nice, he even knew that already. Wyatt read up to the products of a temperature programmed pyrolysis, yawned, and called it a day. Almost seven pages, not so bad.
He turned off the lamp, then reached out and turned the new hourglass over, curling up, as he watched the trickling sand in the near-darkness of the ambient streetlight filtering in through the shabby curtains. When the grains stopped flowing, he flipped the hourglass again and kept on watching. It always soothed him for some reason.
As sleep overtook him, one last thought flashed in his mind. All in all, both the sisters and Hunter were right. He had to pull himself together, and until then, he had to be way more careful, and make sure he wouldn’t put his hand into the wrong pocket.