The earpiece fit so snugly into Vinnie’s ear canal you couldn’t see it. At least, he hadn’t been able to see it no matter how he moved his head around in front of the mirror. Of course, there was still something jammed in his ear. It was like he had a particularly big piece of wax stuck and it was making his hearing lopsided.
“Stop messing with your ear,” Verna said. “And stop gawking.”
She was on the other side of the party, hiding her lips moving behind a cosmopolitan. Her voice had come through the earpiece, making it sound like she was just behind him.
“I’ve never been on a luxury car before,” Vinnie said, putting his hands down at his side.
Duane’s voice rolled through the speaker. “Tell us something we don’t know, little man.”
This job had a few differences from the ‘kiddie shit’ test job they had done the month before. Instead of being in a hotel, the party was on the Transcontinental SaeLuxe Southern Line, currently rolling across the sand and scrub toward Jewel of the Desert. Vinnie had been riding trains his whole life, but always in the back half of the cars. He’d never had the money for a first class ticket, let alone enough money to get into one of the infamous party cars. It had been hard not to stare at the hotel, but here it was nigh impossible. The chandeliers that shook with the train, the crystal wine glasses with all their carvings, the diamonds and gems on both the women and the men. It all made the hotel look like his crappy apartment.
The other difference was the earpieces. Tin ears, Hannah called them, for absolutely no reason Vinnie could see. Expensive little gadgets, and Vinnie still didn’t understand how they worked, that let them talk to one another and coordinate. Verna was here with him in the party cars. Joey was in a sleeper car somewhere toward the back. Hannah and Duane were also in the back, in a passenger car, waiting. Yet through the tin ears he could hear all of them like they were standing behind him.
Maggie…well, he didn’t know precisely where Maggie was, and he hadn’t heard her through the tin ear yet. Some things hadn’t changed, he guessed.
Their goal was the room in the last car of the train, before the caboose. He hadn’t seen it yet, but Joey had given them all the gory details. Two sets of guards, two at the front of the car, and the other two in front of the door. A locked door. Inside that room was a shipment of metal. Rhodium. Vinnie had never heard of this metal before, but when Joey had named it the others’ eyes had all lit up. Expensive, useful, easy to move. If there was as much in there as Joey thought, they’d each have four to five figures by the end of the month.
Upon hearing the number, Vinnie had thrown up and then hyperventilated for half an hour.
The first part of the job was his, and it was time to start. They had all gotten onto the train separately, and would leave separately, so Verna was not on his arm like last time. She was across the car, at the bar, wearing a stunning silver dress that left little to the imagination and trying to glare daggers at him without anyone noticing. Vinnie swallowed. Finger by finger he pulled off his black gloves and tucked them in his jacket pocket.
It was time to get to work.
There was a woman in front of him, speaking to a well-groomed middle aged man. It was hard to figure out how old the woman was. She’d had – and here he was remembering the voice of his college theater professor – ‘so much work done she’d become the ship of Theseus.’ Not a line in her face, a sag to her breast, or a shade of gray in her hair. She still didn’t look young. Vinnie walked toward her and gasped lightly to get her attention.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” he said. “But I was walking past and I noticed your rings.”
The woman beamed – as much as her frozen face could, it was really all in her eyes – and she held up her hand so he could see better. He gently took her hand-
Pretend they’re everyday rings, make him think you wear these rocks every day, just walk around in diamonds, in Swinson diamonds all the time
An image flashed in her head, so it flashed in Vinnie’s head. He let go of her hand and smiled at her.
“This year’s Swinson Holiday Collection. Am I right?”
“They are!” the woman said.
The man looked at Vinnie up and down. “You have a good eye. Are you in the business?”
“No, I just-” Vinnie put his hand on the man’s shoulder.
Better just be looking at the diamonds, my friend, the rings, my friend, I love her so much, I love her, I can still fight, I can still hit someone going after my wife
“-have an interest in the finer, delicate things,” Vinnie finished, taking his hand back. “I hadn’t seen those in person yet, I was quite excited. Please excuse my intrusion, have a good night.”
He almost looked over at Verna. Remembered at the last second he didn’t have to. It was a good thing neither of them were who he was looking for. He’d forgotten about the code.
Vinnie worked his way through the train car, finding little excuses to touch people. Sometimes the train would hit a bump or a curve, and he could play off the touch as balancing himself. Jewelry kept working, too, or a gentle arm touch while he laughed uproariously at an okay joke. He made it through a little more than half the car before he found one.
All’s quiet, not too quiet, boring quiet, nothing is going to happen, I hate this detail, I hate this dress, why can’t I wear a pantsuit, suits are nice, I can barely hide anything in this dress
“Sorry, I see your watch there, do you have the time?” Vinnie asked.
The woman made a forced smile and looked at her watch. Now that he knew she was an undercover guard it was obvious, but he never would have noticed on his own. It was the subtle touches. Muscular arms hidden under a shawl. The way she had been talking to people. Not as a way to advertise herself, but as a way to get others to talk. She gave him the time and he thanked her before moving on, working very hard to keep his eyes way from Verna. She had heard the code, she’d be working her way over to the woman now.
He found the other two guards in the next party car. Not a second too soon, either. He’d been practicing when they all went out for drinks together, just leaving his gloves off and letting strangers’ thoughts roll around in his head. It had helped. A little. After two cars his head was still swimming, and he found himself holding onto the wall for support. The little swishes and jolts the train was making had been magnified, and as he watched Verna work her way to the second guard he sipped on a ginger ale he’d taken from a waitress to steady his stomach. His gloves were already back on.
It wasn’t until this job he fully understood the difference between the Face and the Smile. He’d initially believed it was just one man, one woman, and maybe that had been part of it. But in their little body, at least, there was a more important distinction: Vinnie had been sold as the people reader. Verna was the pickpocket.
“Oh, wow, Emmy?” Verna put her hands to her cheeks, and then let out an absolute ripper of a squeal before going to embrace not the woman Vinnie had pegged as the guard, but the woman standing just behind her with the increasingly afraid look on her face.
Verna had already wrapped her in a hug, pushing her back a little. The woman pushed Verna, working to regain her balance, and Verna took the momentum and stumbled back into the guard.
“I haven’t seen you in years!”
“I’m not…Emmy,” the woman said, dripping the name with so much scorn Vinnie knew immediately the woman’s real name was probably four or five syllables and wouldn’t have been out of place in a gothic romance novel.
“Are you sure? You look just like her!”
Not-Emmy smirked. “Maybe you need a club soda or something. Settle your head.”
The guard, now recovered, had watched all of this with something like mild amusement. Or maybe it was gas. Either way, as Verna burped an apology and came toward the bar, the guard walked off in the other direction, toward the corner where a three piece string band was doing a bang-up job playing through the train’s wobble.
Whatever she had done had been so smooth Vinnie didn’t even see her do it. She leaned against the bar, facing away from him as though she were trying to get the bartender’s attention.
“Two badges,” she said.
Vinnie kept the smile on his face. “On to step two.”