Published by Kormic, LLC
Copyright 2015 Robert Ocala
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Lyman trudged up the grungy, deserted lamp–lit street slowly becoming aware of the dirt–gray brownstones and occasional businesses around him, but most of all he found himself becoming aware of how tired he felt since fleeing the cops this morning.
Dented garbage cans littered the sidewalk before him, TV antennas prickled the moonlit sky above, but two blocks ahead—lights, traffic, people. He slipped his cuff to glimpse his watch: 2:00 am. At 2:00 am all that life ahead could only mean one street in all of New York City: Broadway.
So, he was in mid–Manhattan now, the forties no doubt; two blocks west of The Great White Way. He had no idea of how many miles he’d walked since hoofing it out of the Bronx this morning but slowly rousing from his daze, he began to feel a tremendous urge to immerse himself in all that life ahead when suddenly his huge problem came roaring back.
He had to find a new hustle—and quick.
Who’d of thought the law could get so worked up over the theft of a few wheelchairs? Christ, didn’t he always point Huey to the sickos he stole them from and have him offer them first crack at buying their chairs back—at half price yet! Who said he had no soul? He had a soul. If anything it was how to keep body and soul together now that he’d lost his only source of income.
But with the law onto him now, he dared not even sneak back to his pad to get his duds, much less the book with all his contacts in it. He was stuck, out in the night, with nothing on but his pants, slippers and Yankees jacket—not even a T–shirt, socks or skivvies.
He’d ducked out this morning for his usual coffee ‘and’, and immediately heard that Huey had gotten busted—again. He’d wondered how the little crack freak would wiggle out of it this time. Then, scuffing back to his pad in his slippers, he’d spotted the two ‘suits’ sitting in the ‘unmarked’ parked by the fire hydrant in front of his pad—oops cops!—and realized exactly how the little crack freak had wiggled out of it this time, by ratting out the Notorious Wheelchair Thief, was how.
There went his livelihood.
He’d done an immediate one–eighty and been walking ever since, trying to get his mind around this shocking reversal of fortunes, oblivious of everything; bumping into shoppers, mail boxes, wind–whipping cars skimming by, shouts of “Asshole” and horns blaring in his ears.
Now, shoulders hunched against the autumn chill, Lyman shuffled up the deserted street, not a sound to be heard but the scuff of his slippers; the only signs of life a splash of light across the sidewalk from a bar up the block and a peon across the street sweeping out a bistro with a jack–o–lantern in its window.
Suddenly Lyman felt hungry. Jesus, to be down to forty bucks in a city that eats money; thank God for his watch, gold ring and bracelet; these he could hock for a quick duce, but how far would even two hundred get him in this money–grubbing town?
Besides, the jewelry wasn’t for food; it was his case ace, his quick conversion to cash for just such emergencies as this, but where to find or buy into a new hustles in the middle of the night?
Who said a sucker’s born every minute? Damn! Lyman kicked a tin can through a cone of lamp light. Out into the garbage–strewn gutter it clattered till swallowed by darkness when a tall, thin figure in a high–collared cape leaped out of the alley before him, claws raised, and boomed, ”I vont to dreenk your blood.”
Lyman’s heart leaped to his tonsils and he threw up his dukes to fight.
“Oops, sorry, sir,” the figure piped in a high–pitched voice, “I didn’t mean to scare you quite so bad.” He lowered his claws to the tray hanging from his neck.
“A pitchman,” Lyman blurted, “youse’er a pitchman?”
“Au contraire,” the figure piped with a Victorian sweep of his cape, “pray, not a pitchman, sir, but an actor, if you will.”
“An actor, youse’er an actor?”
His fear subsiding, Lyman sized the fool up quick; and Lyman had a keen eye for the brown spot on a piece of fruit: cape, tie and tails sagging off tall, skinny frame, chalk white Dracula mask and rubber claws right out of Woolworths; throw in the high-pitched voice and he realized he’d been confronted by a six–foot–four–inch string bean of a kid who couldn’t weigh over a hundred–and–fifty pounds.
Nothing spooky there; though eight inches shorter and a good twenty years older, Lyman was a hundred–and–eighty–pound gang–banger. He’d match his strength and street smarts against this silly string bean’s any day. In fact, one more hinky move out of the kid and he’d kick a hole in him—oops, he’s talking.
