Gene peered out the window. Oaks and maples waved to him in autumn hues. A pair of squirrels circled up a trunk, packing away acorns. The scenery outside his window had become an old friend. It was relaxing, attractive—but less so when seen through the countless miles of dust and grime shading the train’s window. The dirt looked better on the ground where it belonged.
“Morning,” the conductor said, breaking Gene’s train of thought. “Ticket please?”
Gene took the ticket from his briefcase and handed it up to the man, who was riding the movements of the train like a seasoned pro. The uniform was what people saw first, Gene realized. He had learned—out of necessity—to look beyond packaging to see the person hidden inside. This guy looked like a career man, pushing seventy, skin as dark and coarse as the grime on the train’s windows. A decent blue-collar man all the way.
He looked back out the window to see a stretch of garbage-littered field. In the distance, dilapidated warehouses with soot-covered stacks stubbornly held their places. He wondered what sort of hideout a place like that would make, should he ever need one.
A woman strolled down the train’s open aisle and pulled his attention back inside. He admired the striking tattoo coloring her lower back. He longed to see beyond the area revealed between her short shirt and low-cut jeans. He figured she’d make a fine prostitute. He knew all about prostitutes. He knew their comforts as well as their profits, knew how to work them, how to enjoy them, how to make money with them and spend money on them. He knew prostitutes as well as he knew gambling, as well as he knew drugs. In part because he enjoyed them, but primarily because it was his business to know them.
For most, it was the other way around — pleasure first or pleasure only. But Gene had learned to partake in the pleasures he profiteered. That is, he came to the vices first as a way to make money, then learned to enjoy them. Of course, he’d done his time in the field before making money in it. But at the climax of his criminal career, money had flowed.
Now his money didn’t come from the prostitutes, drugs, or gambling as it once had. It came from his knowledge of the vices, from his expertise. Now, he made his money as an activist and speaker.
He stared at his notes, not really seeing them. He considered his absurd resumé with a laugh, a resumé he’d never actually print out; it existed only in his head: Gene Silverman. Education: Bachelor’s in Computer Science. Employment: Head Geek of Hardware Helpers, mafia IT man, identity thief, political activist, and speaker. Areas of expertise: computers, information technology, organized crime, Internet fraud, drug trafficking, gambling, and prostitution profiteering. References: Available at your own risk.
The train screeched around a bend, the rhythm changing from that of a rocking cradle to a jarring vibration. Startled, Gene shot to his feet and looked around. The passengers sat in their seats, reading, chatting, watching their DVD players, playing solitaire on their laptops. Gene chuckled and sat back down. The sharp turn got him every time.
Each stretch of track had its own sound, its own feel, and he’d become familiar with them all, like favorite songs from a playlist. On the other hand, every set of passengers gave the train new life. In Gene’s experience, although the movements and courses of the locomotives were alike, no two trains had the same essence.
Gene peered around the car. Trains were safe. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, he pushed back his seat to relax for a moment. He remained content in his seat, but he knew that contentment didn’t last. Always on the move, he wasn’t prone to fall into the comfort of a place—that was dangerous. The seat he now occupied served its purpose, but in a few hours he would be done with it, and it would be time to move on.
Gene used to be Eugene before he changed his name from Eugene Beckett to Gene Silverman. Where Gene Silverman was wise, handsome, respected and could hold an audience as easily as he could hold the smoke of a joint in his lungs, Eugene Beckett had been an insecure nerd who manipulated a keyboard more easily than a woman’s body. Computers were Eugene’s thing—he knew them inside and out, could make them purr, make them put out and do for him whatever he wanted. After graduating with a degree in Computer Science, he took a job with Hardware Helpers as a geek on patrol. He enjoyed the life of an on-call computer fixer, driving to businesses and homes to troubleshoot their computers.
Eugene would probably still be repairing computers today had his coworker, Andy, not asked him if he’d like to make a little extra cash. Andy was moving out of state for a nine-to-five programming job.
“Extra money? Who wouldn’t?” Eugene had said.
Andy grinned. “Even if it means helping a guy who doesn’t exactly abide by the letter of the law?”
Eugene looked at Andy, confused. “I guess so. Bad money’s good enough for me—as long as it’s not dangerous.” Andy told him to expect a call in the next few weeks.
The call came when Eugene was on duty, as though it were just another routine service call. The inner-city row house looked like any other. Eugene knew Fells Point as the party central he never visited, where blue and white collars merged with college students and tourists, all of them seeking beer and wine, dancing and dates, everyone in search of a time so good that more of them would end in pain than pleasure—a hangover, an overdose, or a regrettable bed partner, who appeared considerably uglier in the sobering sunlight than in the two a.m. drunken crescent of a moon.
Eugene knocked nervously on the Wolfe Street door, just a stone’s throw from the excitement of the pubs and clubs along Broadway. Even then, Eugene recognized his mandated greeting as uncool. “Hi. Your Hardware Helper is here.”
