Morning came slowly to Three Oaks.  The tranquil beauty of the previous night was gone.  The sun hid behind thick clouds, leaking pale gray light down on the houses and streets.  A cold, damp wind blew across the fields and streets.  People grunted, and drank coffee and forced themselves out and about on their daily routines.  It was just another day, exactly the same  as the last and sure to be exactly the same as the next.   
    Parker woke up cold and stiff, huddled behind the trash cans at the back of a dirty alley.  Rubbing his eyes blearily, he uncurled himself, wincing as he did so.  A night on the hard ground had not helped the aches and pains from his fight with Big Joe.  He slid out from under his suit jacket and stretched.  The thin fabric, stylish though it was, offered little protection from the cold. 
    A car purred past the opening of the alley.  Parker leaned over gingerly and picked up his hat.  Well, there was little hope of food anytime soon.  His eyes lingered for a second on the trash bags, then snapped away.  Disgusting, really.  Was this what he was reduced too?  What had happened to the five-star hotels and gourmet cuisine? 
    A fly buzzed past his ear.  This was pointless.  Focus.  The job.  Parker picked his way down the alley and peered out into the street.  Frank had said that the meeting with the boss was at Griffon’s pawn shop this morning.  What time was it?  The pawn shop was across the street, and it looked like it was still closed, with no sign of anyone outside.
    Parker looked left and right.  The street was deserted, except for a single car slowly rolling towards him, its engine a muted growl that hinted at speed and power.  Something wasn’t right.  Most cars Parker had seen in this little scrap of a town backfired so loud leaves fell out the the trees.  But this car was quiet.  Parker looked closer.  It was dark and low to the ground and its chrome and dark paint gleamed in the pale light.  It was, he realized, the exact kind of car that a wealthy gentleman of questionable employment would drive.  And it was headed straight for him. 
    Cursing his own stupidity, Parker pulled back into the shadows of the alley.  The car slowed down, the noise of its engine inching closer and closer, then faded.  Hardly daring to breath, Parker leaned forward and peered around the brick corner.
    The car had pulled across the street to park outside of Griffons’ shop.  As Parker watched, two men came around the corner on the other side of the store and slowly approached the car.  One was small with a curtain of greasy hair, while the other was large and brawny.  Even at a distance, Big Joe and Frank were unmistakeable.  They ambled slowly towards the car, each one trying to fall behind the other without appearing to hesitate.  Big Joe almost tripped.  Parker stifled a laugh.
    The laugh trailed off as Parker thought more and more about his position.  He had to approach an unknown crime boss in the middle of a job, somehow prevent Frank from setting Big Jo on him on sight, convince this mysterious boss to let him join, and pray he earned enough money for a train ticket by the end of the day.  He had nothing out here, no contacts, no information, nothing but a words and a smile to back them up.  No plan, no guarantees, plenty of danger, and plenty of uncertainty.  He knew he should leave.  Leave without looking back.  That was the smart choice. 
    Then Amanda’s face flashed through his mind.  Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the stuffed elephant with the pink bow.  Tenderly he rubbed off a speck of dirt, then replaced it.  He squared his shoulders, brushed off his suit, and strode out of the alley, with nothing but words and a smile.  Somehow, Parker liked it better this way.     
    The street outside of the alley was deserted at this time of the morning.  The black car was parked on the opposite side of the street.  Frank and Big Joe stood on the sidewalk on the other side of the car, talking with the passenger through the side window.  Parker walked quickly towards them.  He had, perhaps thirty seconds to make his case.  Forget Frank and his pet ape, focus on the boss.  Words and a smile. 
    He was halfway across the street when Frank spotted him.
    “You!”  His face twisted in fury.  “You don’t learn, do you smart man?” 
    Parker ignored him and sped up.  “Sir, I have a business proposition that I think you should hear...”
    “Don’t you ignore me, you piece of scum!” Frank’s high-pitched squeal drowned him out.  “Big Joe, get him out of here and make sure he don’t come back!” 
     Big Joe ambled forward, grinning like a kid that just got an unexpected present.  Hands the size of dinner plates reached out.  “No running this time,” he grunted.  “Makes it easier.” 
