I have to be careful with what I’m reading. It influences what I write. I distort what comes out of my pen by what goes in my eyes.
Lately, I’ve been reading too much lurid pulp fiction.
W. Franklin Sanders is a pen name for Charles Willeford… Ebook Here. Whip Hand was also published under the title, Deliver me from Dallas. In this heat… I know the feeling.
I needed something to take to our writing group, so I punched up a writing prompt generator and what came up was: Nonchalantly she reached into the other woman’s handbag and whipped out her purse.
Using this prompt, I wrote out a quick four pages…. this is what I came up with, Raw First Draft.
The book she had read was nothing more than a pamphlet, printed long ago in blue mimeograph ink on office paper and crudely stapled into a small, rough book form. Loralee remembered the smell of fresh mimeo from grade school. The pamphlet paper was brittle, the blue fading, and crisscrossed with yellowed cellophane tape repairs but it was all still readable.
Loralee had bought the pamphlet at a strange little bookstore she had stumbled into while on a trip to a business conference in New Orleans.
Her boss had called and set up a meeting on the second day of the conference in a private hotel room. It seemed a little odd to Loralee, but she figured there was a new program to launch or some reorganization she had to help smooth over.
Instead she was laid off.
“Well,” her boss said, “At least you have two more days in New Orleans to enjoy yourself. Don’t worry about the meetings; and your hotel is paid for.” Her face seemed to creak as she forced out a frightening smile.
Thanks a lot.
Loralee spent the rest of the afternoon at the hotel bar, hitting it hard, charging the tab to her room. But when the meetings finished and she saw her coworkers returning to the lobby, gathered into conversational clots like old spilled blood, she couldn’t stand it and staggered back up to her room. As soon as she entered, she had to tumble into the bathroom and barely had the time to stick her head into the toilet before she heaved and puked up what seemed like a lot more than she had drank that afternoon – which was a lot. She continued to convulse even after she was empty until her diaphragm ached.
Finally spent, she tumbled onto the sagging hotel bed and fell into an uneasy sleep full of terrifying dreams.
When she awoke she saw a half-light splayed across the sheer curtains of the room. The digital clock had six fifteen glowing in red numbers. Loralee didn’t know if it was AM or PM and curled on the bed, staring at the curtains until she was sure that it was getting lighter, rather than darker. Six AM it was.
Hungover, wearing sunglasses despite the overcast sky, Loralee stumbled the uneven brick and cracked concrete of the French Quarter looking for… she didn’t really know. As she walked she chanted, “Laid Off – Let Go – Laid Off – Let Go” over and over like a Mantra. Almost everything was closed this early in the morning, street sweepers pushed filthy piles of cups, bottles, and beads down the middle of the street. Each block seemed to have an unconscious person still snoozing up against a building or beside a stoop. The smell of last night’s old beer and piss hovered over the still air like a filthy umbrella.
Finally she spotted the open door of the old bookstore. It actually opened out into an alley, with the entrance barely visible around the corner from the sidewalk. The alley had a rusty streetsign – the letters were faded, but it was barely legible, “Rue Deday.” A red neon light glowed PEN – the “O” was burned out. Without knowing why, Loralee turned the corner and went in.
The stacks smelt like old mold. Loralee thought that most used bookstores were musty like that – but this was one step beyond. Maybe it was just New Orleans, maybe the French Quarter, maybe the ghost of Katrina. There was a lot of evil old water around.
The books were not marked, no prices. Loralee wanted to stick it to her company so she asked the ancient, bent proprietor, “What’s the most expensive shit you got.”
He did not flinch – simply peered over his thick glasses at her with eyes that were surprisingly bright and clear for someone of his age – otherwise he looked to have one foot in the grave. “Well, dear, we have a drawer of very expensive shit right here.” He pulled a massive key chain off a nail by the register and removed a padlock from a small metal filing cabinet.
The cabinet was full of old manila folders, each marked across the front with a scrawled red marker. The marker showed various prices – all over one hundred dollars each. The folders contained various bits of paper: single yellowing crumpled sheets, folded maps, handwritten notes.
Only one folder had anything that was thicker that a few sheets. That one had a folded and stapled booklet with the label, “How to be a Pickpocket, Guaranteed!”
The price on the pamphlet was one hundred and twenty five dollars – which seemed really steep, but Loralee still had her company credit card. Somehow, her boss had neglected to confiscate it in her “exit interview.” She knew it would be deactivated any minute and wanted to waste anything still left in the account.
“I’ll take this one,” she said to the old man. “Here charge this card,” she said as she extended her company card for the last time.
Back home she fell into a languid life of half-hearted job searching. She ventured out to a big warehouse store and bought a case of frozen fried chicken dinners and several of ice cream. She would send out enough letters and resumes, apply online when she could, enough to keep an unemployment check coming, but her heart wasn’t in it.
One thing that did interest her was the old pamphlet she had stuck her company with back in New Orleans. For something so short it was surprisingly complex. She kept noticing something new every time she picked it up.
