The little town of Broken Hearts in the mountains of Colorado looked very pretty. All of the lights were off, of course, and there were no cars parked along the side of Main Street. But the street and the sidewalks had been shoveled and salted. The trees that lined the street had been trimmed. Most of the windows of the shops and cafes and the bank weren’t just intact, they were clean and decorated for Christmas. The few windows that had been broken had been neatly replaced with large sheets of plywood. It looked like a charming, functional hamlet, and the man walking down the middle of Main didn’t know no one lived there at all.
From her perch in the mountains Birdie examined the man through her binoculars. Thin, nearly haggard. Pale. Despite the late winter cold he was shirtless, rubbing his arms with his hands. Unkempt red hair fell into his face, making it impossible to figure out age from this distance. He walked down Main Street slowly, staring straight ahead at the ground. His steps were wobbly, and every second he didn’t fall on his face Birdie was impressed. With horror, she realized he was barefoot.
The walkie-talkie next to her squawked. She let go of the binoculars with her left hand, and as she searched for the little radio she continued to watch the man.
“Birdie,” said the walkie-talkie, helping her find it. “You seeing this?”
She got it up to her mouth below the binoculars. “Yeah, I see him.”
“This dude is looking rough,” Nico said, almost sounding impressed.
Birdie grunted. “Too rough. No way he made it up the mountain like that. He’s got to be a pitypot.”
“Agreed,” Nico said. But they’d been on duty together too long for Birdie to miss the tone.
“You think we should go down there anyway,” she said.
“If he’s not a pitypot, he’s going to keel over from exposure before he even hits Grant.”
Birdie stared at the man harder, as though she could read his mind if she just drilled her eyes into his forehead. They’d seen this three times before, and none of the other decoys had ever looked as awful as this. They’d only fallen for the first one, and only because they hadn’t seen the play before. Stare at them long enough you’d spot a seam. Gun tucked in the waistband. Perfectly full face on someone claiming to be starving. The last one had been screaming as they came in, full throated screams no one in his condition should have been capable of making. And all of them had been fully clothed and booted. As she and Nico watched, this man tripped over nothing and barely caught himself before his face found the pavement. He sat up and stayed there, still rubbing his arms.
“Yeah, okay, fine,” she said. “I’ll get dressed and check it out.”
Someone with less confidence would probably balk at having to be bait. But Birdie knew that that’s just what the situation called for. You couldn’t solve every problem with guns and violence. Sometimes you just had to look weak and bat your eyelashes until you knew what’s what. Then you could start with the violence.
The wooden chest on the other side of the old fire watch tower was there for precisely this reason. Well, among a bunch of other reasons, anyway. She quickly switched out her heavy workman’s jacket for the long woman’s coat that cinched in the middle, and her thick gloves for the thin fingerless ones. For some reason they always fell for the fingerless gloves. Nobody was really wearing makeup anymore so there was no reason to put on a face, but she undid her crown braids and let her brown hair fall around her face and shoulders.
It was a quick path down the slope through the woods, and then she was darting down the side street like a rabbit. Eyes and ears open, but she only heard her own footsteps, and saw no prints in the snow. They only kept Main street clear for reasons just like this. As she let herself into the back of the music shop she could only hope no one had seen her.
As she leaned out the front door, she hoped whoever was out there was seeing her. The bells on the door chimed, and when she called to the man half a block away she tried to strike the right balance of pretending to be quiet without actually managing it.
“Hey. Hey, you.”
He was on his feet again but hadn’t gone very far from where he had been sitting. Birdie’s voice bounced off the buildings up the street, and his head darted from side to side, following, looking very much like he had gone mad. She had to give it up to this guy, he was doing a great job. Maybe he’d been an actor before everything had fallen apart.
“Down here,” she called. Still he didn’t seem to be getting it. He’d started wandering up the street again, away from her. Grumbling, Birdie left the music shop doorway, hustling after him. If there were others, they’d see her now. She stopped a few feet away from him and slowly circled around, not wanting to startle him.
“Hey, you shouldn’t be out here…all…holy shit.”
If the man had looked like a mess through the binoculars, he looked like a trash fire up close. His torso and arms were covered in bruises and what looked like cigarette burns. The tips of his fingers and toes were blue, as were his lips. He was dirty all over. Now she could see his face, and the look in his eyes wasn’t just confused. It was blank. Gone away and no one home.
For a full five seconds, Birdie believed the man wasn’t a pitypot and began unbuttoning her coat to put on his shoulders.
Birdie saw the guns first.