    Parker ducked, his heart racing, trying not to think about how close those hands were to his neck.  The car!  The boss!  He spun around onto the sidewalk as one of Big Joe’s hands caught the back of his jacket.  No!  He was so close!  The jacket tightened, Big Joe started to haul him in.  Parker yelled at the window.  “Sir, listen to me, whatever job you’re running here, I can do it twice as well as these half-wits!”
    “Half-wit!”  Frank snarled, spittle flying everywhere.  “Give him a good one Joe!”  Big Joe yanked hard on Parker’s coat and drew back a ham-sized fist.  Parker had an image of his teeth bouncing and rattling all over the pavement.  He covered his head.  The fist tightened.  “Do it,” screamed Frank.
    “Stop.”  The word lingered in the sudden silence, freezing everyone where they stood.  Frank and Big Joe stood stock still, the latter with one fist still raised.  But it had stopped moving towards Parker, so that was an improvement.  Parker slowly lifted his head and looked at the car window.  It was rolled down, but the deep shadows inside blocked any view of the interior.  As he watched, a single plume of cigar smoke spiraled out. 
    “Frank.”  The voice was deep and melodic.  “Did I just hear you give an order?” 
     Frank’s mind threw itself into reverse so fast Parker could almost hear gears screeching.  “N-No, no of course not sir, I wouldn’t, well, maybe, but certainly not without permission.  Just a mistake, sir.”
    “A mistake?  Are you suggesting that I made a mistake?”  The tone of the question emphatically suggested that there was a right and a very wrong answer to it. 
    The color drained out of Frank’s face.  “No, oh no, sir, not at all.”
    “Whose mistake was it then, Frank?” 
    Franks mouth twisted, as though the words were distasteful for him.  “Mine, sir.   My mistake,” he stammered.  His eyes shot daggers at Parker.
    “Very well then.  Now perhaps you would like to tell me who our guest is, and how he knows so much about us?”  The voice was slow and rich, each word precisely measured.  The voice of a professional.
    At last, thought Parker.  “I can speak for myself sir, if you don’t mind.”  He pressed on, ignoring Frank’s glares.  “My name is Parker, and I am a man somewhat gifted in the art of vocal persuasion.  I find myself at the moment to be in need of funds and without any way of obtaining them.  I overheard discussing business last night and approached them.”  He glanced at Frank and smiled slightly.  Frank’s jaw twitched, but he held himself back.  “After a introduction to Big Joe here, I took it upon myself to find you and offer my services personally.”  Big Joe just looked confused, still holding Parker’s jacket in one hand.  But his fist had lowered slightly.  So far, so good. 
    There was a long pause.  Another spiral of smoke unfolded itself out of the car window. 
    “I see.”  The voice sounded pensive.  “Joe, Frank, what do you have to say about this?”
    “I don’t trust him, sir.  With respect.  I don’t think we need anyone else’s help”  Frank’s expression said that there were harsher words he would like to use as well. 
    “I did not ask what you thought, Frank.  Is what he said true?”
    “Yes or no, Frank.”  The voice rumbled for a split second.  Parker had a sudden vision of the tiny rocks that fall before an avalanche.
    “Yeah,”  Frank spat.  “It’s true.”
    “I see.  Joe?  Is he correct?”
    Big Joe shook his head slowly.  “Didn’t intro-duce nothin’.  I just kicked him.” 
    The voice chuckled.  “Very well then.  Parker, I believe we may discuss business.”  There was a click and the car door swung open.  “Please, get in.”
    Frank took one last stab.  “Boss, I don’t know if...”
    The voice cut him off, speaking calmly and softly.  Somehow, no one had trouble hearing it.  “If I were you, Frank, I would pay more attention to where and when you use that mouth of yours.  It may cause trouble.”  Noticeably pale, Frank gulped and backed up.  The voice continued.  “Meet back here in one hour.  It is almost time to begin.”
      Parker gave him a little wave, then tugged sharply on his jacket.  It popped out of Big Joe’s fist easily.  Parker stepped forward and ducked into the car, pulling the door shut behind him.  A hand materialized from the shadows next to him and rapped on the glass divider between them and the driver.  The voice spoke.  “Drive, Maurice.”  The man in front did not reply, but started the car immediately.  As they pulled away from the sidewalk, Parker caught a glimpse of Frank, seething with fury, and Big Joe scratching his head again.  This was it, then.  Things were moving.  Parker settled back into the plush leather seat.  Time to find out just what he had gotten himself into.

The End

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