By Caleb Long
The world rushed by the window of one of the train’s many passenger cars. The crowded car was anything but silent, but the three of us were. I watched Edison as he carefully raised his cup to his mouth in an attempt to sip the herbal contents without letting the rattle of the train cause him to spill them into his lap.
“Tickets please,” the conductor requested with a booming yet good natured voice.
Edison, Franklin, and I handed ours over as the tidily dressed man came by. He punched them, and placed them on the table between the booth style seat that we occupied. They weren’t our tickets, however, in the sense that we had bought them, or earned them fair-and-square in a raffle or a game of five card draw. We could afford tickets (or at least Edison and Franklin could), but stealing them was just part of the game. The high steaks game of invention.
Edison James and Franklin Pierce were inventors. They reinvented themselves constantly. They’d been doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, government officials of various titles, police officers, and even janitorial staff. Whatever it took to get them near people with deep pockets. Long enough to make a buck or several, then they disappeared. They worked hard to keep from having to make an honest living, and they were good at it. Method acting, sleight of hand, and well crafted lies were only a few of their highly developed skills. I was the apprentice.
“Watch and learn, kid,” Franklin said as we navigated the crowded train station just minutes before it was time to board. He looked around for about thirty seconds or so, and pointed to a woman holding two tickets looking unsure of herself, giving a slight nod to Edison, who was standing several yards to the right. Edison walked up to the lady with a pleasant look on his face.
“I couldn’t help but notice you look turned around, miss,” he said, “let me take a look at those tickets. I may be able to point you in the right direction.”
The second the tickets changed hands, Franklin took the role of a very rushed potential passenger, walked between Edison and the woman, and by the time he had accidentally bumped her and apologized, Edison had vanished into the crowd without a trace. The woman yelled for the men with the copper buttons on their uniforms, but by the time they were alerted, it was too late. Or just late enough.
Edison appeared behind me somehow with a different jacket and hat.
“One more time boys, we need a pass for the trainee,” he said. “You’re up Vinny.”
I succeeded in distracting the next unsure ticket-holder and earned my spot next to Franklin in the booth.
“Did you notice the officer looked right at me when they were looking for the thief?” Edison broke our silence and put his mentoring face on. “People can’t describe faces, they don’t pay enough attention. They can barely describe clothes, but that’s normally what comes out to the coppers. The woman would have recognized me, but she couldn't describe me. Never let the witness see you again.”
I nodded to express my understanding.
“And timing is everything, Vin,” Franklin added, “We had to make the move as close to departure as possible, so the conductors didn’t have time to be alerted. See?” He gestured around the car. “All is well, everyone is at peace, and the souls we snatched the tickets from have bought new ones, no worse for wear.”
“What happens if we get caught?” I asked as I sipped my own cup of tea.
“We don’t get caught,” they answered without skipping a beat or acknowledging that they’d just spoken in unison. I left it at that. The plan had been made, the roles had been given. Now just the pregame focus. I contented myself with that. I liked having a role. A clear role that was defined, practiced and achievable. I didn’t have a role before Franklin and Edison. We settled back into our focused silence, and I watched Edison drink his tea and Franklin sip his scotch. Every invention of Franklin’s loved scotch.
The train came to a gradual stop at the St. Pancras station. The gala and silent auction was soon. We could have gotten a cab, but it was imperative that we appear like we belong; and Franklin knew a guy, so we’d be arriving in two 1800 Triumph Roadsters. Franklin had saved his life at Omaha Beach, so he felt like he’d owed him at least a lifetime worth of favors, which Franklin only occasionally took advantage of. We changed into our formal attire (which we had bought as an investment) and met the man with the Roadsters outside the station. The first one to pull up caught my eye. It was beautiful. Shiny, blood red with white wall tires and a body shapely, smooth and oh so lovely, like a woman who knew the looks she drew when she walked into a room. The driver stepped out and yielded the driver’s seat, which Edison allowed me to take. Franklin climbed in the passenger seat of the second next to his friend who supplied the vehicles. I didn’t feel like Vinny when I sat inside that machine. I felt like someone who belonged where we were going. Like I belonged in this role.
“How have you been Hank? How’s the wife and kids?” I heard Franklin ask his friend as we settled into our rides.
“Good, they’re good,” Hank responded to both questions at once, “you know as well as anyone that adjusting back doesn’t happen quite as easy as the boat ride home.”
Franklin nodded. He and Hank shared a mutual blank stare into the dash of the still motionless Roadster.
