By Patrick Ross
This short story was published originally in the 2021 edition of The Guilded Pen, an anthology of fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry.
Our mark emerges about ten yards ahead. “That’s him,” Jimmy says under his breath. I agree. The guy’s about forty and dressed like a boss. His suit is a work of art, perfectly tailored with a light sheen that shouts class and money. His crisp white shirt is a blank canvas for a teal silk tie. Maybe I could buy an outfit this nice after we roll the guy. Looking that good will up my con game. Better marks, bigger bucks.
A quick glance confirms we’re not in anyone’s line of sight. Jimmy and I have run this hustle at least a dozen times now and we’ve never been spotted. Our bench is tucked away behind hedges along one of the park’s less used paths. We ignore the joggers and dog walkers, who rarely have much cash on them. Our prime bounty are office workers like this guy escaping, ever so briefly, hermetically sealed torture. Occasionally one of our victims has more than a hundred dollars on them, especially if they’re over thirty and don’t pay for everything with their damned smartphones.
When the dude’s a few paces away, Jimmy stands. “Excuse me, sir, do you have the time? We’re supposed to meet someone, and I think she’s late.”
Now it’s my turn to use The Nudge. There’s a reason I call my gift that. When I connect with someone mentally, all I can really do is push them to do something they’re already inclined to. For the longest time I only used it to get laid, hitting nightclubs near closing time and targeting women projecting desperation. Now The Nudge doesn’t always work out great once I lure one back to my apartment. I don’t just detect and manipulate another person’s desires. If they’re aligned with my own, ours become one. Too often when drilling a woman I sense her desire to come, and just like that I blow my wad. This will be easier. I’m not trying to bang the guy, just roll him.
The man stops in front of us and tilts his head. He’s easily over six feet, broad-shouldered with defined pecs. I stand as well, looking up into his steel-gray eyes. I allow my mind to clear. The park and the man shift to a blur, like the clouded vision you get when you’re drunk and trying like hell to stay awake. As I begin to read him I realize he hasn’t looked at a watch or pulled out his phone. I sense now he has no desire to give Jimmy the time. He has another desire, just out of reach. I feel its intensity like heat from a too-close radiator. His emotional state becomes a covered pot on the verge of boiling. I want to use The Nudge on Jimmy, to find whatever part of him has doubts and push that to make him back down. It’s too late. I’m locked in with the mark. Already feeling disconnected from myself, I force my right hand up and place it on Jimmy’s left arm. He ignores my signal to stop.
“I’m sorry,” Jimmy continues. “You just looked like…”
“Never mind,” I hear myself say. “I just remembered I’ve got the time.” I manage to remove my hand from Jimmy’s arm and pull a phone from a side pocket of my pants.
The man turns his head and I feel the motion in my neck. What is left of my own vision sees the early afternoon sun form a halo around his close-cropped hair. “Kind ‘a wondered about that,” he says in a slow baritone.
I sense the motion Jimmy has done so many times. He’s reaching for his jacket. Nooo! I try to scream. But our mark’s calmness paralyzes me. Intoxicates me. I’ve never felt a connection this strong before. I see Jimmy reveal a pistol resting in his jacket’s interior pocket. See it through the eyes of the man I’m now completely tethered with.
“So, this will be simple,” Jimmy says. “All we want is your cash. You leave with your wallet, and everyone’s happy.”
This is where I’m supposed to step in. Once Jimmy shows our mark his gun, desperation to survive takes over. We meet that desire. Jimmy takes his cash but leaves all the crap that’s a pain in the ass to replace. Credit cards. Driver’s license. Family photos. I use The Nudge to remind our victim he’s going to live, and it’s for the best if he just leaves the park and doesn’t involve the cops. I sense no fear in this man, however. I should say I sense no fear in me.
The boiling pot’s lid flies off. It’s clear what I’m experiencing. Joy. No, more than that. Anticipation. And confidence. I’m a man who does what he wants when he wants. I like it. I’ve never felt so powerful, so in control. I barely register that the one in control isn’t really me.
My muscles coil, like a sprinter ready to pounce. Then my left arm moves. But these actions aren’t mine. They’re his. He/I pull back his/my suit jacket. The fabric is smooth and soft, as I already know it is. I see Jimmy spot, secured in a shoulder holster, my own gun.
“Hey buddy, it’s all good,” Jimmy says. “Forget about it.” I can barely hear him, like he’s whispering in a faraway tunnel. Now a right hand in motion. A pull on a narrow leather strap. A snap as it detaches. The comfortable feel of a pistol grip’s ridges. Warmth envelopes me, a blanket of longing. I’ll take out the armed guy first, then his pal. Wait. His pal is me.
The stranger’s desire is too powerful for me to stop him. I move quickly. I nudge.
The man’s confusion shakes me as the gun goes off. Then a blast of physical pain tosses me from his mind, like a spent shell from a shotgun. I see him once more through my own eyes. A crimson patch forms on his left abdomen as he falls backwards. The crack of his skull hitting the pavement combines with the crunch of decaying fall leaves.
A chill wind nearly whips off my favorite baseball cap as the ancient T-Bird’s speedometer needle moves to the right.
“Dude, slow down,” I tell Jimmy. “This stretch is crawling with cops.” I know that for a fact. A little over a year ago my mental gift got me out of a pickle with the cop who pulled me over. After reading his mental combination of exhaustion and a desire to get his ass home and pop open a cold beer, I used The Nudge to end our encounter with a warning. How different from today when I used my gift to kill a man.
Jimmy turns, sweat beading on his forehead despite the cold. “What happened?” He’s talking so fast it comes out as one word.
“Obviously, he fired the gun before he pulled it on us,” I say. Jimmy doesn’t need to know that my nudge caused him to fire off a round while the gun wasn’t fully out of his holster. Or that I’m still high from the thrill of taking his life. I sit in silence, trying to better understand what happened. Yes, it’s true that the desires of who I connect with blend with my own. But I’ve never lost complete control like that before, in a sense become the other person. Could it be because I wanted to?
Flashing lights, alternating blue and red, fill the oversized rear-view mirror.
“Shit!” Jimmy says. He moves over to the right lane, then the shoulder. We stop on the side of the road as traffic whips past. The police car stops thirty feet behind us. It takes forever before a uniformed cop steps out.
“You think he knows?”
“Don’t be an idiot,” I say. “He pulled you over because you were driving like a madman.” Doubt fills my mind. I’m right about why we were stopped. But we ran out of that park. Were there eyewitnesses? Were descriptions of us blasted out to every cop in a fifty-mile radius? I prep our story. We watched a man take his own life. That’s not a crime.
When the cop is about a dozen feet away I start reading him. He’s pissed. And he’s scared. What the hell? Do we seem like a threat? Two young white guys joy riding in a vintage convertible? Then, just like our mark an hour or so ago, I see us through the cop’s eyes.
He/I slow, senses alert. A rush of excitement. These two punks will give me an excuse. Body camera off? Check. Then the familiar feel of narrow leather stretched over a handgun’s grip.
What is left of me inside this cop’s mind knows I should stop this. Stop him. And yet once again I savor the rush of anticipation. I need another fix.