2/ Henchman & The Leprechaun

            In my defence, I had been out of work for a long time.  I’d not had a proper job – and by proper I mean one that’s on the books and requires me to pay some tax – for nearly three years. Sure, I’d had some casual work.  A bit of construction here, a bit of manual labour there.  Did some time as a waiter in one of the seedy clubs downtown for a while.  I even played rhythm guitar, briefly, with a progressive rock band.   But there are always better guitarists and I’m really only a very average musician.

            Meanwhile, the older Dianne gets the more the idea of paying for her to go to college weighs on me.  I’ll be fucked if I’m going to let her get stuck in the same shitty lifestyle as her parents.  She’s nine, going on nineteen, and I haven’t managed to save so much as a penny to help her.  What sort of Father does that make me?

Tabby isn’t one to complain.  She works shifts at a late night diner so that she can be there when Dianne gets back from school no matter what work I happen to be doing at the time.  We manage to pay the rent and put food on the table somehow, though it seems to get harder every month.  She doesn’t ask for anything we can’t afford – which means she doesn’t ask for anything at all – and always seems to be able to find something positive in our situation.  She deserves better than me, to be honest. I guess I just lucked out when I married her.  That was pretty much where my luck ended, though.

I was collecting my last envelope of cash for a day digging trenches on a building site.  The foreman had people on the books, just enough to make things look legitimate.  But there were more of us off-record than on.  I must have looked glum because Jose approached me and shoved my shoulder: “You okay, man?”
“Sure.  I’m fine,” I said.  I tried a grin, but it can’t have been very convincing because he frowned in return.  “You got nothing else to go to?” he asked me.
“Fuck all,” I said.  He laughed.  Although I have lived in America for twelve years I was born in the UK and the way I speak still seems to amuse people.  I don’t know why, really.

“You asked at the Shop?” he wanted to know.  I nodded.  The Shop was a sort of employment bureau for people who wanted to, had to, or were prepared to work casually for cash.  Illegal immigrants, people with criminal records, people who just didn’t have the sort of qualifications that would get them on any sort of real career ladder and who employers didn’t think were worth even the paltry minimum wage.  I’d been there yesterday and had been told they had nothing available right now.  Do you know how it feels when you can’t even earn a few bucks breaking your back on the black market?  It doesn’t do a whole lot for your self-esteem, let me tell you.

            “How about you?” I asked him.  The construction project we’d been working on had moved to a new phase today which meant more inspectors and officials were going to be around.  This, in turn, meant that all of us off-record workers were suddenly out of a job.  It happens.  But it’s shitty every time.  “I’ve got something,” he said.  He glanced around.  He bit his lip nervously as if deciding whether to say any more or not.  “What sort of something?” I prompted him.
“Casual work.  Pay is better than here.  They’re recruiting.”
“Nobody is recruiting,” I pointed out, more cynically than I’d intended.
“They are recruiting,” he said again, with certainty.  “But it’s not, uh, entirely legal?”
I stared at Jose.  “What we’re doing here isn’t legal,” I noted.
“That’s not what I mean, man,” Jose said.  “This is properly illegal, you know?” He winked at me. 

I don’t know what came over me, but the idea of going back to Tabby as an unemployed husband again was a bitter pill and there was something about the way Jose was describing his new work that sounded, I don’t know, exciting?  So I took him by the shoulders and looked him in the eye and asked the question that would change my life.  Or end it.  “Do they need anybody else?”
Jose grinned, “They do, bro.  They do.”

            The next day I was sitting in the back of a flatbed truck with a hood over my head bumping across some wasteland outside the city limits.  I was absolutely shitting myself, no pun intended.  Jose had given me an address and I’d turned up promptly at Six Thirty.  There were a few other guys there, all average Joes like me.  There was also a very large woman – large in every sense of the word.  She was tall, heavy, muscular, fat and had giant ham hands of the kind usually reserved for bricklayers and heavy-weight boxers.  She saw me watching and grinned, before introducing herself as Big Sue. 

