By Reb MacRath
Copyright 2012 Reb MacRath
The short sections set in Canada are based on real events. The rest of the story is true.
1. THE ROAD GANG
Black didn't come any better than this. The sky looked as crisp as a new satin sheet in one of those sexy hotels. The stars seemed to be shy about something, while wisps of silver obscured the wan sliver of moon. What a night!
It was the sort of Christmas Eve the pickpockets could warm to. They stood randomly spread on the platform of Atlanta's Amtrak station, careful to keep from each other for now. A few of the overhead light bulbs had blown. And the gang felt at home in the shadows, taking a moment to savor the sky. New to the city, some had never worked a train before. But at their first glimpse of the station's cracked glass and crumbling brick, their seven heartbeats quickened.
The South was old and tired and beat. A perfect little lady, to play with as they pleased. They planned to play with her, all right. For they stood with the best of the road gangs—traveling thieves who planned their scores from coast to coast and worked as one. This year, 1999, had been their flushest yet. And, high from the Hilton conventions they'd cleaned, they'd decided to try something new: different names.
Their leader, a craggy-faced, silver-haired man wearing a black leather duster, shot a long sweeping glance down the platform. One by one they caught the look. And so, as--
Hell, as gods they boarded, itching to score.
All the right sounds had started to signal that the train would leave on time:
The whistle blew. A baritone piped 'All aboard!'...cleared his throat...then boomed the phrase. Suitcases thumped on the corridor walls. A couple, in passing, rehearsed a duet: 'But I think it's your turn.' 'No, your turn.' 'No, yours.' Scattered catcalls followed: 'Move it!' 'Where's the power?' 'Lights!' Down the hall a calm voice urged them, 'Right this way, folks, this way. Your rooms are all in order.' And now the diesel engine thrummed.
The seven thieves had gathered in a cabin made to seat, comfortably, four. For this short meeting, the space would do fine. In one corner hung a broken bell made of silver plastic, a Christmas card beneath it reading: XXXOOOXXX MILLENNIUM! They'd decided to keep this odd note of good cheer.
Only the tall man had taken a seat, a small black trunk beside him. He'd removed his black leather duster and wore one of the twelve suits he'd had custom-made: a streamlined, chalk-striped charcoal gray. A regal purple and gold kerchief spilled from the breast pocket. The outfit became the group's leader, or steer, who orchestrated every hit.
Jove, he thought. Get used to it. That ought to be easy enough, don't you think. You're six-foot-four, you weigh two-ten, and you're right at the top of the heap. You can't even remember the last time you lost a woman, a score or a fight. You're Number One by any name: your own or White or Sunday. Just be your usual powerful, rough, All-American—jovial self.
Jove slipped his gold pocket watch from his vest. He checked the time—6:54—and, with an approving nod, eased the watch back into place. He stroked his trimmed silver beard once for luck, then rested his palms on his knees. His hands were large and well tended. Either one could pick the deepest pocket in a blink. He surveyed the troupe crowded into his compartment, getting their new handles straight in his brain:
The old man to his left wouldn't go by Brown this time. Tonight his mentor, and their stall—lookout and source of distraction—would be known as Janus. This had taken a little hard-selling by Jove, who'd forgotten the god had two faces. ('You calling me two-faced? A doorman?' 'No, I'm saying you're so quick, so sly, folks'll think you've got two faces. Why? Because nothing gets past you. Babe, you rule the night. Doorman? You're the god of doors!')
Janus seemed to be warming a bit to the name. It sounded far better than Tweedy, the nickname his worn suit had earned him. He was still whip-quick upstairs, forget the mop of straw-white hair, the thick glasses and shaggy mustache. But his spotted hands shook on his cane's ivory top. Janus needed one more shot—and this time up the dosage—or those arthritic fingers might do them all in.
Next left stood Mercury. (Use it twice, Jove: Mercury!) The young runner was—mercurial: light-fingered and wing-footed enough to split with the wallets, or pokes, the thieves bagged before the marks knew they were missing. And heart? Merc had enough for all of them. He could listen by the hour to Janus's argot-filled ramblings. They were all practicing catholics—skilled, dependable thieves. Those who bagged the pokes were tools. A priest was a buck...a farmer, a Hoosier...a working stiff, a slave. And one day he'd be a class cannon himself—a master pickpocket like Jove. Merc, five-four with insoles, crossed his arms just underneath his sweatshirt's BAD BOY logo. His spiked chestnut hair seemed to bristle.
By Jove, Jove thought, I like this. All right, Merc, I've gotcha. Next!
