Paul Gamberge stood before the gilt-framed mirror on the wall above the fireplace in the living room overlooking Central Park. He was tall, slender, thin-lipped, and his curly black hair showed no sign of graying.
-Why do you work for me?
Gamberge, having spoken, looked toward the side of the mirror where he saw Silky's image. Silky was an inch or two shorter, fastidiously dressed, and handsome.
-It's rewarding, Silky said. You let me keep a decent amount of what I steal.
-That's not it.
-I'll turn you in if you leave me. Don't forget it. Now, let's watch the video again.
-Don't you think we've watched it enough?
-We're watching it again, Silky.
-But I can see it with my eyes closed. Every frame of it. It starts with this fat man in a casino; we never learn his name. He wins a large sum of money at the roulette table. He's very excited when he goes to cash in his chips. He loosens his tie. Unbuttons his collar. Rivulets of sweat run unobstructed down his neck. The dip, the man off to the left in the light gray suit, Mr. Pickpocket himself, strokes his earlobe to signal that the fat man's the mark. Then the stall, the woman in a short green dress and a pearl necklace, moves in. In front of the cashier's counter she drops her lipstick to distract him. Times it perfectly. Just as the cashier is putting up the fat man's winnings. The least he can do the way he's feeling is help her out. So he bends down to pick up the lipstick. Takes his eyes off the cash. Next come the shields. The two men in black suits. They stand between the counter and the casino to block the view, isolate the incident. And then the dip slips in. Smooth as a snake. Look, no hands! Slide, glide, slide. He whips the money off the counter. Twenty thousand dollars. Whoosh! Gone! But before you can say Muhammad Ali he passes the prize off to the dish, the man in the pink blazer and flowery bow tie. Daffodils mostly. Dreadful. And while the poor man, lipstick in hand, is looking up at the stall, the dish is gone with all his money. Robbed blind before your very eyes. That's it. One, two, three. Nothing more. Nothing less. Moves. Colorful moves. Sweet as ballet. Smooth. They have it down pat. Like that. Precise, professional, predatory. We know all the maneuvers, the sexual undertones.
-The sexual undertones?
-You were the one who pointed them out. You spot them every time.
Gamberge fed the video to the VCR. Used a remote to start it.
-Now pay attention. You can't afford to let up. . . . You're good only because I've made you good. Watch: the stall drops the lipstick about now. There. Concentrate on the dip. See the way he leans to the left, throws everyone off for a second. That's all the time he needs. He's very good. There's always something you can learn from a master.
-Do you think he's better than me?
-That's not the point.
Gamberge hit PAUSE on the remote, continued talking.
-The best pickpocket identifies completely with the mark, knows how he's going to move, what he's going to do next with each part of his body. Gets right inside his head. Has the guy at his fingertips. Like a puppet.
-I know. It comes naturally. Do you think I take it for granted?
-No one's perfect, Silky.
Gamberge pressed PLAY. The tape ran for another thirty seconds or so.
-Never noticed that before, Gamberge said when it finished.
-The dish pats the stall on the ass-on his way out.
-But he doesn't look at her. That's what counts.
Gamberge took his glasses off. Rested them on the top of the monitor.
-Do you think you're attractive to women, Silky?
-Yes, you. There's no one else here.
-What makes you ask?
-To some women I guess I am.
-I want you to feel attractive to women. Good for business. Chicks pick up on a guy's confidence, you know. Draws them in. Makes them feel secure. That's the key, Silky. Gotta make 'em feel secure. Know what I mean?
Gamberge hit EJECT, and the VCR spat out the tape. He put it back in the drawer.
-Okay, maestro, let's see how good you are. Let's see if you still have that old Silky magic. Remove my watch, and don't let me feel a thing. Take it. Then if you want, move like you're handing it off to a dish.
-You know I work alone. I don't need dishes or stalls or shields. When a diversion's called for, I create my own. Legerdemain. Footwork. Prestidigitation.
-I just want to see you move. I'll put my hands in my pockets. Make it more difficult.
-As you wish.
-My father used to say, life's in the movement.
-What did he mean by that?
-I don't know. I just like the sound of it.
-It's starting to rain.
-Damn! You got me. That was good, Silky. Very good. Okay, I'll take the watch back. Same old lightning speed. You really had me then.
-I don't have time to get rusty, Mr. Gamberge.
Gamberge walked to the middle window, watched the rain cut into the park at an oblique angle. He stood with his fists clenched tight.
-That woman the other day, Gamberge said, the redhead. Did you slash a pillow before you left her apartment? The article didn't mention it.
-Yes. I always do that.
-And your name?
-I wrote it on the mirror in the bathroom. In purple lipstick.
-We're famous, Silky. You realize that? I like to read about us in the paper. But they never give enough details.
Gamberge walked back to the center of the room. He stared at the pattern on the Indian rug, tightened his watch strap.