Different paragraphs were written in different styles, all jumbled together. Some were in a modern, hip, joking style, talking about “Stealing for Dummies,” and such. Others were in an arcane style, full of old-fashioned spellings and extinct phrases. The text seemed to be one third cold, dry instruction, one third psychology lessons on how a mark thinks and what he will and won’t notice, and one third strange incantations designed, as the pamphlet said, “To reste the spirit and calme the blood.”
She read and re-read the thing. When she would put it down to try and watch TV or to get something to eat, she would feel it growing in her mind until her hands would actually quiver and itch for the feel of its aged paper between her fingers.
Some of the pages contained simple exercises meant to improve dexterity and quickness. She set up some little stations around her apartment. Everything was laid out exactly as the pamphlet called for, bits of cloth, small metal weights (she used some old hexagonal steel nuts she pried off the bottom of her coffee table), and shapes folded from shirt cardboard as diagrammed in the pamphlet.
Loralee would practice over and over again. First she would mumble the words prescribed on the pages; she felt an odd urge to try and get all of it exactly right – no matter how silly it seemed. Then she would go through the motions of snatching the metal nuts from whatever cradle they were hidden in. At first she would make her move while looking directly at the setup, but – as the instructions dictated – after a while she would work with her head turned, and then, finally behind her back. She was amazed to find that, with enough practice, she could snatch the prize without even touching the cloth or cardboard. She felt she could almost see her goal in sort of a glowing mist inside her head, see it clearly, even though it was behind her back.
After three months of preparation and practice, she decided she was ready.
There was a Starbucks near her apartments and as she entered she immediately picked out a matronly woman in a faded print dress at the end of the queue of customers looking confused at the lighted menu overhead. Loralee sidled into line directly behind her as the woman began to ask questions of the barista, “But I don’t understand… are you telling me the Venti is bigger than the Tall?” Loralee muttered one of the incantations under her breath. This steadied her nerves as she leaned over, pretending to look into the case of pastries.
Nonchalantly Loralee reached into the other woman’s handbag and whipped out her purse.
She then calmly pulled the money out, leaving a single five and the change so the woman could pay for her coffee. Without taking her eyes from the pastries she then replaced the purse, sighed quietly, turned and walked out. She could hear the woman going on behind her, “Oh, tell me again, what’s the difference between a latte and an espresso?”
It became easier and easier as her marks became larger and larger. Loralee began to frequent spots – casinos, expensive nightclubs, the racetrack, where customers would be carrying a lot of cash and might be drinking a little. She made enough money to begin buying expensive clothes. That enabled her to sidle her way into parties and receptions of the highest levels of society, where she could accumulate jewels and watches in addition to the mounds of cash she was quickly developing. Luckily, the pamphlet had advice on fencing those goods, and on the methods to safety and surreptitiously convert her ill-gotten gains into diamonds and gold coins – portable efficient receptacles of growing wealth.
She didn’t pay any taxes and couldn’t trust any bank, of course, so she bought a heavy safe and disguised it as a pedestal for her new wide-screen television.
She began to travel. She went to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Palm Springs… anywhere that the marks might congregate with the cash.
She even returned to New Orleans to push her way through the huge dense drunken crowds at Mardi Gras. That was almost too easy. She could reach out and grab whatever she wanted without even thinking about it. For old time’s sake she returned to the street where she first saw the old book store, but it was gone. She moved along the alley running her hands over the rough brick, but there wasn’t even any evidence of where the door used to be.
Loralee decided she must have been mistaken about which street it had been off of. Even the street sign was missing, so she must have been lost.
After a year of work, her safe was bulging with gold and diamonds, three dresser drawers were stuffed full of hundred dollar bills. Loralee began taking it a little easier. She felt her skills begin to slip. Once, for the first time, a mark turned and shouted at her. She dropped the man’s wallet and fled. She decided to stop, at least for a while. She had enough to last, possibly for the rest of her life.
She liked to treat herself to a nice dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant around the corner. She received the best food and the best service, the waiters like her generous, cash tips. This night she stayed a little longer than usual, sipping on a particularly nice brandy after dinner; thinking about a European trip. It would be her first non-working trip to the old country, and she smiled, mentally planning it.
When she returned home and pressed her key into the lock, her door swung open freely. With a rising tide of fear choking her throat, she quickly pushed on inside. The apartment was a shambles. Everything was tossed about – not a stick was undisturbed. Her television sprawled face down on the floor. Looking at the stand, she saw the bulging cloth covering and knew the safe was open. Pulling the cover aside, she verified what she already feared. It was empty.
She dashed into her bedroom where the dresser drawers were tossed on to her bed, cash all gone. In a rising panic she rushed about the place looking in corners and hiding spots. Everything of value had been found and stolen. Even her old pamphlet on how to be a pickpocket was stolen. She realized she was doomed, there was no way to get this back without her instructions.
Finally, standing in the center of the room, fighting back panic and tears, she noticed something new. On her dining table was an old, dirty, and worn manila file folder. She approached the folder and saw, scrawled across the front, “One Hundred Seventeen Dollars,” in red marker. Shaking, she opened the folder. Inside was a single, torn, worn piece of paper covered with faded typing. At the top it said, “How to be a Burglar, Guraranteed!”