Mars wouldn't be hard to remember for the giant who half-filled the window. Instead of enforcer, just think: god of war. Muscles, muscles, everywhere—including some between his ears. At heart, the big lug was an overgrown kid. But there were two buttons that might set him off without Jove nearby to control him. First, Mars' devotion—a good, noble thing—could grow insanely intense. If some young woman failed to want Jove or some guy, maybe, gave Jove a wrong kind of look...Bad enough. But button two? When those lips of his slipped and Mars lisped—duck. A single S, from fifteen feet, could put out a candle. And God help anyone who laughed.
You'd never know it to look at him now, massive hands stuck in his pockets. To soften the bulk of his shoulders and arms, he wore a loose shirt of plaid flannel. Suspenders lent a folksy touch. And his features were blandly appealing, with strips of skin above his ears. But Mars stood thinking till it hurt of Waterfall, a spell from Jove: a dream picture of nurturing S's that loved and did not mock him.
Vulcan stood at Mars' left. An ex-arsonist who still carried a torch for that work, Vulcan alone made Jove's skin crawl. He'd begged, like a child, to be god of fire. But now the troupe's class cannon found himself seeing a vulture rather than a point man: the one who took the pokes from Merc, picked them clean, then scrapped them. Jove willed himself to think of fire. To think of that waved amber hair as gold flame. To see those pale gray eyes as coals on that gaunt, pitted mug. It also helped Jove to remember the freak's redeeming virtue: He'd die before skimming a poke.
Vulcan stood at his ease in a gray sharkskin suit. As he waited he toyed with his lighter: a king-size Zippo, buffed to a dazzling gloss. It had a button on one side he always kept his thumb near. They all wondered about Vulcan's lighter. But not even Jove had ever asked him what the black button was for. They guessed they knew; they feared they did.
Jove turned his gaze to a more pleasing sight.
Ah, there she stood, fabulous Venus. She was one of the road gang's two tools for the night—those charged with the actual dipping. Discreetly turned from Vulcan, and safe from all curious eyes on the train, she stripped off her white ski suit. Venus never showed her stuff until the time to strike, for she had the sort of heart-stop looks that tend to get too-noticed.
She unwrapped the black scarf that had half-draped her face. Finally, she offed her shades and gave her long blonde mane a shake. Her cheeks were flushed, less from the cold than from anticipation. She grinned at blushing Mercury, the only man in the room she hadn't spent a night with. Some day if he cared less, she might. But till then...She turned her pale blue eyes to Jove and blew on the tips of her fingers.
Oh yes, Jove remembered those fingers. That night.
Last up: Cupid, who held one sloe eye fast on her. She was okay as a tool, he'd admit—okay being high praise from Cupid. Yet he never missed a chance of pointing out her flaws. Her nose was unremarkable, if you really studied it. Her mouth, without her bag of tricks, was—out with it—crude, really...wanton. Low class. And that curvy bod Mercury pined for wouldn't last long with the garbage she ate: tacos, Twinkies, Oreos!
Still, high time to partner up. So he slipped out of his black coat and gloves, ditched the scarf, removed the shades. His hair was pure jet; his complexion was perfect; he worked out for three hours a day. Ruffling his curls, he regarded Jove warmly.
And Jove met the glance, always careful to give this young man equal time. Until their one-sided rivalry blew, Cupid and Venus still made a crack team.
The time was now 6:56.
The whistle blew, then blew again. The power hummed beneath their feet. And they all felt it humming within them.
Jove smiled wolfishly. “All right, kids, it's choo-choo time. This isn't the Hilton. This isn't Grand Central. We've all got to give up our kissers, and the right way to do that's to be bold as day. A train's got personality. A train's jam-packed with characters. Be one and you'll fit right in. There ain't no fix on this one.”
No fix, indeed. The thieves all knew they had no safety net tonight, no one to bail them out.
So Jove gave them the news they all tingled to hear: “Happy Hour's on for eleven.”
A small cheer rippled round the room. Everyone loved Happy Hour. That was when they could cut loose, after playing by the rules.
Jove looked swiftly at each face. Now only one matter of business remained: his risky deal with Janus.
“And tonight, at eleven, we're all in,” he said.
3. JANUS FLIPS THE BELL THE BIRD
“Him?” Vulcan pointed at Janus. The old duffer was actually going to dip? Hell, he could hardly hold that cane!
Jove's finger flew like lightning, aimed at Vulcan's forehead.
The ex-torch flinched, but did not blink. His thumb twitched at that button for seconds before the tension faded. Jove turned his glance to Janus then.
