Anchored in Stone
It had been more than fifteen years now, so he guessed he could call himself a professional. A professional pickpocket.
He still had it. That thought. It slithered in as his hands sneaked out the object of interest from people’s pockets or bags or whatever. That thought. What would happen if he got caught?
He’d been caught. Of course he had been caught—everybody would get caught doing something if they did it long enough. And after that, if they continued, they might just get to be good enough at it that they wouldn’t get caught again. But if the punishment was terrifying enough, they’d either stop doing it all together, or they’d always have that thought. At least when doing a challenging job.
So, there he was—on a train, bumbling its way across the border. He was headed for Paris, France. He’d just finished a job there and had been on his way to Germany when he’d told to go back to Paris with the artifact still in his possession.
That thought nagged again.
The request was off. Somewhere, deep in the pit of his stomach, restlessness stirred.
So, maybe he should just stop thinking about it? Stop thinking about why the transfer was to be done in Paris and not in Germany as first agreed upon.
That thought. What would happen if he got caught with an incunabula worth seventeen thousand euros he’d just stolen not a hundred miles from his current location less than twenty-four hours earlier? Probably a lot more than when he’d been caught by the guy who’d sent him on the job in the first place. The guy who was the reason for that thought. The guy who knew how to punish an eleven-year-old pickpocket caught on the grounds of a traveling family fair.
Well, he and his dad hadn’t been traveling with the fair—they’d just followed a few of them all over the states and scammed and picked pockets and tried to keep away from anything resembling authority.
He didn’t think he had ever been so scared in his short life, and at that point, he had been pretty sure his life wasn’t going to be much longer than another twenty minutes.
He hadn’t thought about it in years, and yet his mind took him back.
Sixteen years earlier
It was big, it was white, and it was empty in a way I had never known. The room had one door, one chair, and one table, but it was spacious enough to hold at least ten more of each. I had been carried through the door blindfolded, planted on a chair, and handcuffed to the table. A hoodie-clad guy had pulled off the blindfold and left me there alone in that big, white, and empty room. My heaving breath echoed back to me.
At the age of eleven, fear is that creeping feeling triggered by that faceless thing that goes bump in the night. Or the monster under your bed that the other kids told you is called the Boogeyman. It’s that thing that makes you wait until you almost pee in your bed before you hurry to the bathroom in the dead of night. At this age, I didn’t even have a word for the feeling that this big, empty room breathing back at me caused. I do now. Terror-stricken.
Whether it was the vastness of the room’s size or all the white that sucked up time, I cannot say, but to this day I still have no idea how long I sat there alone. I do, however, remember the deafening thud of the door as it was pushed open with enough force for the handle to make a permanent indentation in the wall.
Three men entered—one of them being the guy who’d left me there. He still didn’t say anything, and he still didn’t look like he intended to anytime soon.
I studied and weighed them. It was something I’d taught myself over the years as my dad and I had sought out the next sucker to pay for our next meal or Dad’s next drink. I would categorize the targets on a scale from one to ten, which ranged them from gullible to cop. No need to mention that once we got close to cop, I’d start to look around for another sucker. But here was a whole new kind of number ten. Dad had told me about what we had to stay alerted for—cops and bouncers were our usual ten. He’d mentioned another ten once. He’d mumbled it as I pulled him from a pile of trash, and he smelled of vomit and blood.
“If you ever have to run in your life, son, then run faster from the ones you owe money than anyone else.”
When reaching adulthood and having to stand on your own two feet, it’s nice to have a collection of wise words from your old man and…this is what I got. Oh yeah, and my favorite.
“Never trust anyone who can profit from stabbing you in the back.” Good advice, actually. I learned the gravity of this one at a young age, and it began with this whole new kind of ten standing in front of me.
He was about as big as the door, crewcut closely enough to almost look bald, and he wore a suit. Gray and shiny and clean. The other two wore jeans and hoodies. They were neither shiny nor clean, so they were there to do Shiny’s dirty work, I guessed.