“…did you expect, sir, walking through Monster Alley at this time of night?”
“Monster Alley?” Lyman screwed up his face in confusion.
“What, sir, you haven’t heard of Monster Alley?”
Lyman winced to the kid’s high–pitch. “’Fraid not, pally. Bronx boy, born an’ bred.” He planted meaty fists on his stocky hips. One more hinky move….
Ah, well, sir, ask and ye shall receive.”
Oh, no; not a Bible thumper! “Okay, I’ll bite; what’s your Monster Alley?”
“You’re in Manhattan’s theater district, sir, on one of the streets with its legitimate theaters; we call it Monster Alley at the moment because it’s presently offering revivals of all the old horror classics.” With a Shakespearian sweep of his cape the string bean pointed to the darkened marquees up and down the block.
And indeed, now that Lyman looked, he did see; on the marquee just behind him, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein; up and down the block, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the original Wolf Man; tickets now on sale for The Mummy.
“Monster Alley,” the string bean piped, “is where we actors step out in our costumes to get live reactions from the passers–by.”
“At 2:00 a.m.?”
“I know, I know,”—long weary sigh to the moonlit sky—“we tried scaring people in the daytime, sir, but they just laughed at us in our costumes. Still, an actor has to practice. Say, wanna see something neat?” Before Lyman could object, the string bean raised the lid of the tray suspended from his neck to the chalk-white chin of his mask.
Lyman found himself looking at his face in the lid’s inner mirror. He ran a hand through his unkempt hair, then over his five o’ clock shadow; another thing he didn’t get to do this morning—shave. “Hey, wait a minute, youse said we?”
“Me, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy; they’re all hiding in alleys up the block. We’re not the stars of our shows mind, just their understudies, seeking to get, ahem—hairy claw to boiled shirtfront—“our ‘big breaks.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“Ah,”—pointy–tipped finger wagging before bloody fangs—“you never know who might wander through the theater district, sir, nor at what hour. Producers, directors, writers, they all work late. A thespian must be ever ready to demonstrate his talent. Wanna see my Groucho Marx? I got Groucho down to a tee.”
Before Lyman could object, the string bean twisted into the stooped profile of the comedian, monster mitt tapping ashes off an imaginary cigar, and mimicked, “Say the magic word and make the duck come down.” Then, straightening up with a grunt and a mitt to his back, “So, what do you think?”
”I think if that was supposed to be Groucho, one of youse is pretty lousy. But, hey, pally, ‘Seek an’ ye shall find.’ ” When it came to Bible thumpers, Lyman could hold his own with the best.
“Touché, sir. But you won’t have to seek to find my cohorts. They’ll jump out at you as you when you reach their alleys.”
“You mean youse’re all out hawkin’ stuff at this hour?” Lyman cocked his head up to the glinting eyes in the holes beneath the mask’s eyebrows. “Why?”
“Why? Why? Our kingdom for a ham on rye is why, sir. You’d be surprised at how little we understudies get paid.”
“And as vendors…?”
“Oh, all the difference in the world.”
Hmm, vendors dressed as monsters. Could there be anything in this for me? Could this Bible thumper be Heaven sent—literally? For the first time since losing his one and only source of income this morning, Lyman felt a glint of hope. Of course, one would have to have a worthwhile product to pitch, costumes alone wouldn’t do it. “Sooo,” he drawled, hiking up his chinos, “what’re youse pushing?”
“Pushing…? Oh, you mean selling. Frankie’s selling golf balls, sir. Titleists at half price. Wolfie’s selling rubbers; a gross or one, he’ll give you a good—”
“Rubbers, at two in the morning? Who buys—?”
“Golly, sir, see that bar still open up ahead? Ever hear the saying; ‘The girls all look prettier at closing time?’ You’d be surprised how many rubbers Wolfie sells to drunks still hoping for a meaningful one night stand.”
Lyman grinned at the kid’s kooky logic; but what more should he expect from a dip who pops out of alleys to hook marks in the middle of the night?
“Mummy, up the block,” the string bean piped, flipping clawed thumb over caped shoulder, “sells encyclopedias. If you think rubbers are hard to sell at two in the morning, try selling ten pound books!”
