Nolan was a horrible crook.
Of his 46 years, two decades had been spent behind bars. He’d done it all and failed miserably. A venture into stolen cars nearly got him killed after he ran into a patrol car. His two attempts at bank robbing? He’d nabbed a pitiful $400 the first time; on the second try, he left the money bag on the counter. There was also a credit card scheme; acting as go-between for a warehouse that looked to have some of its supply fall off the trucks; illegal DVDs; lookout for meth dealers, et.al. All utter disasters; jail time, or worse, little to no profit.
Fortunately, Nolan could always depend on his Halloween gig. It was a blessing. He’d gotten the idea after watching the chaos called the East Village Halloween Parade. Everyone going absolutely gaga and Nolan imagined every single apartment on that side of New York City had to be easy pickings. The following Halloween, he discovered they pretty much were. Nolan grabbed near a grand in loot, practically under the noses of the tenants. The next year, he did even better. Since, Nolan had moved up the ladder, going from city tenements to lower and upscale neighborhoods. The press even had a name for him: The All Hallows Hood.
At least four weeks preceding the holiday, Nolan would scout. Pick the neighborhood he’d hit, which houses were likely the easiest to take. He’d discreetly monitor these homes. Learn the area. Find the spots for getting in and out quick with as much swag as manageable. The sweet spots, of course, were the over-decorated places. The people who plastered the house with ghosts and skeletons and goblins and pumpkins and zombies and it was so evident that they loved the holiday and would be giddy about the trick-and-treating and would stay close to the door and spend time giggling over all the cute costumes and being such morons. Nolan loved them.
He’d hide in the shadows of their driveway or in back of the house, waiting for the doorbell to ring. If he was lucky, he’d see the kiddies making their way to the door. Before hearing the bright ‘Trick-or-Treat’, he’d get in the house, either picking a back door lock or slipping through the patio door or the always convenient cracked window because, hey, everyone needs a little air.
This was the fourth house Nolan would hit this Halloween. It was well past dark and he figured one more before the kids start making their way home to consume the goodies. The knapsack on his back wasn’t that heavy, but it was reasonably stuffed. He had a couple of laptops, jewelry, two iPads, any number of cell phones and electronic devices, and enough cash to make his eyes moisten.
He’d deliberately saved this house for last. The décor had started going up two weeks earlier. A zombie stood at the fence. There was a flailing ghost on a string. Jack-o-lanterns decorated the front yard.
The woman that lived in this modest house was, forgive the cliché, slower than molasses. With a dusty Escort in the driveway, she was alone, constantly mumbling to herself. This woman spent her days in a housecoat. She watered the weeds of an unkempt lawn and, at night, watched television in the front room. With a view of just that room, Nolan saw any number of pieces he’d gladly pick up. He could only imagine what lie elsewhere.
Tucked safely in the bushes and trees off to the side of the house, he saw a group of probably a half dozen kids, accompanied by a pair of un-costumed adults. Their voices were cherry and they tittered with embarrassment as the zombie’s motion sensor made it swing towards them, raising its lanky arms in a sad display of terror. As the group hurried up the walkway, Nolan hurried to the back, lock pick in hand. He had the door open before the bell rang, was inside before a celebratory chorus of ‘Trick or Trick’ filled the front of the house.
“Oh my, my, my,” he heard the old lady say with a laugh. “You look so very, very scary.”
Nolan moved with a dancer’s grace, sprinting quietly across the kitchen. He cracked the swinging door and saw a hallway. At the end was the front room. There was a turn midway, leading to the rest of the house. He needed to get there and do his thing.
“And just who’re you supposed to be?” the lady asked one of the kids.
“Com’on,” the child responded amid the chuckles. “Guess.”
Nolan went to run when a man in a slick suit stepped into view. With a curse, Nolan jerked back, pinning his spine to the kitchen wall. He wasn’t sure if the guy saw him. The man wasn’t looking his way. Nolan was sure of this. He was kind of sure. Pretty sure? No, the man didn’t see him. Did he? What the hell was he doing here anyway? During his recon, Nolan hadn’t seen one guest come anywhere near this house, let alone step inside. Not one soul.
Steeling himself, Nolan peered out, not letting the door get wider than the length of his eye.
Lighting a cigarette, the man in the slick suit, stood in the front room with his back to Nolan. His blond hair pulled in a taunt, neat pony tail, the man appeared far more interested in his smoke and the shenanigans at the door.
“I’m The Hulk,” the boy said with a child’s annoyance.
“Oh,” the lady said, “I knew that.”
