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Everybody has a method, right? Like, there’s scientific method and method acting and teachers and doctors have their methods. Even businesses have their methods. Well, I can tell you, Granny had her method and her “grandchildren” either learned it or we were gone.
“It’s quite simple, Vanessa,” Granny had a way of making her point clear, especially when she wasn’t looking directly at you. Her voice cut like steel and ice, “you know what to do and you will do it.”
“She’s not ready, Granny,” I stood behind the younger girl, tying the bow in her hair, “why not let me or Bryan do it?”
“Nonsense,” Granny sorted through the paperwork on her desk, “Vanessa is thirteen.” Her hand stopped mid-air as she looked over at us. “At her age, Maggie, you were nearly as good as me,” she turned back to her desk, “We leave in fifteen minutes. See that you’re ready.”
She was right. I was good. I could move through the crowd and people didn’t even know their watch or their wallet or their necklace was missing. Bryan liked car keys and room keys. He would wander in and out of the concert or meeting room or lecture hall, a happy grin on his fifteen year old cherubic face and always had a good haul by the time we got back to the house.
“How do you manage to get the right key back to the right person,” I asked? We headed downstairs to leave for the afternoon lecture to rich patrons on the plight of suffering third-world urchins.
“Dunno. My brain just remembers,” Bryan looked honest and trustworthy. No one ever suspected.
Bryan and I had been at this for about five years and we knew the drill. Granny handed us school books. We spent our mornings studying. Granny tested us and accepted nothing but high grades. Then we practiced our trade. Granny expected us to excel. We earned our keep. Fail at our studies or at our trade meant being locked in our rooms with only bread and water until we got it right.
I looked back up the stairs at Vanessa, who lagged behind, “Come on, it will be ok.” If my method worked, it would be ok.
I had to be quick. Vanessa looked like Alice down the rabbit hole. She was pale and stiff as a board. She’d gone for a wallet and fumbled it. The old guy turned and saw his wallet on the floor at his feet. If she caved and tears fell, she’d confess and it would all be over.
I scooped up the wallet, held it out to him and put my arm around Vanessa.
“This must be yours, sir,” I batted my eyes and did my sweetest, friendliest smile, “Vanessa is such a talented artist. She’s always dreaming and not watching where she’s going.”
He took the wallet, a mixture of doubt and relief on his face.
“Fine,” Granny closed the safe and pressed the lever that moved the section of bookcase back in place, concealing the hidden safe. She came across the Aubusson rug toward us, diamonds at her neck and ears glittering above her white ermine stole.
“I’ll give you more time to work with Vanessa,” she moved up the walnut circular staircase.
I squeezed Vanessa’s arm and smiled at her.
“But know this,” Granny turned at the top of the stairs to look at us, her eyes scathing, “I don’t need worthless orphans who can’t do their job.”
We couldn’t only work Granny’s rich society functions. It brought in good hauls but it’d be too suspicious to just hit them, so Bryan and I worked the crowds at Grand Central, along Wall Street and the subways most afternoons. We dressed for these gigs in jeans and t-shirts and could move in and out of the bustling corporate types and do pretty well, although not that many people carried cash these days. Didn’t matter much. Granny had contacts to move the iPhones and iPads, whatever we picked up.
It was my idea to set Vanessa up with an easel for her ink drawings. She’d sit on a wall or bench, an art box at her feet and earn a few dollars while she drew. Granny wasn’t thrilled, but at least Vanessa was worth something. I knew Granny was cutting me some slack because I’d worked hard and earned her respect. Even so, Vanessa’s failure to pick-pocket wouldn’t be tolerated much longer. If all went well with my method, it wouldn’t matter.
I had my eye on a girl about Vanessa’s age that I’d seen several times. She looked pretty rough. Dirty clothes, hair not washed much, but her face was clean, she had a great smile and she moved liked lightning. I started bringing an extra sandwich. Granny penny-pinched on our food and we weren’t to spend any of our haul. Bryan would grab a sandwich off a stall once in a while, but most of the vendors dished up what people wanted and it would cause too much attention to steal from them.