“You absolutely sure?”
“Damn sure!” The older thief rapped his cane twice on the floor. And behind those thick lenses his eyes were quite clear. He'd decided to retire tomorrow and wouldn't check out as a doorman—well, pardon the hell out of him, god of doors. He'd do that till Happy Hour—then one last chance to work again. “I've got the stuff. Anyone doubt me?” He jabbed one finger at the bell. “You think my time has passed me? Think I'm spooked by a year with three zeros?”
Nobody answered him or met his eyes. So Janus rapped the floor again.
“I was dippin' when some of you bums were in diapers!” His spotted left hand reached to Jove then, half steady and wholly defiant. “You know I can, son. Try me.”
A test had been Jove's one condition. His eyes were stern. “You got that right. Gather 'round me, children. Happy Snappy Time's arrived.”
They crowded closer, tense but high, all eyes on that small black trunk, whose silver hasps began to gleam.
“Don't look so glum,” Jove said. “Who knows, maybe we'll survive this. We're the good guys, aren't we?”
4. THE TALL THIN MAN
Signals flashed from car to car. And brains scrambled to interpret them according to the book. Hands and feet were propelled into motion, flicking switches, taking steps to change the train into a sleek silver streak. On the platform, porters' breaths came in agitated little clouds that rose as if hailing the darkness.
The men began pulling the steps up. They were almost finished when a tall thin man with an envelope between his teeth came scrambling onto the platform. He had a fugitive look in his eyes, as if there were dogs at his heels. Big dogs. In his right hand he carried a suit bag; in his left, a takeout bag from Colosseum Deli. And over his right shoulder hung a dirty canvas satchel.
As he neared, they could make out a scar on one cheek; and it seemed right at home there. This guy might have come from a chain gang, or worse. Though he was good-looking enough in his way, his features looked haunted and hardened. He wore a torn denim jacket, faded black T-shirt and knee-patched black jeans. The striped sneakers were the only things about him that didn't look whipped.
He moved in a half-halting, half-running gait, as if his feet didn't quite know which was which. Or maybe he just had one hell of a limp. He held his gear up protectively high. The figure he cut seemed at once absurd, alarming and pathetic.
Horace, an elderly ported in no particular hurry, waited till the spook arrived with just enough wind left to wheeze. Not a chance of a tip here but, Jesus, this guy needed a place for the night. To his surprise, the envelope held a one-way First Class ticket—and five hundred dollar bills. A desperate, raspy-edged whisper informed Horace what they were for.
“Ho, ho, ho,” he said. “No sweat. Mister Donofrio—sir!” He replaced the cashless envelope back in the gentleman's teeth.
The whistle blew. They boarded now. At the top step, though, the porter felt his neck hairs start to bristle. He turned them to see what was what and looked up.
And as he did he whispered, “Ahhh!”
5. PALINDROME FEVER
In a show lasting twenty-six seconds, a comet streaked across the sky and showered silver sparks. And at random through the train the queerest things occurred. The heavens might have been playing a game for their own amusement...or just joking in their own language.
A man's laptop went stark raving bonkers. On its silver screen palindromes blinkered as fast as the letters could form:
RUFFLED ELF FUR
DOG DOO? GOOD GOD!
WE PANIC IN A PEW
ED, I SAW HARPO MARX RAM OPRAH W ASIDE
MA, I AM A MAN, I AM
NOW, SIR, A WAR IS WON
A MAN, A PLAN, A CANAL: PANAMA!
WON'T LOVERS REVOLT NOW?
SNUG & RAW WAS I ERE I SAW WAR & GUNS
In an aisle, two passing strangers stopped and turned to greet each other. 'MADAM, I'M ADAM,” he told her. The woman curtsied, answering, “SIR, I'M IRIS.”
A cook in the kitchen looked up from his salad. He shivered as if in a seizure and sang, 'ANA, NAB A BANANA!”
An executive eyed his reflection and sighed, “IS SO BAD A BOSS I?”
A husband stopped a porter, pointing to his wife: “RE HYPOCRISY: AS I SAY, SIR, COPY HER.”
A suitcase fell, clipping a game board. The wooden tiles flurried, then landed in this palindrome: O DESIRE, RISE, DO!
The train shuddered once intensely. And when the strange fit ended, no one looked as if they'd seen or said an unusual thing. But here and there curious cravings for order remained: A Windsor knot was redone twice; a lock of hair, restraightened; a baby, shifted on a knee; a student's eraser, worn down to the nub.
Then, with a whistle and a sigh, the train began to roll.