-Tomorrow we'll go after someone new, Gamberge said. I'll try to pick someone challenging for you. Give you a run for your money. Keep you on your toes. The redhead wasn't up to snuff. Nothing much to write about there.
-Did well off her, financially speaking.
-Yes. Are you going to put her in the book?
-They all go in the book. Every woman you steal for me goes in the book.
-I'm tired, Mr. Gamberge. It's been a long day. If there's nothing else I think I'll-
-Not until you've read to me from one of the books. You forgetting the rules?
-I like the way you read. I look forward to you reading. You make everything sound so real, I can picture it happening in front of me.
-Choose any woman you want.
-Would it be okay, Mr. Gamberge, just this once . . . I mean, as I have to make an early start?
Gamberge turned on him.
-You miserable. . . . Forget it. Just go to bed.
-Thanks, Mr. Gamberge.
-Don't thank me. You'll pay for it later.
Gamberge moved slowly through the living room. Moonlight reflected from the oil paintings, paintings of nudes on rocky shores in lewd poses. He stopped at the shelf where he kept the records of Silky's exploits. They were handwritten in hardbound notebooks.
Gamberge decided on the woman who liked water pistols. She excited him more than most. The book fell open to her page. He was reading about her when something flickered, over by his desk. He put the book down. Went to see what. The same flickering happened again, but when he reached the edge of the desk it stopped. There was no way to tell what its source had been. He wanted to imagine one, but stopped himself, knowing that if he started to obsess he would not be able to get his mind onto anything else for many hours. He screwed up his face. Shook his head. Things would be bad if he began to obsess, if he allowed himself to wander into the dark corridors of his mind. For one thing, he'd get no sleep. He opened the bottom drawer of the desk, took out a pair of binoculars. A powerful pair that his father had used in the Sudan. He cleaned the eyepieces, then set the binoculars on the top of the desk beside the lamp. Ready for morning. Ready for . . . food. Food took his mind off things. A snack. That's what he'd do. Nibble on something.
Next morning Gamberge entered the living room. He put his brioche down. He checked the time by his watch, then reset the ormolu clock on the desk, which had lost two minutes during the night. The rain had stopped. A strong wind worried the leaves at the tops of the trees. Their movement for some reason reminded him that he'd forgotten his mother's birthday. He picked up the binoculars, focused them on the park.
-See anyone who takes your fancy? Silky said.
-You scared me. . . . Not yet.
-Are you looking between the oak and the bench?
-Yes. We've had some of our best catches there. Hold on.
-What is it?
-I think I've got a live one.
-She look like money? Anything glittering?
-I don't care about money. She's in her thirties. Short red dress. Black hair. She's walking a small dog. Cairn terrier if I'm not mistaken. I want her. Go get her. And no blabbermouthing with the doorman on the way out.
-I didn't have my coffee yet.
-Never mind that. I don't want you to miss her. You can pick up coffee when you've done the job.
-I think this one's got promise.
-No way of knowing from a distance.
-Remember to give her enough time to discover she's been robbed before you make contact.
-I always do, Mr. Gamberge. My technique is solid: let them worry awhile; that way they feel the maximum relief when I tell them I've found their wallet; the greater relief they feel, the more grateful they are; the more grateful they are, the more susceptible they are to my advances.
-Excellent, Silky. Now get going. Don't forget your bag.
In the lobby Frank, the doorman, was getting his ear bent by Mrs. Dillard, so Silky was able to slip by with nothing more than a wave. He ran across the road into the park, and headed for the oak. The wind had moved on, taking with it all but a few wispy clouds.
Some fifty yards past the oak, the woman in the red dress took the path off to the left. Silky followed her, making his observations from a distance at first. Then he closed in, walked past her, and smiled. In that second, sensing there was no way he was going to be able to manipulate her to Gamberge's satisfaction, he abandoned her as his mark, and circled back to the bench to await further quarry.
He did not have to wait long. Dressed in black, thin, and olive-skinned, a woman of about fifty approached. Silky weighed the situation. He decided he would try something new, let his mark come up on him, from behind. Pretending not to have seen the woman, he walked ahead of her, then he slowed his pace to allow her to catch up with him. The instant he felt her close to him he spun around. Bumped into her. She gasped. He stared into her eyes, and using his newspaper as a shield, he undid her bag. While he was apologizing, his fingers, working like tentacles, located and seized her wallet. He offered a further apology as he walked away, her wallet safely stowed in his pocket.
Out of her sight he looked to see what he'd made. The four hundred dollars he counted made him happy. Her name, Dolores Rey, and her phone number were on a business card, which read: NECROMANCER TO THE STARS. He checked to make sure the name matched her credit cards. Having no need to follow her further, he went to find coffee. Before he left the park he removed his false mustache. Put on his shades.
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