“Got an extra sandwich,” I moved up behind the dirty street girl just as she started to brush against a guy wearing a Rolex, “wanna take a break?”
It took several weeks of finding her daily and being friendly until she was comfortable. Jasmine was her street name. The way she said it, I was pretty sure she’d chosen it herself.
It didn’t take much to convince Bryan we could use another fast hand. He liked the idea of keeping Granny happy and off our backs. A happy Granny meant more perks for us. We’d done well enough last year that Granny took a vacation in the Bahamas, where we picked-up another haul but also got to swim and deep-sea dive.
“How’d you like three squares, new clothes, a hot bath and your own room?” I took a bite of sandwich and watched Jasmine’s face.
It was a risk bringing Jasmine back to the house. I had to promise her part of my next day’s haul if it didn’t work out after she showed her haul to Granny. But if Granny liked her, she’d trade sleeping on the street and the few bucks she was getting at pawn shops for a comfortable life.
I could tell Granny was impressed with Jasmine’s haul. It was about the same as mine for the afternoon and more than Bryan’s. Granny and Jasmine sized each other up. Granny had her walk around the room while she asked her questions, mostly I think, to hear how Jasmine talked. Without taking her eyes off Jasmine, Granny said,
“It will be up to you, Maggie, to see she is ready for the opera at the end of the month.”
I grinned at Jasmine. “You’re in,” I whispered as we left Granny’s library and headed upstairs to show Jasmine her room.
I worked hard with Jasmine. Mornings, how to talk and what to say in the ritzy crowd; making sure she knew how to get clean, do her hair and choose appropriate clothing; plus, intense tutoring in the school books, all the while telling her about the trips, the perks, the pay-off for doing it all well. She was sharp and caught on fast.
Afternoons and the 5-7 pm rush hour, we were back on the streets. Jasmine moved even faster and was less noticeable now that she was clean and had fresh clothes. She flashed that big smile and people didn’t suspect a thing. Granny’s wariness began to fade, though her eagle eye missed nothing.
We made it through the opera night without a hitch and an even bigger haul with Jasmine along. Granny was pleased. Her eye began to linger on Vanessa. I knew what she was thinking. She’d have to spend money on art training to get Vanessa’s skill to bring in a good return. Was Vanessa’s talent worth the years, the effort and the money it would take? If she decided no, then Vanessa would disappear. I’d seen two other girls disappear over the years. I never knew what happened to them.
It was time to put the next part of my method into action.
We hit the streets about 8 a.m. that Saturday. Jasmine and Bryan moved off into the crowd. Vanessa was about to set up on a bench when I took her arm and hurried her down the street. A four block walk and we were at Penn Station. I lifted a wallet off a woman and dug out enough cash to buy two tickets to Philadelphia.
“Where are we going?” Vanessa asked as we found seats. She hugged her art box to her chest and looked shaky. The only times we left the City, we were in Granny’s limo.
“Do you trust me?” I looked into her eyes. She nodded. I opened my book bag and showed her my wad of cash. Her eyes got round as saucers.
“Granny is not going to like this,” she said.
“I’ve been putting a few dollars away every day for a long time.” I closed the book bag and wrapped my arms around it, just like any other student on the train. “Granny’s not the only one who has hiding places.”
“You were four and I was eight when they separated us and sent us to different children’s homes,” I reached for her hand. “It took me over a year to find you using Granny’s contacts. I’m not going to lose you now.”
She looked puzzled.
“You’re my sister, Iris,” my voice went gruff over the frog in my throat, “and no one is going to keep us apart again.”
“Iris. No one’s called me by my middle name since my Mama died.” She stared at me. “I had a sister. Mags.”
“You have a sister, Iris. I’m Mags. Maggie.”
Her eyes got round again and, as I knew they would, tears came. We reached for each other and held on tight.