            We didn’t get much time for further introductions before the truck showed up.  A trio of guys wearing bandannas and carrying weird, old-fashioned pistols, ushered us onto the back and gave us hoods to wear.  One of the recruits refused to put his hood on.  The bandanna guys didn’t seem to care, but they said if he didn’t wear the hood he wouldn’t be coming along.  He gave in and put the hood on.  I guess he must have been as desperate for work as me.  But a truck drive to nowhere in a hood has a way of making you question your choices and I’d be surprised if any of us didn’t begin to wonder if this was such a good plan before we reached our destination.  Except maybe for Big Sue.  She didn’t seem to be phased by anything.  Of course that may have changed if she’d known she was going to be shot in the eye in ten days time.  But maybe not.  She was a pretty tough broad.

            I think I’d guessed what was coming before it was revealed.  It was those weird guns that did it.  Who would send thugs with antique weapons?  Only a super-villain, right?  If it had been a normal criminal, or the Mafia, or some shit like that we’d have been met by likely lads with proper weapons.  So when we emerged blinking from the truck into an old warehouse on the edge of the desert it wasn’t the greatest surprise to see a little man in a colourful costume waiting for us.

            I’d heard of The Leprechaun once or twice.  As super-villains go he wasn’t the Rule The World type.  I don’t think he’d ever had a plan that encompassed the whole of a State, let alone the whole of the World.  But that was okay by me.  I didn’t want to work with some lunatic who thought turning every human on Earth into a statue, or stopping time permanently at midnight was a Great Thing To Do.  Robbing a bank, though.  I was alright with that.  I’m not a career criminal, but I am a realist.  Lots of people have lots more stuff than me and my family.  I see no problem in addressing the balance a little, once in a while.

            The Leprechaun may have been a little man, but he had charisma in spades.  He shook our hands, each and every one of us, and welcomed us to his team.  He joked about the pirate outfits that he expected his henchmen to wear – admitting they were foolish but assuring us that they were a necessary part of the theatre.  His broad Irish accent was a big hit, so over the top as to be farcical.  If somebody had said any of this stuff to me on a construction site I’d have told them to Fuck Off.  But coming from a man in a bright green body suit and wearing a funny little hat – who just happened to be able to pick up a car with his bare hands and hold it over his head – it didn’t seem foolish in quite the same way.

After the introductory pep talk we were given the option of backing out.  But The Leprechaun had managed to infect us with his boundless enthusiasm.  He had handed out cold beers, tumbled around like an acrobat, amused us with witty banter, ensured us that we looked like: “A fine bunch of henchmen, an excellent crew of new recruits, quite possibly the finest team he’d ever assembled, to be sure.”  Within a couple of hours we were laughing and waving cutlasses in the air and looking forwards to the fun work he promised us.  “Nothing dangerous,” The Leprechaun said.  “Nobody killed.  Just a few simple jobs and out.”  We were all offered a very respectable hourly rate, plus a cut of the proceeds of our crimes.  It was the best offer I’d had in years.  I’m sure I was not alone in that.  It seemed too good to be true, which of course it was.

The next two days were interesting.  A couple of the new recruits were taken off to work on what The Leprechaun called ‘below decks’, one due to his technical knowledge to operate the computer system and the other due to his experience as a journalist to work on The Leprechaun’s Blog.  Another guy, Carl Stephenson, became what The Leprechaun called “In The Rigging” and served as static security at the hidden desert base.  I think that was because Carl was as dumb as a mallet and the boss didn’t have the heart to just kick him out.  The rest of us were “Crew” and would accompany the villain on whatever jobs he needed our assistance with.

I have to admit this was good work.  Easy work.  I’d expected some training, but The Leprechaun had only a couple of experienced henchman in his employ and he didn’t seem the type to teach himself so that didn’t happen.  Instead, we mostly helped move stuff about the secret base, gradually transforming a dirty old warehouse into a fairly comfortable living space. 

Each day we were paid in cash before being driven back home.  The pay was more than I usually earned in a week.  Then, in the morning, we were picked up and taken back to the desert again.  We were always hooded, but it’s fair to say that the route was direct enough that any of us could have made a good guess as to the location of our hideout.  I asked one of the older guys about this.  “The Boss will give you the location and stop using the hoods after a few missions.  This is just to root out the Feds and heroes, or whatever.”  I nodded, while simultaneously wondering what super-heroes would bother with the sort of threat that our little cadre represented.  Whenever I saw them on the news they were teaming up against some galactic menace, or stopping the Armageddon Empress from melting a hole to the centre of the Earth.  I don’t think I’d ever seen them throw down against a bunch of fancy dress pirates led by an acrobatic Irishman.  I kept these observations to myself.