“Listen Hank, I appreciate you doing this. And not reporting us and all…”
“Hey, anything for you old friend, you’re making a living just like the rest of us as far as I can tell.”
We pulled away, and from what I could see, they spent the rest of the ride without uttering anything else of meaning.
As we puttered across the bumpy road that led to our destination, Edison pulled out his wallet, opened it, and produced an old wrinkled photo of a pretty woman with dark hair and a sweet smile. He looked at it, and ran his thumb over it as if to will his mind to remember what is was like to touch her in real life. Every invention of Edison’s loved this woman.
After a drive that was most likely shorter than it felt, we pulled up in our high fashion motor vehicles to the almost palace-like house where the gala was being held. Edison and I stepped out of the car as the original driver of the two seater hopped out of a cab he’d followed in to reclaim the driver's seat. Franklin bid adieu to his friend and came behind us.
“Alright kid, this is your first real role invention,” Franklin said, “Don’t forget who you are.”
He had a look on his face that was benevolent, but showed me there was no more important instruction than that.
“Got it,” I said, “I won’t let you down.” I knew my roles, I’d done my homework, and I was prepared.
I can’t remember now who Edison had told me the large home was owned by specifically, but it was someone who clearly had no shortage of money to enjoy the benefits of. Old family money he’d handled well. That’s how it usually was. Men in tuxedos and women in their evening dresses strutted in the grand entrance of the estate like lucky penguins escorting confused tropical birds. The event was being held as a benefit for the orphanage that had all too many residents after the war. The cause was noble, and the benefit for the children would be substantial, but most of the high class guests took events like this as an opportunity to show off their extravagant means. Our objective was clear-- mingle with the guests, get close, use the density of the crowd to take valuable items off of them. No engagement or wedding rings allowed, silent auction items are off limits. We’re not taking from the children, we’re taking what these people don’t need. Maintain your persona. Don’t forget who you are.
We exited the vehicles as different people than we got in. Edison took on a limp and a stoic countenance that chilled one’s bones to wonder what it had been through. He used the cane he had brought along for support. Franklin walked tall slightly in front of Edison and looked similarly stern, but not quite as jaded. I did my best to play along, hiding the butterflies that had alighted in my stomach, and walked next to Franklin.
“Name?” said the man at the entrance when we finally conquered the length of the front walk.
“General Langston,” Franklin replied in reference to the stoic Edison behind him. “I’m his brother, Scott Langston, and this is my son, the general’s nephew. I believe the host has been notified that we would be attending with the general as translators.”
“Um, I see no Langston, sir,” said the door man after looking over his list.
Franklin turned to Edison without bothering to address the man again, “He says you aren’t on the list.” He mirrored his speech with sign language. Edison, without change in his expression, signed back.
Franklin turned back to the man and spoke for Edison, “The general invites you to verify his invitation with the host, but he warns that he anticipates the host will most likely be quite displeased that the general’s name has been overlooked.”
I watched as the gatekeeper’s wheels turned. He looked back over his list, looked over his shoulder into the entre hall, and back at his list briefly.
“Tell General Langston that won’t be necessary, Mr. Langston,” the man stepped aside. “Thank you for attending.”
“Thank you good sir,” Franklin replied as we passed through the first threshold of the evening’s mission.
The doorman had an invention of his own. The invention of someone sure of himself. My mentors were teaching me to exploit the inventions of those who didn’t know they’d made them. It was an advantage to be the only ones in the room in acknowledgement of our inventions. Now that we were inside, our roles changed. Only the doorman would encounter the general and his relatives, he wouldn’t leave his post all evening, and we needed roles easier to maintain. And roles that allowed us to split up. So Franklin became an Oxford professor in religion, Edison became a prosperous business owner, and I became an aspiring composer living off my wealthy family’s money, invited by acquaintance with the host’s daughter. These inventions didn’t know each other.
We went to work, making evening-long friends. We mingled with everyone we could, used handshakes to snatch high dollar watches and bracelets, accidental bumps to lift wallets, hand kisses to acquire rings from the right hand. And the occasional cheek kiss with a French guest for a necklace. We relieved ourselves of the bulk of wallets via various trash cans and plants on the premises, but the rest went in our various pockets specially tailored to hold such loot. People like this were too preoccupied with themselves to notice their accessories’ whereabouts. Too busy maintaining their own inventions to see through ours.
The plan was to get what we determined would be enough to cover the cost of the trouble we went to and get out. This plan was going off without a hitch, and I was headed for the door with Edison and Franklin discretely heading in the same direction, when a voice rang over the crowd.