Gritting his teeth and deciding he couldn’t avoid to waste time, Nolan slipped through the kitchen door and sprinted elegantly across the floor, never taking his eyes off Pony Tail. The man blew a stream of smoke into the air above his head.
“Oh, easy, easy now,” the lady admonished the children playfully. “I’ve got more than enough for everybody.”
Pony Tail began to turn. Was he about to sit down? Did he suddenly want to go into the kitchen? Had he heard something?
Holding his breath, Nolan dove around the hall’s turn and pressed himself face forward into the near wall. He didn’t hear footfalls but chancing it wasn’t an option. He raced over to an armoire and hid behind it.
Apparently none the wiser of the new houseguest, Pony Tail headed for the kitchen, blowing cigarette smoke over his head.
Nolan shuddered with relief.
“Oh, go ahead and take two,” the lady said.
“Oh god no,” one of the adults said. “She’s got enough.”
“Nonsense. It’s Halloween. Let them have some fun.”
The voices softened after Nolan got on the other side of the nearest door. He waited. And waited some more. Convincing himself that he had not been detected, Nolan looked about the library and grinned. As suspected, this place was a treasure chest. In the library, he grabbed a matching pair of gold candle holders; in the den, Nolan found another laptop and a poorly hidden envelope that contained several thousand dollars; there was a gold pin and matching earrings on the bathroom sink. Ecstatic, Nolan wanted to do a rumba and throw things that would break.
On two occasions, he almost ran into the man in the suit. That Pony Tail was able to get so close without making a sound both impressed and terrified Nolan. Initially, coming out of that first room, the library, Nolan cracked the door enough to see if the hall was clear. He thought it was. Yet the moment he went to go, there was Pony Tail with that infernal cigarette. So close that the idea he hadn’t seen Nolan to his left was unbelievable. It was too late to close the door. Nolan couldn’t back away. He had no choice but to freeze. But Pony Tail was focused on his cigarette. More specifically, the blowing of smoke rings. He strolled along the hall toward the front of the house, oblivious to Nolan.
Once clear, Nolan marveled how Pony Tail got from the front to the back of the house without making a noticeable noise. Nolan could hear a feather hit the floor and just didn’t understand that.
The second time was when Nolan came out of the den. Now, this time, he was damn sure both the woman and Pony Tail were in the front room. The bell actually rang as they were talking. Nolan saw that as the opportunity to get to the next part of the house. Yet, as he was dashing between the rooms – completely out in the open – there was Pony Tail, walking across the hall in front of him. There was no place on either side of Nolan to hide. He pinned his body to the nearest wall and kept still. Nolan wanted to squeeze his eyes shut in hopes that made him invisible. But he didn’t dare do that because he needed to see Pony Tail look at him. It was going to happen. Pony Tail was right there and Nolan was right there and the son of a bitch had to see Nolan. He had to. Nolan held his breathe.
But the man in the suit passed on as if he had all the time in the world.
Despite the fear bubbling at the top, Nolan felt a tinge of frustration and confusion. This was the wrong side of the house! That was all Nolan could think. He’d heard Pony Tail’s voice in the front room. There was no way he should be on this side of the house.
Nolan considered getting the heck outta Dodge. But once he heard their voices in the same room again, once he heard the doorbell, Nolan’s greed took over. He had to find the bedroom. That was always the jackpot. The job’s not done until the bedroom’s hit. Dem’s the rules. So he found it and thankfully finished the job. The weight of the backpack was impressive and he imagined clearing somewhere in the mid-thousands. NOW it was time to get the heck outta Dodge.
Nolan went to the nearest window. Cautiously, he looked over his shoulder one last time and found the man in the suit standing there with a cigarette and a look of serenity that managed to shoot a dagger of shock in Nolan’s chest. The knapsack dangling from his shoulder, Nolan threw his hands in the air.
“Easy, man,” Nolan said. “Take it easy.”
Pony Tail smiled. “Okay.” He took a drag, blew smoke rings.
“I haven’t hurt anybody,” Nolan stammered. “And I never have. I’m all about peace, man. Okay. I can leave the stuff and just go. Just go.”
The doorbell rang. In a moment came another chorus of ‘TRICK OR TREAT’. It made Pony Tail grin before returning his attention to Nolan.
“I can just leave the stuff and go,” Nolan continued. “No harm. No fowl. Right?” He set the knapsack on the floor carefully. “See?”
The woman talked animatedly with the children, excitedly exchanging candy for their company.