We committed our first crime on day five.  It was ridiculously easy.  We crashed a local bank in the suburbs.  No messing around with vaults of any of that – The Leprechaun didn’t try anything too grand.  We simply had the cashiers fill bags with cash and then split long before the police arrived.  Even though I felt we looked patently ridiculous it was amazing how quickly the staff of the bank complied with our requests.  The Leprechaun later explained that the more outlandish and colourful the outfit the more dangerous super-criminals appeared to be.  “This is why the theatre is important,” he told us, while handing out our shares of the loot.  “It is what makes them scared, so that we don’t actually have to do anything scary to them.”  I stared at my share of the proceeds of our crime and my mouth dropped open.  It had been a long time since I’d seen a payday like this.

The night after the bank job I took my family out for Chinese food.  Not the food court either, but proper Chinese.  The Wandering Dragon on Main Street was a gold and silver paradise of oriental delight.  Dianne ate more rice and noodles than a child should be able to fit into her little body and after dinner Tabby and I shared a bottle of expensive chilled white wine while she eyed me curiously.  Finally, while Dianne was paying a visit to the rest room, she spoke.  “What are you into?” she asked, “What is this new job?”
“Security,” I said.  “Sort of.”
“Security?  You mean, like a doorman or something?”
“Yes.  Something like that,” I agreed, topping up her glass.

She looked sceptical.  In the city they only employed two types of doorman.  The huge Neanderthals who scared the crap out of everyone and the other guys who might not look so imposing but who could actually fight.  I didn’t fit the bill.  I wasn’t a big guy and although I had been a boxer in my youth, Tabby knew full well that I was never a good boxer.  She’d met me in England when I’d still been fighting on the local scene and had spent enough time putting ice onto bruises and black eyes to know that I had been, at best, a very average boxer.  And that was twenty years ago.

“I’m not going to ask you to tell me any more,” Tabby said, glancing over to see Dianne making her way back to our table.  “This is lovely and it is nice to be able to afford dinner out once in a while, but don’t get yourself in any trouble, okay?”
“I’ll do my best,” I agreed.  Of course I would.  Who wants to get into trouble?
“We need you around,” Tabby said, but she was then distracted by the waiter bringing us the bill.  She eyed the total: “Whew.  Are you sure we can afford this?” I pushed a pile of bills across the table and grinned.  “But what about rent?” She asked.
“Already paid,” I said.  “And next month as well.  And the month after that!”

In hindsight I suppose I began to get complacent.  I’m not sure I can reasonably be expected to know how super crime works, given that I’d never done any of it before.  But still – I should have seen trouble coming.  Three more days and three more jobs had me taking flowers home for my wife and presents for my daughter.  I bought a chest freezer and filled it with franks and burgers and pizza and ice cream.  I picked up a flat screen TV that was bigger than anything else in our small apartment.  I began looking at cars too.  I could easily afford a down payment – hell, I could probably almost buy a car outright as long as I didn’t want anything too flash. 

The Leprechaun always shared the proceeds fairly – half the takings were split between however many of us were on his staff at the time regardless of whether we had taken part in the job or not.  He kept the other half and everybody was happy with this.  Of course we were – this was great money for most of us.  Money we could never make anywhere else.  To be honest, he could have paid us much less and we’d have stayed.  But he was a good boss.  One of the better ones I’d ever worked for, super-villain status notwithstanding.

On the ninth day The Leprechaun took us all out to dinner in the city.  We weren’t in our outfits, obviously.  He had us all hire tuxedos in order to be wined and dined at a plush hotel.  There was something about being out in conventional clothes that seemed both illicit and exciting.  Like having secret identities.  Which, I guess, is exactly what it was. 

It was a wonderful evening and I don’t mind admitting I got somewhat drunk, but so did everybody else.  At one point I had to politely explain to Big Sue that I was married, though she took it very well.  At another I had to politely explain to Gareth that I was married and that I was straight.  Not necessarily in that order.  He sulked for a while but he was such an upbeat guy that he was soon back in the action and chatting to Mark or Larry or somebody.  I wished him well.  We all get so little time to make connections in this life.  Did I mention that drink sometimes makes me maudlin?