“Listen up, you little shit,” Shiny said as he leaned forward and looked me in the eye. I feared him from that moment on. “You better still have that coin you lifted from my pocket or may whatever God who has just a second to show mercy give you all of his fucking attention. Where is it?”
“I don’t have it.” It hadn’t occurred to me that I should probably have chosen my words more carefully, but I caught on quickly. I had only met a few fuck-ups until that point who were nasty enough to grab me hard by the arm. This guy didn’t stop at that. He swung his hand, and the room sailed and my ear sang. His hand must have covered half my face because that was how much felt like it was on fire. He hit a lot harder than my dad.
“Let’s try that again,” he said calmly, while I fought my stinging eyes.
“I can get it back,” I said.
“Very good, Kiddo, now we’re getting somewhere.” He stared at me for a long time. He leaned over me and whispered into my ear. “I really hate kids. You never learn. Or you think you’ll get away with anything. But I’ll make sure you remember me.”
He stood up with a sadistic smile. I had no doubt that he was telling the truth because at that moment I was sitting on the evidence that he was one nasty piece of work. Shiny smiled, pulled out his jacket and reached in. His face froze, and he began searching his pockets methodically. Finally he stopped and stared at me wide-eyed. “You dirty little thief! You picked my pockets while handcuffed to a table?”
I raised my hands. I was going for the all-innocent expression, but let’s face it—growing up in my family, I didn’t have a whole lot of innocence left, and certainly not enough to fool those old cons.
The guy’s brown eyes twinkled in amusement, and he nodded at one of the others. The other guy lifted me from the chair. I winced as the steel kept my hands by the table even though my body was hanging midair. And there, on the seat of the chair, were the pliers I’d just lifted from his inside pocket while he’d been whispering in my ear.
“Sit him down, no one do anything. I think we might have a winner here.”
Shiny left the room and returned with an elderly guy in a suit as nice and clean as his own, but the jacket strained around the midsection of the aging man. I’d seen him a few days earlier in town as I ran an errand for my dad. He’d gotten out of a limo along with two young men and three young women. They’d called him Mr. Henry.
Mr. Henry came over, smiling, as if he was excited to be shown something. “Can you do that again?” The old man studied me a beat, then chuckled and leaned over me. “Do that again, and I’ll let you go,” he whispered. For a second, I thought I’d better keep my hands to myself, but that was like telling a cat not to drink the cream placed in front of it. I simply couldn’t help myself even though my mind had begun to feed me images of what Shiny had planned for the pliers and my grubby little fingers.
Mr. Henry stood up and went through his pockets. He smiled, held out his bare hands, and turned around for all to see. No one seemed to get it, though, so everyone looked at me, including the smiling Mr. Henry.
I held up a key—a big, old one with a piece of red string attached. The other hand I tried to keep out of sight, as his watch was too big to be covered completely by my hand.
“Very good, my boy:” Mr. Henry reached out. By doing so, his sleeve slid back. He froze and stared at his arm. I held up the watch. A big smile broke the stunned expression. “Excellent!”
He took the key and his watch, checked his pockets again, apparently finding that he still had everything else, and left with Shiny.
Shiny came back a few minutes later. His expression had changed. “If you ever steal from me again, I don’t care what Mr. Henry says, I’ll cut off all your little fingers and have you watch as I feed them to my snake, Thelma. Do you hear me?” I nodded vigorously. “We’re going to go and retrieve my coin now. If you try to escape or in any way double-cross me, I will spend every waking moment hunting you down. And when I find you, I’ll feed all of you to Thelma…while you are alive. Understood?”
I nodded even more vigorously, trying not to picture just how big that snake could be. And I failed miserably.
