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They have pickpockets on stage now. Maybe they always did but anyway he’s only just heard of them. Last night, through a quasi-instructional video on YouTube. Today, in the bus station, with the cold of the bench underneath him, he thinks maybe that could be where his career ends up. Thinks it’d be nice to be respected for this. Pleasant, even kind of life-affirming. Life-choice-affirming.
The Great Paul!
He imagines the poster. There’s an advertising hoarding on one of the walls by the travel information booth. In the future, perhaps they’ll advertise him and his travelling sleight-of-hand showcase in thoroughfares like this. Maybe they’ll walk around here and people will look at him in his top hat and tails and nod to each other and say, “This is where he started out.” Say “isn’t it good that he still remembers his roots.”
Thinks it’d probably be a different class of people in the audience, though. Especially if he got as far as Las Vegas. Oil barons and their fat rich wives or their skinny blonde daughters or bits-on-the-side. High-rolling businessmen. Gangsters, even. Rock stars, every now and again. Celine Dion, maybe. And even the ones who weren’t like that, the ones who were desperate and scuzzy and sat hunched at the slot machines 24/7, at least they’d usually be holding some kind of cash.
The people in this town, in this station, it’s barely worth checking their wallets, their purses. You can, of course, and sometimes you do, but most times their change is already in their hands for the bus-fare, or their bank cards are already too overdrawn to be any use. It’s best to watch them close for anything else they might be carrying, any accessories, and then to make your move.
That’s how he does it, anyway. If he ever gets up on stage, and if he gets to Las Vegas, or even just somewhere closer, like a small theatre in London’s West End, and if people come to interview him for a video they’ll put on YouTube, that’s what he’ll tell them. He won’t tell them everything, because in showbiz you’ve got to have some secrets, but he’ll say that mostly what he does is watch and make lists.
He’s doing it now. He’s always doing it, even underneath and around and inside other thoughts. He’s doing it as a man enters the station from the east entrance, wearing a grey suit and a white shirt but no tie. He’s doing it as a woman enters five steps and two people behind him, wearing a sleek, sensible jacket and finely-styled hair.
When he comes here, it’s people like these he hopes, but not openly, to have the good fortune to pick out from the crowd. Not openly, because he doesn’t want the thing jinxed, doesn’t want to draw a blank and have to filch something trifling from the regular dregs.
The woman has a small handbag on her right forearm, slightly away from her body; easier, in theory, to draw her eyes away from. But the catch, he worries, could be tricky to bypass if he tries to do so whilst walking. Nonetheless, there’s the shine of a bracelet exposed on her up tilted wrist.
The man looks more like a winner. Paul – The Great Paul – sizes him up from the sheen of his shoes to the no-nonsense close-crop of his hair; the C-shaped glimmer of his belt buckle roughly halfway between. He notes the slight bulge of the wallet in the man’s front left pocket, and the ring on his finger, and the wristwatch above. Makes his mind up to try for that side of the target.
Thought it won’t be quite as simple and straightforward as all that. Never is. The problem with a better class of mark is they’re usually sharp, well put-together, successful at whatever it is that they do. This man, he’ll need to get close to him on his right side before cutting across him at the last possible moment. Distract him, disturb his rhythm; make him step out the way to his right at the same time as he – The Great Paul – slips the watch from his wrist, or takes the wallet, but anyway disappears to his left, over to the bus-bay where he’ll have to wait at in order to make his way home.
Indecision is a bitch in this business, he knows, though, as he stands up and starts walking. He must choose now whether to go for the wallet or the watch. If he’s still not made the call by the time that they meet, the call won’t be worth making.
Time, he repeats, in his thoughts, in his head.
He’ll take the watch. It’s a tougher steal, but more satisfying for it. Plus, unless it carries a monogram it’ll be easier to shift and make use of than the man’s credit, debit or membership cards.
Edging into his line-of-sight, he notes another group of people stepping off a bus and advancing up the bay toward the main slipstream of foot-traffic, which stems from the east entrance and passes to one of the buses or heads all the way through to the other exit at the west. They’ll cause problems, perhaps, if he doesn’t beat them to the gate, but at the rate he’s going it shouldn’t be hard.
As he walks onwards, lifting his pace, he keeps watching the man, whilst trying to avoid making eye contact – something he wants to save until he’s in close. He does watch the man’s eyes, though. Watches where they watch, drawing out any hints of where the man might be heading. Hoping, but not openly, that he doesn’t turn off too soon.
Which he doesn’t.
But does instead stop to look up at the live timetable. And this means that, between them, they won’t beat the crowd.
In Las Vegas, if he gets there, he won’t have to. They’ll beat themselves at the card games and he’ll pick them off one by one.
He carries on walking, straight through the oncoming host, thinking that they’ll probably cover his presence, thinking they might actually become an advantage; thinking on his feet to ensure that the watch-theft stays viable. He’s buffeted between them slightly, and some rather ungenerous words come from a man his elbow accidentally brushes, but he makes it through to the other side relatively smoothly, relatively fast.
Only to find, when he gets there, that his target is missing.
Attempting to keep his flow going, he switches tack, glances round for the woman with the sleek jacket and the finely-styled hair.
But can’t find her either.
Despondent, he bustles through the slipstream towards the bay that he wants. Some days, on this patch, he does well, gets enough to last him a week or two or maybe a month. Others, he barely breaks even, barely snatches enough to cover his travel. Which isn’t massively expensive, for a return trip about 25 minutes each way.
Then there are these days and the last of the cheap beer in his fridge, and the Chinese takeaway cartons arranged by his feet like a scale model of some futuristic bio-dome city, and the self-doubt that is simply a wishing that the cheap beer wasn’t already gone.
Deflated, he sags onto another cold bench, but almost as soon as he does so, his transport arrives. Just about everyone else in this bay beats him to the punch, standing-up-wise, and gets in the queue ahead of him. Seeing this, he stays seated. Watches them at waist-level, eyeing their pockets, the pendulous swing of their handbags, their shopping. Watches them with the eyes of one whose appetite has waned; a child with a toothache, passing a sweetshop on the other side of the road.
When he finally joins it, the queue seems to go on forever and to be intent on taking that long to get where it’s headed. He puts his hands in his jacket pockets, plays with the rogue stick of chewing-gum he finds in the left one. Scrunches it so that it bursts the foil wrapper, and then balls it up between forefinger and thumb. It is the pocket he usually keeps his takings in. It is empty and boring and maddening without. Even more so with the queue at a standstill.
Do they have buses in Las Vegas? he thinks, but not openly, and even less openly hopes that they don’t.
Eventually, the queue becomes liquid, begins to make progress at a much faster pace, and he finds himself standing outside the automatic door, only three other people ahead of him.
He tells the driver his stop and the driver quotes him a price he already knows, and he extricates his fingers from the small globe of chewing-gum, minty fresh, and reaches them down to his left-side jeans pocket.
The man who bumped against him in the crowd, he thinks, as his fingers probe the empty cotton-lined pouch.
He grimaces at the driver, then turns and leaves the bus and comes back through the automatic doors and takes a seat again and watches.
If they ever do come to interview him, he thinks, this will be one of the secrets he keeps.