Could this lovely old factory, so full of character and charm, really be the same squat, ugly thing Vinnie had walked into for the first time only weeks before? Back then it had loomed above him, like it might fall over and eat him. Today, covered in sunshine and floating in summer heat, it had become a welcoming gentle place, advertising good things. Gentle clouds drifted by above, and birds swooped around the roof. Yes, they were scrawing seagulls instead of chirping blue birds. Yes, one of them almost shit on him. But Vinnie still took them as a good omen.
It had been three weeks since he had first come here, and two and a half weeks since the first payout. The others had taken their envelopes, glanced inside and flipped through the bills quickly to make sure it was all there, and then had put the envelopes away. Their demeanor had been happy, but professional. Vinnie had tried to follow their lead. When Joey handed him the envelope, and it was fatter and heavier than he had thought possible, he had forced his face to stay neutral. As he had opened the envelope, and found that the bills inside were not twenties as he had expected, but hundreds, he had choked back a strangling sound and played it off as a cough. He had only pretended to count, knowing that if he started dealing with numbers any higher than a thousand he was liable to black out. Whatever the amount was, it was surely more than he had expected.
Vinnie had counted when he’d gotten back to his apartment. He’d screamed so loud his neighbor had banged on the paper-thin walls and his landlord had stomped up the stairs. At least he calmed down once Vinnie gave him rent. He’d been afraid of bringing the money to the bank, and afraid of leaving it in his terrible apartment. If there was another job, he told himself, he was moving somewhere nicer. Not too expensive. Just a place without bars on the windows or jiggly locks or drug deals going down in the lobby. He’d put the rest of the money in a frozen TV dinner box and put it back under the three others he had. And then took one out to eat.
It wasn’t quite what he wanted. He had been promised people like him. People who would understand, who would know. It turned out a large amount of money could be enough to take the sting off isolation. And even if he was still alone, he wasn’t exactly isolated.
Duane had invited him out for drinks with the others that day they got their money. They’d all been out together five times since then. Mostly to bars, but once to a loud dance club with lots of flashing lights. He didn’t remember much of that night and had woken up the next morning in the middle of the fountain in Great Dawn Park wearing swim trunks and floaties. Hannah had taken him for coffee. He and Verna had the same taste in movies. The only one he hadn’t seen since was Maggie.
There was some kind of animosity between the rest of them and her. He’d only asked about her once, that first night after they got their payment. They were sitting at the back of a high roller’s lounge, a corner table all for themselves, drinking and smoking. Duane and Hannah and Verna all had fancy cocktails but Vinnie had gotten a light beer because he wasn’t much of a drinker and when he had seen how much they cost he’d almost pissed himself. He had expected the peer pressure that his middle school teachers had all warned him about but none of them seemed to care.
“Is Spirit – uh, Maggie – is she coming out?”
Duane laughed, billowing out smoke from his cigar, while Hannah scowled at the name.
“She wouldn’t dare be seen with the likes of us.”
“Is she…I don’t know…stuck up? I didn’t get that sense.”
Verna lit a cigarette and shook out the match. “She keeps us at arm’s length. Work friends, not friends friends. Never comes out with us. I get it, but it offends these two.”
“I once invited her out for coffee and she told me she’d rather get hit by a train,” Hannah said, pushing her glasses up. “She wants to keep to herself, fine, she doesn’t have to be a mondo-bitch about it.”
That had been it. Maggie had never been brought up again. He was so used to it just being the four of them that as he first walked into their meeting room he didn’t even notice she wasn’t there until Joey looked up from the front of the table and smiled.
“And there’s our Face. Once we have our Spirit we can begin,” he said.
“This better be a good one, chief,” Duane said, leaning back in his chair. “Not that little kid shit like last time.”
Last time was little kid shit? Vinnie thought. He had to focus on pulling his chair back and sitting down to keep from falling over. He pulled his gloves on tighter. He hated getting gaps above the fingertips. They’d only asked above the gloves once. His go-to lie had always been Reynaud’s. Either someone knew what that was, and bought it, or they didn’t know but it sounded medically-significant enough that they’d stop asking. The irony was he did have Reynaud’s.
“What do you take me for? That last one was a last-minute smash and grab job. The point was to audition our new member here. You’ll get your payout this time, I promise.” Joey looked at the watch on his wrist and grumbled. “Where the hell is she?”
Half a second later the door swung open. Maggie came in, looking just the same as she had the first time they’d met right down to the sunglasses. A twinge of distaste soured Vinnie’s stomach. If his new friends didn’t like her, why should he?
“Thank you for joining us,” Joey said, sounding like a high school teacher. “Take off those sunglasses. I don’t want you falling asleep again.”
Maggie slid into her seat at the other end of the table. With great reluctance, she took the sunglasses off and put them on the table. They all stared at her.
“Where did you get that?” Hannah asked, her voice breathless.
Maggie shook her head. “Get what?”
Duane frowned at her. “The black eye and the fat lip. You doing my job?”
“It’s nothing.” She looked up to find Joey glaring at her from across the table. “It’s nothing. I’m not a Face or a Smile. No one’s supposed to see me, so no one’s going to care.”
They all looked to Joey. Joey stared at Maggie. After some time caught in this tableau, Joey sighed and rubbed his hands together.
“Okay, so. Hope you all packed your bags, because we are doing a good old fashioned train job.”