The fairgrounds hadn’t changed, but it still seemed different. It had nothing to do with the late hour because that was when I made the biggest part of my day’s earnings. My targets were tired parents with kids hyped up on too much sugar and too many impressions. Their brains were short-circuiting and overloading at the same time and parents were just shutting down. The wallets might not be brimming with cash anymore, but their owners were less vigilant.
It was also a perfect time to scam them. The old I can’t find my dad, what if he forgot me here hysteria really got to people—and to my throat, which would be hurting for at least one day from all that screaming. I was very good at playing the lost kid because my dad really had forgotten me. And more than just once. At that hour of the day, I never knew whether he’d stumbled to a bar or talked up someone with access to beer, so my panic could either be very real that day without knowing it yet.
Sometimes he even ran into a card player and went along for a game. That was dangerous because he didn’t have the sense to see that the more he drank, the less he could play. He found courage and self-confidence at the bottom of a bottle, and it never occurred to him that since he couldn’t spot the sucker at the table, it meant that he was the sucker. He could lose a whole day’s worth of earnings in just a few hours, so I’d learned to keep some money in my shoes, since he would rummage through all my pockets.
The coin that Shiny had lost had been in a little leather bag of sorts. I’d thought it to be a nifty change-purse, so I’d just handed it to my dad along with the two wallets and an envelope marked fair money full of bills. Dad had fished out the gold coin, looked at it puzzled, shrugged, and pocketed the thing. But I had stared wide-eyed at the coin. It was bigger than a silver dollar, and it looked old.
“So, where is he?” Shiny, who had introduced himself as Pritchard, asked. I looked around and had a short mental image flash by of that snake of his. I had no idea what it looked like, but I’d once seen this huge, yellow snake that definitely looked as if it could fit me in its belly.
I swallowed nervously and tried for a smile. I quickly thought better of it. This guy had already proven that he would rather smack me than smile at me.
“We usually meet up around here for the going home traffic. But he might be at a bar…” The terrible thought of Dad at a card table, throwing the coin in the pot, crossed my mind.
Pritchard must have seen it on my face because he grabbed me by the shoulders and stared at me. “What was that look?”
“He likes to drink.”
“Fuck!” Pritchard pushed me away, and I tripped over a tent rope. He stood there for a while, looking up into the sky. He looked like a man fighting to stay in control of his temper. “Do you have a picture of your father?” Judging by his tone, he’d definitely found his self-control.
My throat tightened. I’d hoped we could get this over with without having to involve my dad. I’d hoped that I could sneak in there, pick my dad’s pocket, and later encourage him to get so drunk that he’d forget how he’d lost the damn thing. But if Pritchard talked with Dad, I would really end up in trouble. All I had to choose between now was a belting or a big snake.
“I can find him. I can get back the coin,” I said, staying on the ground.
Pritchard looked at me as if he didn’t believe me. “What? You think your dad is stupid enough to just give you the coin if you ask for it? Who in the world would be stupid enough not to recognize that it’s an extremely valuable artifact?”
“My dad.” I hated myself for saying it. Pritchard looked puzzled. “He’s dumb enough. And I won’t ask him for the coin. I’ll lift it from his pockets. He’ll never have to know.”
Pritchard looked baffled, almost in awe. But it was so fleeting that if I’d blinked at the wrong second, I’d have missed it.
“Okay, give me the picture of your father. We’ll help you look. When we find him, we point him out to you, and you go work your magic.”
“Can’t I just…”
“No! I’ll let you skimp it so that he’ll never be the wiser. Now get me that damn photo.”
I got to my feet, brushed off my clothes, and made my way to the place we’d hidden our backpacks. I sat and rummaged through the front pocket and found a tatty old photograph of me at age three, my mom, and my dad. I held it close and looked at Pritchard.
“Please give it back afterward. It’s the only one I have of my mom.”
“Boohoo. Do good, and you’ll get it back.” Pritchard snatched the photo from my fingers and looking it over. “Circle this picture among the boys. Find that guy and give me the picture back.” Pritchard handed it to one of the hoodie-clad guys behind him. He then hauled me to my feet by the neck of my sweater, yet he paused and checked his pockets, glancing suspiciously at me when he found nothing missing.