Rubbers, golf balls, encyclopedias, Lyman couldn’t push that crap if he dressed like King Kong and hawked it from the top of the Empire State Building. He needed a product suckers would die for the way cripples lunged for their chairs back. No, no way there was money to be made here, unless, unless….
Lyman peeked into the tray suspended from the string bean’s neck—a tray designed to selling sunglasses, if he was any judge of mirrored trays. “And what’re youse pushin’ pally?”—one finger rummaging through myriad objects.
“Heavens, sir,”—monster mitt to pencil-thin neck—“I thought you’d never ask. For you, this!” The string bean scooped out an old–fashioned, standup alarm clock with a red button on top where its bell would ordinarily be.
“A clock? A clock?” Lyman chuffed a laugh and brushed the kid aside to be on his way.
“Please, sir”—lanky arm shooting out to stop him—“don’t be too quick to understand me. This is no ordinary clock, this clock’s on steroids.” The string bean Dracula hovered over him, clock cradled in clawed mitts beneath chalk–white nose.
Lyman thought the dip looked like a praying mantis. “Yeah,” he said, “well youse can take your steroid clock an’ shove it where the sun don’t shine.”
“But, sir, if you dial this clock backwards you’ll go back in time. If you dial it forward you’ll go forward in time.”
Backward and forward in…. Lyman rolled his eyes to the moonlit sky—not just a Bible thumper but a Loony Tune to boot. Either this dip’s got me pegged for a hick who just fell of a turnip truck, or worse, I’ve let myself be stopped by a dip who couldn’t find his ass with both hands—which makes me an even a bigger dip. From his silly mask to the red lining sagging out of his cape, the kid’s pathetic. Lyman squinted up at the eyes glinting out of the mask’s peep holes and growled, “Do people actually buy this bullshit?”
“Why…yes sir.”—mitt to heart, string bean taking an offended step backward—“my hand to God, it’s the quickest way to a new life, sir.”
A new life—ha, if he only knew. Lyman couldn’t help but feel amused by the kid’s pitch in a con–man to con–man sort of way. But the onions on this punk, expecting me to buy his time–travel crap. Insulting, that’s what it was. After the blow to his livelihood this morning Lyman didn’t need another to his intellect. He had half a mind to slap the kid’s tray up in the air, send his crap flying all over the street; teach him the vender’s version of fifty–two pickup. In fact what better did he have to do at two in the morning? “Oh, yeah,” he said, warming to the idea, “quanto, Tonto?”
“How much…for your phony clock?”
“Phony, sir? Oh, ye of little faith, pray try it before you buy it.”
“Oh, really!” Lyman eyed the kid, his mind squirreling around for the hook in this hustle.
“Absolutely, sir. Satisfy yourself.”
This’ll be good, Lyman thought snatching the clock out of the string bean’s hairy claws to heft it. Hmm, solid…and weighty—two qualities marks linked with value. Aand try before you buy—hell, what better hook than that? Ridiculous as this string bean looks, maybe I shouldn’t be too quick to understand him, maybe there is something to learn here, something I could make a quick buck with, even tonight..
Lyman leaned around the caped clown for a gander up the block at Broadway. Hmm…traffic still flowing, people still crossing at the green and not in between. Yeah, maybe tonight even, and if this scam’s already old down here maybe I can pull it off up in the Bronx, Bronxites are forever behind the curve when it comes to the cons dreamt up in Manhattan.
Lyman turned the clock over in his hands. “How does it work?” he said, focusing on its round dials—five of them, one inside the other—labeled Year, Month, Day, Hour and Minute.
“Simple, sir, you turn the dials back in time to correct your mistakes or forward in time to see your future. Then press the red button when you’re ready.”
“Yeah, yeah, just tell me how to make a buck with it.”
“Money, money.”—pointy claw stroking chalky chin—“let me see….”
Hah, actor, Lyman thought. This kid’d break his leash for a slab of ham. Lets see youse wiggles out of this one, dip.
“Okay, sir,” the string bean finally piped, “say you’re concerned for your retirement,” Boy, did he have that one right. “just turn the clock ahead to see which of today’s stocks has gone up the most by the time you’re ready to pack it in, then go out and buy it.”