The heavyset man at the door looked thirty years his senior, not yet an old man. “Yeah, c’mon in.” No pleasantries, just business. “You Andy’s friend?” Eugene said that he was. Cigar in hand, the man led Eugene up the stairs and into one of three bedrooms, where the smoke in the air was thick enough to spoon out. Eugene saw the computer desk in the smog. The bedroom had been converted into a home office, but this was no home. “You can keep secrets, can’t you, whiz kid?”
“Sure I can,” Eugene said.
“Good. ‘Cause if anything here ends up on the street, I’ll have to cut your puny, key-pecking fingers off.” The man was hard to read: Eugene laughed at the joke but the man did not. “No kidding,” he said seriously. “You come highly recommended, so I’m gonna trust you. But if anything you see on this computer or in this house makes its way out … you ain’t using a keyboard no more.”
Eugene’s hands began to tremble, and he wondered if he’d made the right decision in coming here. “I’ll keep quiet,” he assured the man.
“Good. Get to work. Stay put—no snooping around.”
Eugene’s nerves calmed when the man left the room. The mystery was easier to solve with the space cleared. He worked best when left alone with the machine. There was an intimacy between Eugene and any PC he encountered. Some people got along with dogs, some men could charm women, but Eugene found his comfort with computers.
Soon, the man was back in the room. “Well?”
“You’re back in business,” Eugene bragged.
The big man looked down over his shoulder. “Well, I’ll be damned. You’re good, kid.” He took a wad of money from his pocket, held together by a gold clip. “How much I owe you?”
“You owe Hardware Helpers…” Eugene looked at his order book. “One hundred thirty-nine dollars and fifty-eight cents, tax included.”
The man huffed out a laugh. “Here, whiz kid.” He peeled off a few hundreds. “A little extra for your fast work. And because you know how to keep your trap shut.”
Eugene’s eyes widened. “Wow! Thanks, man!”
“Boss,” he corrected. “I’m the Boss around here.” He walked Eugene back to the door. “I ain’t much good with a computer. When I need something, I’ll call you. And remember, not a word to anyone. If I find out you spilled the beans to your parents or bragged to your friends or some piece of ass, you’ll be sorry.”
Eugene swallowed. “Consider me password-protected.”
“You like workin’ here?” the Boss asked during his next visit.
“Yeah,” Eugene answered enthusiastically, his leeriness lost in the financial windfall he’d seen in keep the trap shut bonuses.
“Why don’t you lose the loser shirt and work for me? I’ll pay you twice what those jokers do, plus a little extra for good work. All under the table, tax-free. Whaddya say?”
Eugene said yes.
Getting in with the mafia was like getting involved with any person or group: it was not a deliberate plan made or a visualized goal reached. It just happened by a stroke of luck, good or bad. He fell into it like an addiction. From computer geek to IT man for the mob.
The mob? Eugene questioned just what the mafia was these days. There were still the big guys, the kind that people thought of after reading a Mario Puzo novel or watching a Scorsese film. But Eugene suspected the majority of organized crime was just barely organized, held together with the help of normal people like himself. This mini-mob was more like a fraternity.
Of all the things he knew, he still knew computers best. One day, he realized his expertise could amount to something worthy of respect.
“Hey, check this out,” he called as the Boss entered the room, cigar in hand.
“A way to make a killing,” Eugene said, sitting before the computer.
The Boss came around to stand behind him. He looked over Eugene’s shoulder at the screen full of incomprehensible code. “How’s that?”
Eugene swiveled around in his chair and faced the Boss. The man sat his bulk on the dark pine desk and flicked a clump of ash into Eugene’s coffee cup. “I’ve been thinking,” Eugene began, a grin on his face. “We could make this computer work for us. Make some money.”
Eugene explained his ideas for Internet crime and identity theft. The Boss was so impressed that he handed over a cigar. Eugene placed it under his nose and sniffed it from end to end. More than the spicy fragrance invited him. In his four years of working for the Boss, he’d never been offered one of his Cubans. He was one of the gang.
“Aren’t most of those websites secure?”
Eugene smiled. “I hear the word secure, and I think puzzle. It can be figured out.”
“Well, get to figuring, kid. We’ll see what you can do. You keep ten percent of whatever you can pull.”
A month later, it was the Boss who was thanking Eugene, with an entire humidor full of Havanas and a bundle of bonus money on top of his commission.
In the months that followed, Eugene traded his tucked in, discount-store polo shirts for cool, untucked, Egyptian cotton button-downs. He threw out his generic sneakers for top-of-the-line Italian loafers. He no longer worried about his ten-year-old Chevy breaking down because his new Corvette was serviced regularly. He ditched his apartment full of roommates and rented a furnished condo with a harbor view. He learned to live without his credit cards and paid cash for everything. His only bank accounts were offshore, invisible.
