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You Lead, I'll Follow

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If this was what flying felt like, Johnny didn’t ever need to buy a ticket. Nothing could be better than this floating, bubbling feeling, success trickling through his veins and seeping from his pores. He reached inside his jacket to check his shirt, to see if the chill under his arms was sweat or thrill.

It wasn’t sweat.

Henry gave him a side eye as they stepped through the doors of the main terminal. “Nothing like it, eh kid?”

Johnny swallowed the urge to ask if this feeling was always the same. He didn’t want to seem like a wet-behind-the-ears corn husker. “Sure isn’t terrible.”

They stopped and looked at the schedule board. Johnny flexed his fingers around the handle of his suitcase and tried to figure out the meaning of the words he was looking at. Port City. Township Lake. Fort New.

“Wherever you choose, keep your eyes open for a few days to make sure no one’s on to you. Never let your guard down,” Henry murmured, then shifted his case to his left hand and extended his right. “It’s been a pleasure, Hooker.”

Johnny stared at his hand, then at him. He tried to think of something sharp to say, but nothing would come.

“Now, we made a great team,” Henry said, that slow smile coming in on the side of his mouth. “But working the big con is a solo gig. Can’t keep the cast together forever or we might as well hang a marquee.”

“Yeah.” That made sense. Having a partner or two was great for street grifters, but not if you had to make a big splash in the business world under an assumed identity. “Thanks for everything, Henry.” Johnny wiped his hand on his leg and shook Henry’s.

Henry held it for an extra second. “Take care of yourself.”

Johnny nodded, holding Henry’s gaze. “Yeah. You too.”

The moment stretched out. Henry bust out with a laugh and released Johnny’s hand to smack him in the arm. “Always.”

Johnny grinned and looked back up at the board. When he turned back to ask where Henry was headed, he was gone.

 

Johnny needed to keep moving, so he caught the next available train, a milk run to Milwaukee. He had dinner at a café outside the terminal, then turned right around and caught a sleeper to St. Louis.

The greasy chicken from Milwaukee didn’t sit well with him, so he was up at 2 am in the bar looking for ginger ale. He included bourbon in the order so he wouldn’t look like such a sissy, and sipped it slow while he took a look around.

He’d been asleep, or trying to sleep, when the train had stopped in Chicago, so he hadn’t had the opportunity yet to scope the new passengers. One head of salt and pepper hair looked familiar, and he’d seen that dove gray Homburg before. It was Kid Twist.

Twist was sitting in a booth opposite another man, holding a low conversation. Immediately Johnny thought perhaps Twist was plying his hook, and he sat back to watch.

Pretty quickly, he realized there was no con going on here. The conversation was too serious, too quiet. None of the line-flashing, bait-wiggling enticements of a con. Just two fellas talking, playing with their glasses, pushing them around the table.

Johnny felt a different realization sink in, bringing with it the low tingle of embarrassment at ever thinking something else besides the obvious.

Not that these two were being obvious, but—what else was there to think? When you knew Twist like Johnny did, knew that he didn’t have any family, no serious job to discuss with a colleague, there was nothing else but…

Johnny turned his gaze away, feeling like an intruder for the first time.

And of course, just then Twist and his companion rose from their table and headed Johnny’s way.

Johnny looked back up, just to be respectful, and caught a glance from Twist. The recognition was instantaneous, but Twist never missed a step, and exited the car.

Johnny let out a breath and picked up his drink to finish it quickly. There hadn’t even been time to give Twist the office, but Johnny doubted he would have gotten the tap in return. In the instant before Twist saw him, he’d been straight-faced but happy; confident. He was on his way to doing something that pleased him, and if it had been a con, he wouldn’t have been so cellophane.

Johnny eyed the final measure of his drink. Damn Twist anyway, for being such a shmuck to forget himself in public. Walk around with a fella like that and you’re liable to be gifted a pair of silver bracelets.

He knocked back the last of his drink and turned to go, but he nearly ran into someone when the door opened.

Twist.

“Hey kid,” he said smoothly, making space in the pass-through for both to stand clear of the doors. “Thought that was you.”

“Yeah. Didn’t mean to interrupt your holiday,” Johnny said. That coiled spring tension in his stomach might be the Milwaukee chicken or jealousy, and he didn’t care to think about which. “I’m headed to bed.”

“Sure,” Twist said easily. He extended a hand. “Have a good sleep.”

The hand was steady. Still gloved in fine leather, concealing the fingers that Johnny knew could lift a wallet and palm a key as easy as pie. Who knew what other deft touches it was capable of.

And he knew it was a test, a question. He looked Twist directly in the eye and shook hands firmly.

“Enjoy your night,” he said, and meant it despite the pain in his stomach.

 

Twist’s companion breakfasted alone the next day, and after no other sign of him, Johnny had to conclude that Twist had made his exit at some whistle-stop in the early morning hours. From the relaxed set of the man’s shoulders, it hadn’t been a sad parting.

Johnny tucked into his eggs and toast, relieved that the stomachache had passed overnight. He studied the train schedule and thought about his next steps, trying to ignore how the miles ticked away and carried him from Chicago. Henry wasn’t there anymore, anyway.

“Sir? Another passenger wanted me to convey this to you.” The porter extended an envelope on a silver tray, and Johnny took it with a nod.

It was fine heavy paper, the pen hand fluid and smooth. Johnny eyed the “J.H.” initials on the outside and sliced open the envelope with his butter knife.

 

Our friend usually enjoys the summer in upstate New York. He has a big lonely lake house in Buffalo and he’d love to have you for a visitor. Thanks for the hello.

 

Johnny tucked the note back into the envelope and slid it under his plate. He lifted his coffee cup to his mouth, hiding the smile with a sip.