“No kidding, that simple?” Lyman smiled; the best cons were the simple ones. He turned the clock’s dials twenty–five years ahead to his sixty–fifth birthday. “Now press the button, you say?” He looked up, got a chalky–faced nod, and feeling a bit silly, pressed the red button.
Instantly a hot rush surged through his body, he felt a singing in his bones, his knees buckled and his hand shot out to the lamppost for support, the sidewalk beneath him fading in–and–out, in–and–out.
Gradually, two blobs in the cone of light on the cement below him morphed into his slippers. Odd, there were two other blobs there too. Then, awareness dawning, he realized he was standing beside a lamppost, about to give this dip of a string bean a lesson for insulting his intelligence.
Whew, talk about a rush; better’n Acapulco gold, Franken–weed even.
Lyman pushed off the lamppost to wobble on rubbery legs and ran a hand over his head. What the hell…,smooth as a bowling ball. What happened to my hair? Have my fingers gone numb? He shook them out like a pianist about to hit the keys. Then, not knowing what else to do with them, tugged his Yankees jacket up around his neck and hunched his shoulders against the night’s chill air.
Had it gotten colder, darker? He craned up at the strip of sky between the rooftops. No moon. Had it gone behind…? But there were no clouds, and around him the brownstones, stores and theaters all looked a little more…seedy. Then he turned to the bistro across the street and his heart clutched.
Gone was the jack–o–lantern of minutes ago, in its place now was a big red FOR RENT sign plastered across the restaurant’s boarded up window. When did that—? Lyman heard a fluttering sound and snapped around to his right to see the torn playbill of an actress under the shabby marquee flapping in the wind, a spray–painted moustache on her face giving her a mocking sneer that seemed to say, “Oh, you’re in the thrasher, fella.”
Jesus, Lyman thought, either this kid’s got one hell of a Houdini going for him here or I just had a heart attack.
Then Lyman caught a whiff of garbage and remembered—theater district, actors. He slumped, his hopes of having stumbled on one good a scam dashed still further by the reality of a dust devil swirling up the block.
Damn, for a minute….
He lifted his arm to shield his eyes from the flying debris when a sheet of newspaper caught around his leg. He reached down to free it.
“No! Read it!”
Huh? Lyman’s eyes shot up to the glinting peep holes, momentarily stunned by the authority in the voice. Had he misread a brown spot on this piece of fruit? The string bean stood posed at a ninety degree angle to him, caped arms folded over starched shirtfront, staring back down at him from over his high–collared shoulder.
Who’s the dip think he is now, Batman? Some kinda tyrant with his chin hiked up like Mussolini? Humph, actors.
Slowly Lyman raised the sheet of paper up to the lamp’s light, one eye fastened on this odd figure posing in front o him, and began to read. Well, bless my soul, front page of the Wall Street Journal and dated right to my sixty–fifth birthday! How…?
Featured was an article on Archer–Cardin, an advisory firm that took four percent from every one of the Fortune Five Hundred companies in America. “Top stock over last quarter century,” the caption read. An accompanying chart showed that every dollar invested in it twenty–five years ago would have returned ten thousand dollars today.
Unbelievable! Lyman twisted around, half expecting to see grips popping up out of garbage cans with battery–powered fans, prop–men stepping out of doorways with arms full of newspapers. But no; even if so, how could they have known the exact date of his birth, make the paper blow straight to him, wrap around his leg like it did? Oh, he’d learn this trick if he had to kick it out of the kid.
But first do the math; gage the power of the scam from the mark’s point of view. Ten of the two hundred bucks he could raise by hocking his jewelry would return him a hundred grand. A hundred returns a million. And his whole two hundred—two million. Zowee, would that appeal to the larceny in men’s hearts.
A sucker could be made to feel happy washing dishes for twenty–five years believing he had that much money coming to him. Lyman could already think of even better ways to play the scam. No need to wait that long to collect; tell the mark to play the horses, fights, ball games. That way their profits would be immediate. And bookies didn’t stiff you for taxes. In twenty–five days they’d be rich, rich, rich. And in twenty–five minutes he’d be long, long, gone. Man, could he keep body and soul together with this scam!
Considering the size of New York, he could pitch it for years and never work the same neighborhood twice. But if this time–travel gimmick was the hook, what was the catch? In a scam this involved, the payoff would have to be big—way big. Wait’ll the dip finds out all I got is a lousy forty bucks. What youse get for not qualifyin’ your mark first, kid.