At the end of the evening The Leprechaun broke the Big News that we must all have known was coming.  Well, all except for Carl Stephenson who had spent the evening balancing cutlery on his nose for the dubious amusement of whoever was sitting near him at the time. 

“Colleagues, crew,” The Leprechaun began, tapping a knife on his glass in the time-honoured sign for silence: “Yo ho ho!”
“Yo ho ho,” we mostly all cheered in response.  We were a bit drunk.  Sorry. 
“I have been planning a new job.  A grander job.  A heist more in keeping with the sort of crew I have here.  The finest crew I have ever worked with.”  Cue lots of cheering and salutes with glasses and the like.  The Leprechaun continued: “As you may know tomorrow the city hosts a grand sporting event.  An event which will have the eyes of the nation upon it.  An exciting date in the city’s diary.”  Of course, we all knew.  A couple of people cheered.  I think they were expecting him to say that he’d scored us all tickets.  I, on the other hand, had a nasty tingling in my stomach.

“I have planted small explosives around the stadium.  Don’t worry, they are mostly just for show, they cannot do any real harm.  But they are convincing enough to create fear.  I will interrupt the game at half time, taking control of the screens around the stadium and I will demand payment to avoid destruction.”  We had all fallen silent by then.  This wasn’t just bigger than what we’d been involved in so far, it was bigger by several increments.  It was the sort of thing that would bring real heat down on us.  The Leprechaun smiled: “You do not need to worry, me hearties,” he said, dropping from his usual faux Irish to a poor pirate accent.
“What have pirates got to do with Leprechauns anyway?” I heard somebody ask.  I frowned.  Good question.

“Your job will be to move amongst the crowd collecting bounty.  Watches, purses, wallets, jewellery, phones, anything of value.”
“We aren’t demanding a ransom or something?” Taylor asked.
“Too complex,” The Leprechaun said, “Too much can go wrong.  It’s not what we do.  Keep it simple,” he said.  “Scare them, take their stuff, get out.  The same as before, but much, much bigger.  You will each have five minutes to get as much as you can.  Stick to the premiums seats – those people have better stuff and they can afford to lose it.”
A few of the guys nodded at this.  It appealed to their sense of fair play.  I had to wonder what fair play had to do with armed robbery, but now wasn’t the time for philosophy.

“As ever, if you want out now you can leave,” The Leprechaun said.  “But think carefully.  This will be a big score.  You’ll all get your cut – and once you complete it you’ll be on my permanent payroll.  No more hoods.  Partners to the end.  What do you say?  Shall we give it a try?  Hoist the mainframe and shiver me timbers?”  Even as drunk as we were there was a moments hesitation.  But only a moment.  And then we were cheering and clapping each other on the back and laughing again.  See what I mean?  Complacent.

I had no idea, at the time, how it all went wrong.  Leprechaun arrived at half time and declared the threat to the audience, who responded with the obligatory screaming and terror.  A couple of security guys tried to tackle him and got bounced thirty feet for their efforts.  Leprechaun was small, but super tough.  Then he gave us the signal to throw off our disguises and reveal our hiding places within the audience.  It was like clockwork and we were gathering a lot of booty.  Then Leprechaun disappeared.

We had no idea where he’d gone, he appeared to just vanish into the crowd.  Without him there, nobody was in command and five minutes of gathering valuables turned into ten.  Then into fifteen.  We just kept waiting and expecting Leprechaun to turn up and confirm it was all in hand.  None of us had emerged as an obvious leader and before somebody, maybe Larry, maybe Big Sue, maybe even me, could grow a pair and take command it all kicked off.  The Police arrived and suddenly the crowd weren’t terrified of us anymore and the tide had turned.

In the end, I did only six months.  We got lucky.  My bullet wound made a nice scar in my side, but passed through without doing any serious damage.  A bunch of liberal do-gooders made a big deal about the excessive violence used against us and the poor lack of procedure while processing the few of us who survived.  Frankly, I think we deserved everything we got.  But I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.  I was out in time for my family to still remember who I was – and thankfully they wanted me back, despite my record.  Getting work now though was going to be near impossible.