“Everybody listen up!” The voice said with unprovoked anger. My eyes followed the sound to a man standing near the door, splitting the distance between Edison and Franklin, about three or four yards from either one. How he got past the doorman with his tommy gun in hand, I still don’t know, but I’m sure my mentors knew. They could have done it themselves, but they wouldn’t have.
“Everyone, jewelry and wallets in the bag, and no one gets hurt!” the man waved the gun around like he didn’t know the weight of the power he held. Surely he did though. He was old enough to have used one in the war against his fellow Europeans less than half a decade ago. The readjustment hadn’t served him well. The crowded room fell into panic as men and women reached for their valuables, many of them finding them absent already. I directed my gaze to the front of the room where the angry man was standing near my counterparts, in hope of finding some kind of reassurance from it. The look on Franklin’s face told me exactly what he was thinking, even from a distance.
His brow furrowed, and his eyes narrowed in sheer outrage. He caught the look of Edison and gave a nod. They were the only ones in the room with their wits about them. They never lost their wits.
The angry man didn’t appear to want jewels as badly as he wanted a reason to be angry. His invention was simply a shell–of someone who wasn’t terribly broken inside. He quickly grew impatient and began firing shots at the ceiling. Consoling him in the form of payment appeared to be out of the question. Franklin and Edison closed.
“Hey!” Franklin yelled at him from less than a foot away, with a voice that would frighten a lion, and when the man turned, Franklin hit him with a powerful right hook. As he fell, Edison grabbed hold of the Thompson and disarmed him, but not before he was able to pull the trigger one last time. The angry man regained his whits and scampered off like a puppy who’d picked a fight with a clydesdale. His invention fell apart. Edison let him go.
I felt compelled to cry out, but my vocal chords failed me as I ran towards my teachers. Franklin was on the ground, Edison now beside him, yelling for help. I hit my knees as they closed on their location, sliding on the marble floor. My fear was confirmed as I took a closer look. Franklin had what appeared to be two bullet holes in his abdomen, about three inches apart where the angry man had blindly pulled the trigger one last time in the daze of Franklin’s blow.
A couple of men, presumably doctors, came to his aid as Edison and I stepped back, the rest of the room still in a panic. Franklin shrugged them off momentarily and looked right at me.
“Vin!” he said with an urgency only barely conveyable by his breathless state. “Don’t forget who you are.”
He didn’t remain conscious for long. He was losing too much blood. At least that’s what I heard one of the doctors say in their attempt to mend him. They say he made it to the hospital alive, but by the time Edison and I made it to his side again he was gone. I still don’t know how he managed to do it, but he’d dropped his stolen items somewhere before the exchange with the gunman. Edison and I were able to do the same, but only just before we rushed to where they were taking Franklin. The bounty didn’t matter anymore. This isn’t how it was supposed to go. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be done.
I didn’t understand Franklin’s words to me until they became his last.
“Don’t forget who you are.”
No matter his role he never forgot who he was. He was a good man. He was the kind of man who didn’t allow the taking of items meant to benefit orphans, who wouldn’t think of stealing the symbol of commitment given by lovers. He was a man who played roles but always allowed a part of himself into that role. He was genuine. He was a saver of lives. He was a hero. I never forgot that, and neither did Edison.
Edison and I still talk over a cup of tea when life allows for it.
“How are those copper buttons fitting you these days?” Edison always asks with the same smug smirk on his face every time.
“Gee wiz, Edison, you know I don’t wear the uniform, I’m under cover.” I always respond good-naturedly, and with a hushed tone. Or something along those lines.
I ask him how the film business is treating him, and what is he acting in right now. I guess neither of us could really walk away from inventing. I ask how Marrie and the boy, Ed, are doing. His ear to ear grin tells the answer before he can ever speak. Marrie is the pretty woman with the dark hair and sweet smile from the photograph. He found her. Found out he had a chance to make amends after all. Little Ed is the child she was pregnant with when Edison was shipped off to war.
We talk about Franklin. He tells me stories of the two of them and I find myself missing him in a way that would suggest I’d known him a lifetime before he left. When we finish our tea we get up from the table, thank the closest employee, and return to the London street we entered from. I go my way and Edison his.
“Hey Vin!” Edison yells from the corner before he crosses the street, “Don’t forget who you are.”
“Hold me to it, friend, and you neither.” I respond.
We never forget who we are.