DECEMBER 4, 1952
London lost its colors that day, the smog had engrossed it. The smog for the past few days was slowly starting to asphyxiate its citizens like a python firming its grip over its prey. Papers called it the ‘great smog’.
I loathed at that title. Something that suffocated about 4000 people to their death and crumbled the nation’s economy to the ground was never supposed to be titled ‘ GREAT’. I folded my paper and moved out of the cafe. The smog had turned everyone blind; all i could see were layers and layers of it, nothing more. I checked my hand watch, it showed 6.30. It meant i had only 10 minutes to make it to the Riverson alley, 10 minutes to make Glades wake up from his sleep and another 10 minutes to board the bus that went to ST.MARY’S hospital.
I made it there under 7 mins. A homeless man was burning trash inside a rusted old oil barrel. He kept his palm over the dying embers of flame to warm himself. I rushed myself up through the stairs to his apartment, the paint had worn out of his doors, the walls needed some plastering and there was no electricity in the building. But this was heaven for a small time crook and a pickpocket like Glades. It had multiple exits and offered sufficient methods of transportation available right under its nose. Glades had personally picked up this place so that if someone tried to get hold of him, he could just disappear into the thin air.
I drummed on his door. ‘Glades wake up your making us late mate’ I said. ‘Just give me a minute’ he replied. It took a minute for me to understand what he said, his Irish accent was hard for my ears to receive and harder for my brain to process.
‘I will be waiting downstairs’
The old man was kind enough to share his fire with me. I moved my palms over it, rubbed over my cheeks & took out the paper again to find out what else was happening in the city of London. The paper was filled with the news of smog everywhere. Many lost their jobs, many lost their families, and many their souls. London was witnessing the largest peace time disaster of this century. Inside there were some minor columns about some failed MI5 mission, how politicians made a complete mess of handling the smog situation, and a how German Mafia lord was breeding crime in the streets of London. It interested me, and i went on to read the entire article, as it was about the same line of work that i followed, and in this line of work you always have to remain updated. the article explained how a man who called himself the ‘LUFT’ was taking on the city. I found the article more glorifying the guy rather than articulating the facts, and lost interest in it.
The old man didn’t find anything to sustain the heat. I tossed the newspaper into the barrel; it lighted up the fire so did his face. A minute became thirteen, but Glades wasn’t out of his apartment, I climbed back, this time his door was partially open . I had an urge to open it completely and see his place but that would be impolite. I heard the minute hand of my watch running circles. I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew the time was running out, but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under the breath. ‘ten, nine, eight , seven ..’ when i reached one i started counting in reverse again ‘two , three ..’ he opened the door on the count of seven.
’ lets go mate’ he grinned.
We paced through the mundane streets to the bus station.
‘ why are you making haste mate ‘
I smelled whiskey in his breath, that’s what made him sleep again i assumed. I didn’t answer his question but paced up my walk. He came up to my side slides his hands to my shoulder and clasped it, like friends do to each other when one was cross with the other one. I was of course cross with him but i was not his friend either. In fact i hated him, and surely his feelings for me were mutual.
We were both professional pickpockets who emptied the pockets of fellow Londoners commuting through the buses. We only did buses as they were easy to get in, easy to pick out, and easy to get out unlike trams or streets were chances of spotting us were high, and the collection we got from the buses were better.
‘hey are you still cross with me of being late, here this might cheer you up ‘ he pulled out a neat bundle of notes, counted them and fixed it to my hand. ‘ You’re cut from yesterday’s job ‘ green is the only color i love baby!!’
he sparked a quite laugh which sounded like a hyena’s cry. I counted the money ‘this is quite low ‘
‘well the markets down in smog’ he replied
‘i am sure the goods that we picked were more worthy than this,’
’ i am sure it does but we gotta give some to the WHEEL.’
i shrugged, i hoped someday the WHEEL would get dismantled and we would be free to do whatever we wanted to. Then i asked a question i instantly regretted about’ why can’t we sell our goods by ourselves??’
Glades froze at that point. His cheek muscles contracted, & his eyebrows twitched ‘are you out of the effing mind!! i thought you were smart kid , but you proved to be dumb as a moke, is that why they throw you out of oxford?’ his words heightened the animosity against him but i controlled it.
‘i was not thrown out of oxford, just suspended. I still have my I.D do you wanna see, huh!! ?’
Glades waved his hands off ‘ don’t you get the point son, do you know what happn’d to the man who tried to sell his goods outside the WHEEL?’
i knew what had happened to him, but i didn’t respond. The man’s body was hanged at the centre of the TOWER BRIDGE. The citizens & the police only knew it as a suicide, but the members of WHEEL knew that it was a reminder. The WHEEL was an intricate yet invisible network that consisted of petty thief’s, pickpockets, thugs and even some high level Politicians. It offered immunity in exchange of capital; simply put it took some from our cut & kept us out of trouble.
The London police was proud of its low crime rate, but little did they know crimes kept happening, they just couldn’t see it from happening. The wheel made the job easy for us, if stealing was a hard process, then selling those goods was an adamantine one. So we just give the goods to them and they paid for it instantly. It was one of the million things it did among others. But no one knew who was at the centre of the network; he just went by the name EMPEROR. He was the one who kept spinning the WHEEL.
Yes the WHEEL was an autocracy ruled by an invisible man. I looked at Glades, he was now pacing up, and out of curiosity i asked ‘ have you seen the emperor.’
‘no, no one has seen the emperor why do you ask this?’.
I kept quiet for sometime and as we made it to the bus station shot another question
‘Are you the emperor?’