I think this guy took me for a lot more stupid than I’d first thought. I didn’t know whether to take it as a compliment of my ability to play the sucker-kid that no one would suspect of being a pickpocket, or if my pride had really been hurt since the guy had seen just how good I actually was.
“Follow me.” Pritchard waved me to walk along for a while among the stands of the closing marketplace. Pritchard knew how to keep an eye out for details so discreetly that I only noticed because it was a set of skills I was still honing. Suddenly he stopped, turned me to face him, and for the first time really took in the person that was me. He didn’t seem pleased.
“Stay right here!” He walked off, still keeping an eye on me. A few stands away, he rummaged through a stack of clothes on a table, threw some money at the woman—who bitched about him messing up the neatly stacked and folded clothes—and returned to me. “Take off those rags and put this on. A dirty little riffraff sticks out like a sore thumb walking next to me.”
He was right, I guessed. Walking next to my dad, we never stuck out as anything but riffraffs. Adults had sometimes bought me an ice cream when they noticed the way I looked at their kids eating one. I looked at my old shirt and thought of how many times I’d tried to wash out this or that particular stain. I looked at the new shirt, and it was nice. Pritchard grabbed me by the arm and steered me in between two stands where I had privacy to change. New jeans and a new shirt.
“We’ll do something about the shoes later,” Pritchard muttered and threw my old clothes in the nearest trashcan, while I thought about the word later. He was one strange guy. First, he tells me that he hates children, then he buys me clothes and even considers me far enough into his immediate future to think about my shoes?
Tough guy who is really a soft ice. I smiled to myself as I pictured a world of candy goons and what kind of candy they would be to fit their personalities. My dad would be a beer nut, and Mr. Henry would be salty liquorice and the goons in hoodies would be marshmallows.
And just as I thought that train of thought was getting funny enough to giggle at, I saw my dad exiting a bar on the other side of the street with rough-handed assistance. He yelled something and made fists. I had heard it all too many times before. He had too much to drink and was now ten feet tall with the most interesting version of shoulda, woulda, coulda in the world.
“There he is. On the other side of the street, I’ll go get it. He’s so drunk he’ll need my help to stand straight, anyways. No trouble lifting it now.” I looked at Pritchard, who looked at my dad with a disgusted expression.
“The drunken sailor over there is your dad?”
“Yeah.” I looked at my dad, trying for the first time ever to see what other people saw. I didn’t like what I saw, but he was my dad. He was all I had.
“Okay, go on,” Pritchard said.
I ran and made it to my dad’s side. “Dad?”
“There you are. Where the hell did you go? I’ve been looking for you for ages!” Dad grabbed my arm. “You got any money? Did you eat?” He patted my pockets. “Did you spend our money buying new clothes?”
“Yeah, no, I mean,” I began, trying to get closer to him.
Dad stopped and looked down at me with his blurry vision. “What’s wrong, Alex?”
“Dad,” I whispered as I tried to remember if I’d missed a pocket. He turned and looked at me, but before he could ask me another question, two hoodies grabbed him and dragged him into the next alley. My protests were drowned out by the sudden pain in my lower arm as someone grabbed me tight and dragged me off in that same direction.
Pritchard let go of my arm, but the pain didn’t stop. I fell to my knees, holding my arm.
“Where is the coin your son gave you earlier?”
“Fuck you!” My dad spat. Pritchard looked at a hoodie, and the guy punched my dad in the gut hard enough to lift him off his feet. He made a strange sound and huddled on the ground, holding his stomach.
“Your son lifted a purse from my pocket earlier today and among other things was a gold coin. Where is it?”
“Important one, was it?”
I cringed at my dad’s drunken stupidity. Another blow landed on my dad. By the sound of it, that one landed on his face. I kept my eyes on the ground.