Eugene had all the things he wanted. But he earned more than that. He earned the respect of the Boss and the organization.
The seat on the train had been comfortable, but it had served its purpose. Unable to stay in one place for long, Gene decided to take a walk. The passengers in the car sat in their seats, sleeping, reading, talking, eating. He gripped the luggage compartment above his seat and secured his footing. It always took several minutes of walking before he had the rhythm down; in the same way, he knew that when he returned to the stable ground, there would be moments of disorientation in which he would still feel the movements of the train.
He exited the passenger car and entered another, his chrome briefcase in his left hand, a silver ring on his finger. What was it about silver that attracted him? Silver was more alluring than gold, more beautiful than bronze or any jewel. It had been easy to change his name to Silverman, simple to be the negative of the usual middle-age photo, coloring his once-brown hair. His new hair, face, body, personality and name assured that no one from the old days could peg him. Besides, if the Boss had sent professionals to look for him, they would have found him years ago.
Gene took a seat toward the middle of the lounge car and looked out. In the distance, he saw a black Lincoln idling in front of an office building. A nice way to travel, if you want to make yourself a target. He was certain chauffeurs talked.
Life in the Mob had become good for him, but then it got risky. When he started, identity theft was still a relatively unknown crime, not the sort of thing people talked about. But by the end of his time with the Boss, it was a hot topic, one of the most serious crimes in the nation. So serious, in fact, that the government had really begun to crack down on it. The Federal Trade Commission, Social Security Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the local police had caught on and were working together; they’d already arrested several identity thieves in the area. It was no longer a safe crime of stealth; everyone was watching. The enormous growth of the identity theft industry was its downfall. His downfall.
The trouble hit home when he got a call at his apartment. “Is this Eugene Beckett?” the voice had asked.
“We’d like to meet with you. Talk.”
Eugene could hear the shuffling of paper, the clicking of keyboards, the ringing of office telephones. These were g-men. “Send me an email.”
“Can’t do that. We’re offering you a deal. Do you want to meet before we change our minds?”
Confused, Eugene hung up. Just the week before, a story had broken all over the morning papers and evening newscasts about a woman who’d racked up a million dollars in merchandise by stealing people’s identities. It had become a familiar story.
They had his name. They had his number. They had his address. They knew. It got to where he couldn’t leave the Boss’s rowhouse office or his own apartment without seeing a dozen potential undercovers waiting to pounce. He just couldn’t take it. Now, years later, he realized he’d have been better off to stay with the Boss. But looking back was only useful when you were looking behind you, for someone ready to attack.
There was no way of telling the Boss he wanted out. The Boss wouldn’t let him go. So Eugene got out the best way he could think of: he simply left, unannounced. He upgraded the organization’s computers, so they practically ran themselves. He transferred all of his money to an off-shore account the Boss didn’t know about. Then he packed his bags, chucked his Corvette, stuffed his possessions in a less obvious, five-year-old SAAB hatchback, and skipped town. He spent more time looking in the rearview mirror than at the road in front of him. Sometimes he wished he’d met with the feds and made a deal.
He’d gotten out because he didn’t want always to feel like a fed or cop was ready to drag him in. But these days, he lived with the fear that one of the Boss’s men would drag him out.
In the lounge car, the view beyond the glass wall had become a blur. It was a nice sight, but he didn’t feel comfortable with his back to the open aisle of the car. He stood and decided to get a drink.
Gene watched as men and women entered and exited the lounge car at random. The man who came in next was sturdy, a guy who wore his excess pounds in a way that made him look tough, well-rounded. He was a gruff character, a rugged, leather jacket of bomber-pilot brown draped over him. Gene watched the man, who himself looked casually at each person in the room. Their eyes met, and Gene turned away from the man’s stare.
A people watcher, Gene observed. Gene had learned to become a sociologist as well. It was important to see every person for their potential: what harm they could cause or what purpose they could serve. At the moment, in the lounge car, he saw neither use nor harm in anyone here.
Gene had learned to reboot a computer early in life, and he’d reset his own identity more than once. Resetting your course in life is as easy as upgrading a computer.
Gene didn’t plan on resetting his life anytime soon. He looked around instinctively once again, then eased back in his seat. Nothing had ever happened to him on a train. But, ever cautious, he knew it wasn’t the end of the line just yet. With every train ride, he took, he felt that much further from his old life. But he would never forget his years working for the Boss, despite his certainty that the boss had all but forgotten him.
Eric D. Goodman is author of Womb: a novel in utero (Merge Publishing, Fall 2016), Tracks: A Novel in Stories (Atticus, 2011), and Flightless Goose (Writer’s Lair, 2008) as well as the forthcoming Setting the Family Free and The Color of Jadeite. Learn more about Eric and his writing at www.EricDGoodman.com or connect with him at www.Facebook.com/EricDGoodman.