“Perhaps,” the man said, rubbing his temple thoughtfully, “we need to call the authorities.”
“No, no, no, no, no, no.” Nolan’s voice went through a succession of octaves. “We can work this out. I know we can. See, there isn’t just your stuff in there, but a lot of other stuff. Worth some serious dough. You get to keep it all.”
“I don’t need it, Nolan.”
“Aw, com’on, man. Look at you, all ready for your party. Why you wanna go and ruin your evening. You’ll have to wait for the cops. Answer questions. Paperwork, all the bother. Come on, seriously.”
Puzzled, Pony Tail studied Nolan with a furrowed brow. “Party?”
Nolan gave the man a once over. He thought to compliment Pony Tail’s attire and that was when Nolan noticed it was … different. It startled him. At least, he believed it was … different. It was still one slick suit, all perfect cuts, cufflinks, silk tie. Only, Nolan was damn sure that it wasn’t red before. It was brown. It might have been a deep shade of red. A dark brown? Wasn’t it?
It definitely wasn’t the bright, stunning, crisp red he was looking at now.
Well, it had to be, right? He’d been avoiding the guy all night. When did he change his clothes?
For that matter, when did he put on all that make-up? Hell, how did he even get in here? Nolan had locked the door. He knows he locked the door!
“The costume party,” Nolan said, still hoping to salvage this – whatever this was! “I mean, I’m telling you, man, that’s one sweet costume. I wouldn’t wanna see it go to waste. You know what I’m saying?”
Pony Tail took a drag of smoke. Stepping to the side – without turning away – Pony Tail leaned a little forward, tilting his head slightly. With a bemused air, he studied himself in a mirror. The color of his skin was a shade lighter than the suit, but still a clean, striking red, standing out against a receding hairline of shiny blonde strands tugged tightly in a pony tail. The only other color was the bone white of the tiny bull horns. There was one on each side of his forehead, where the hairline was going away.
Nolan could hear his own breathing because it had become quite pronounced. But he was determined to remain cool. “I mean,” he said, “that’s a serious costume, man. That’s one serious costume. Like I said, it’d be a shame to waste it.”
“I’m sorry, Nolan, but I’m confused.” Pony Tail smiled. “What costume?”
Nolan went to speak, but the words stalled. Another perplexed thought came instead. “Do I know you?”
The man in the suit dragged his cigarette casually.
“I mean,” Nolan said, and, as he spoke, what was beginning to sink in disturbed him, “you called me by my name.”
“Twice,” the man in the suit shot back.
Nolan swallowed. “But I don’t know you.”
At the front of the house, another chorus of children called out for their treats.
“But I do know you,” Pony Tail said.
* * * * *
“Where have you been?” the woman asked. She was replenishing the candy bowl.
The man in the suit smiled. “I was in the back, Ma. Thought I heard something.”
“Me too,” she snarled playfully. “What’d you break?”
“Oh, nothing,” he said. “That damned cat snuck up on me.”
She frowned. “You leave Sparkles outta this. Come on.” She motioned to the table with a jack-o-lantern candle. There was a tray of cookies, milk and glasses. “Let’s finish watching Halloween.”
Pony Tail agreed happily. This was their tradition. He was on the verge of sitting when his mother gasped in shock.
“You’re bleeding,” she said with alarm.
He couldn’t imagine that. But, sure enough, there was blood on his left hand and wrist. It was soaking into the sleeves of his shirt and jacket. When his mother reached, he politely pulled away.
“What happened back there?”
“But you’re bleeding,” she said anxiously.
He kept her at bay. Gingerly, Pony Tail raised the hand to his nose, took in the intoxicating aroma. “It’s nail polish, Ma,” he lied. “When that frigging cat, well, I must’ve knocked over one of your bottles. You need to remember to put the caps back on those things.”
“Oh, yeah, blame me,” she said, not necessarily reassured. “Let’s get that cleaned up.”
Pony Tail resisted, but ultimately had to give in. She wasn’t going to let him sit there like that and, besides, he wasn’t too comfortable doing it.
Despite his arguments, she was following him to the bathroom. Thankfully, the doorbell rang. He insisted she take care of that instead. He was a big boy, he told her. Reluctantly, she went off.
Pony Tail shut the bathroom door. At the sink, he ran the faucet to get the water good and hot the way he liked it. He found a fleck of skin under his right sleeve. He checked carefully himself in the mirror. He was about to rinse when he paused. He gazed closely at his left hand.
“I’ve got blood on my hands,” he said with a snort. And with a cigarette between his teeth, he reached for the soap.