“Tell me where it is, or I’ll make sure your hands will never be able to hold even an empty bottle again.”
“How about you give me fifty bucks, and I’ll tell you.”
“How about I let your son keep his chubby, little, sticky fingers in return for you telling me?”
I once again saw that big yellow snake before my eyes.
“Come on, you don’t hurt kids! Have you no principles?”
“Yes, Mr. Riffraff, I have principles, and one of them is to not waste too much time on the likes of you. So, tell me where you put the coin, and I will let your son keep his fingers.”
A silence hung over our heads, and I swear that I could hear my heart beat. And feel it in my arm.
“I lost it in a poker game in there,” my dad finally said
For what seemed like minutes, I couldn’t hear my heart at all. Then I heard a dull thud, my dad’s muffled moan, and the sound like a sack of spuds hitting the ground. I looked up, gasping, and saw my dad trying to get up. His face was all bloody.
“Who won the coin? Is he still in there?” Pritchard asked
“No, he left. Hours ago,” my dad mumbled.
“Hope you got a good bet in for it, because that coin is worth almost four hundred thousand dollars!” Pritchard snarled. My dad quit moaning and stared at him wide-eyed, then he groaned a different kind of pain—the noise he usually made when he found out he was the one who had been suckered. “Still no identity on the guy you lost it to?” Pritchard asked. My dad looked at me, blood oozing from his mouth. He shook his head. “Pity.” Pritchard walked over to me. I yelped and curled into a ball in an attempt to shield my arm. Pritchard grabbed me by my hair and stood me up.
“No, wait!” my dad yelled.
“You owe me four hundred thousand dollars now. How do you suggest we settle that little score?”
“I don’t know! I don’t have anything!” my dad cried.
“You have this little one. How about I take him as collateral?”
I stared at my dad, still sitting on his knees looking helpless. I don’t know what reaction I’d expected from him. I don’t even think I had an idea of what was going on, but everything in me still froze as I saw my dad nod his head. I looked up at Pritchard, straining to turn my head to see his face, not caring that I was ripping out hair follicles to do so. He looked pleased.
“So what, you find four hundred thousand dollars for your son?” Pritchard asked.
My dad looked up in shock. “I can’t get that kind of money.”
“Yeah, I know.” Pritchard sighed in annoyance. “Plus, I don’t trust you. I don’t like you, either. I don’t think highly enough of you to think that you won’t just bail, since your son only has ten fingers, two ears and so on. You’ll never be smart enough to cover this, will you?” My dad just sat there and shook his head. “So, what…I buy your son for that price, and you’re free and clear?”
“You’d do that?” my dad asked. He looked hopeful before his dazed mind had the time to remind him that a father was supposed to fight for his child and definitely not sell him to the highest bidding gangster that came along.
My heart dropped. From that point on, the sorry slob, sitting there blowing bubbles in his blood, looked revolting to me.
Pritchard took a step toward my dad and reached out his hand. “Shake on it.”
My dad raised his hand, but he took a moment to look me in the eyes before he looked away in shame and sealed the deal that made me a four hundred thousand dollar payoff for a bad pick. Pritchard shook my dad’s hand, then wiped his own with a handkerchief.
“Bring the boy.” Pritchard turned and left the alley. A hoodie came toward me and picked me up. I tried not to struggle so that my arm wouldn’t get hurt more.
Shortly after, a limousine picked us up.
Pritchard sat in silence and stared out the window.
I sat opposite him, thinking about the look in my dad’s eyes as he’d been offered the huge bailout. He’d looked…relieved to be rid of me.
“We better stop and do some shopping on our way home. You need more clothes. And shoes,” Pritchard said without looking at me.
“Can we stop by a doctor? I think my arm is broken.”
Pritchard looked at me. For a second, he looked concerned. “Fine.” Pritchard reached into his inner pocket and pulled out the tatty photograph of my parents and handed it to me. “We’ll stop by the hospital first.”
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