Lyman yawned and stretched the stiffness out of his bones. Fordham Road all the way down to Manhattan’s theater district, whew. For a man of forty, he felt like eighty. But this was no time to relax, learn first, rest later. With a glance at his watch he turned the clock’s dials back to the present date and minute. Now he’d look about, watch and see how the trick was done. He pressed the clock’s red button.
He pressed it again, still nothing, then again, and again. He shivered in his skimpy jacket and slippers, the night’s cold air enveloping him like tentacles. Something ain’t right here. From over his shoulder came that fluttering sound again. He spun about this time to see a different face flapping in the breeze; an actor whose sneer seemed to say, “Gotcha now, sucker.”
Lyman began to wonder if pulling this scam off might be beyond his kin. He cocked his head up to those glinting eyes again; “Whaddja do, Dracky–poo, gimme a broken clock? What’s the point of showing a mark his future if he can’t go back an’ buy it? Here, keep your crap.” He tossed the clock back into the tray, only to catch a glimpse of his face in its mirror.
Whoa! His hands shot up to his cheeks and his eyes bulged out like stalks.
Staring back at him was a bald domed, wizened old face, its hairy nostrils bulging out at him like something in a Fun House mirror. The wrinkled chin began to quiver, a plaintive wail rising from its cracked lips and Lyman recognized the cry as his own.
“Easy, easy,” the string bean piped. “Don’t panic, sir. Knock and ye shall enter.” He pressed the clock back into Lyman’s hands. “Set it forward another—“
“The fuck I will!”
“No, no, just for a minute, sir. Time it by your own watch, you’ll see, it works.”
“It damn well better!”
Lyman nudged the clock’s minute hand exactly one increment ahead then eyed his watch. When its second hand came up on twelve he pressed the clock’s button, felt the sidewalk ripple beneath his feet, and watched the second hand sweep to the next increment. Whew!
He looked up at the masked kid, embarrassment wrestling with relief, and got a caped shrug. “Told you so.”
His confidence returned, Lyman traded grins with the rat–like face in the mirror, ever–so–carefully readjusting all five of the clock’s dials back to the present again. He double checked to make sure he’d set them exactly right, then smirked at the wizened old mug, “Adios to youse, pally,” and pressed the red button.
Beady eyes stared back out at him in intense expectation, seconds ticking, five, ten. Again the wrinkled old chin began to quiver, its expectant look slowly morphing into something sick, and a worm of fear began to coil in Lyman’s gut.
He peered up at the grimy buildings hovering over him. Were they leaning in? They seemed to be crowding him, the darkened windows in their gritty facades staring down at him like the milky eyes of the blind.
Enough! He wanted out of this scam, to be done with this weird kid; but not frogged like this. He winced at the sight of the decrepit face in the mirror only to get a ghastly wince back.
Don’t panic, panic only plays into a con man’s hands.
“Listen,” Lyman snarled, gripping his fear with all his might, “youse said forward for future and back for past—right?”
“No, sir. I said you could go forward or back. I never said you could do both. Both would be greedy. Avarice is one of the seven deadly—“
“Why you Bible thumpin’—” But Lyman no longer felt strong enough to kick a hole in a wet paper bag. “Okay, okay,” he wheezed, “how do I get outta this?”
“You could buy another clock, sir.”
“Oh ho, so that’s the catch. Hook the mark inta thinkin’ youse stole his life with the first clock so youse can scare him inta buyin’ the second ta get it back. Cute, pally, but I been in worser spots.” The con’s catch revealed, Lyman rocked up on his toes, his grin triumphant. “So,” he said, “push a lot of these gizmos, do ya?”
“Sir, there isn’t a billionaire on the planet who doesn’t own one,” the string bean piped. “Are you sure I can’t sell you one too?”
Upon my soul, the onions on this kid. Lyman almost thought he saw the Dracula mask smile. “Bite me, pally. All I got is forty bucks so youse can take that silly mask off now an’ tell me what’s your real price.”
“Oh, come now, Mister Lyman,” the string bean said in a suddenly sonorous voice as he doffed his mask to reveal a beet red face, stubby horns and black goatee, “I think you know the price.”