I had pursued human psychology & behavioral science at OXFORD before been thrown out of the college for well bad behavior, and i was pretty good at getting a lock on people. So when someone is introduced with a sudden question which had even a remote relation with their past, their body would certainly give a signal. it would be either in the form of sweat, rapid eyelid movement, or pupil dilation. But Glades didn’t show any of that, he just said a plain ‘NO’ and strolled calmly. Then he asked me the same question to me. I said ‘ may be’, and smiled at him.
‘Oh speaking of which i almost forgot, there is a word spreading around the WHEEL ‘ said Glades. That made me curious ‘ what word?’ ‘That some german guy is messing with the WHEEL, said that he is going to bring down the organization and establish a new order for the criminals in the city’
‘So you’re saying someone is taking on the wheel? Just one guy?? , are you joking now?’
Glades shrugged and said ‘well that’s what we thought about HITLER until he started kickin our asses at the battlefield mate’. That silenced me, Glades continued ‘he goes by the name LUFT.’
‘LUFT, meaning air??’ i knew a bit of German as my mother was of German descent. ‘Yea i suppose, the Wheel has asked to keep an eye out for the Guy.; we are living in an invisible world mate’.
We stood at the empty bus station, all i could see was a small stretch of road disappearing into the smog, the grey road looked like a tongue of a monster whose face lacked a set of eyes, and then i saw it opening them. It was indistinguishable at first, then it grew larger, i could hear its insides growling, its sound grew louder, its eyes larger. ‘Was the smog monster here to consume me?’ i felt like someone squeezing my windpipe, breathing was suddenly the most difficult thing to do. I coughed twice, and then it loosened up a bit.
‘Are you okhay mate?’
‘Yea ‘i murmured.
‘you better be because here comes our ride’ said Glades as he pulled out a pair of woolen gloves from his jacket, his lucky gloves, as he called them.
An AEC regent 111 red painted double Decker town bus slowly made it into the station. It was filled with passengers. Glades was delighted by its sight. we usually did buses which traveled through other routes but today we choose this one trip specifically because we knew it would carry workers to Kingston power station to take part in an ongoing protest against it and we also knew that it would carry patients to ST.MARY’S hospital.’ as they sow, we reap’ Glades appeared mirthful as always .
‘i am taking the top,’ i said.
‘As you wish’. We entered the bus, and it trundled off the station. It was a full house .Men; women and children of all ages filled the bus. I saw the driver struggling to steer his vehicle; he rubbed the windshield with a cloth to keep it clear. As we entered into the city i could see a bunch of policemen holding sticks of flame to direct traffic through the streets. they signaled the driver to drive east. He twisted the wheel and some passengers slided sideways. A child’s doll rolled towards me & she came after it, i picked it up and gave it back to her. She smiled & i smiled back. Smile was rarity in the bus; everyone else had a face of despair.
‘Well let’s get started then’ quipped Glades as he proceeded into the crowd. We operated with two key principles in mind namely discipline & confidence. Our modus of operandi included 2 stages. First one was called ‘sweep’ that’s where we sweep through the crowd & grab whatever valuable we can from their pockets or necks. This is rather a simple process for us provided we don’t screw it up first. Glades was already completing his ‘sweep’. I climbed the crampy staircase of the bus to start mine. The crowd in the upper berth was comparatively low, and low crowd meant high risk, so i had to tread carefully.
When we both completed our ‘sweeps’ when the bus made it to the Kingston power station. Most men got out to join in a protest going on in front of the station. I rubbed the smog tinted window to get a better view. There were about 300 men & women standing , shouting slogans & throwing glass bottles at the humongous iron gates of the station.’ the crooked politicians, they should have closed down the station a long time ago’ said Glades. He was right; the politicians could have stopped this disaster from happening.
We sat into the empty seats of the bus to begin the second stage of our pick pocketing called ‘mirroring’. It was only done if the targets had high valued items to pick up. It required a kind of personal touch. Mirroring involved in initiating a conversation with the target, getting into the skin of their interests, sorrows, or happiness quickly and ‘mirror’ them with our own take on it.
For example if a person looks gloomy we approach him with the same emotion. As they share their sorrows with us we do the same with them. It was a simple yet effective process. Some people might be resilient at first but with right words and right set of emotions every wall of resistance would collapse eventually. We scanned the bus now, there were only a few passengers left out.
I saw an old man sleeping with his mouth wide open, his head resting sideways over the glass panel. I hoped Glades would have picked that guys pocket. I looked at him and he tapped his right jacket pocket and showed a thumps up sign, then i saw something that brought out the devil in me. I looked at the child, she was crying loudly & her mother was searching for her missing doll, it wasn’t missing it was stolen because its arms were now protruding out of Glades pocket.
‘ Glades you son of a gun, you stole that child’s toy too? Give it back, give it back right now!’
‘not in a million years, it may fetch some green for us, i aint givin it back’.
I had an urge to punch him on his stomach, but i controlled myself. He could have at least spared the child’s toy. I removed the thought away and focused on to fulfill my task. I saw gentleman with a fine suitcase in front of the sleeping old man. A fine suitcase meant he had a finer wallet. His face looked emotionally bankrupt; sadness was the only thing that was seen in his face. He moved his hands over his wedding ring and was about to cry. I slowly moved into his side seat, counted in reverse from 10 to 1 and then burst into tears. I moaned & coughed simultaneously.
The man didn’t even twitch, seeing that i increased my pitch of cry, then i turned to him ‘my father. My father oh god, why god why did you do this to me, why did you send this curse to this city!!’ seeing this his face grew even sadder, but he didn’t knew how to console me.
‘Its okay, its okay mate, we all lose someone, he hugged me and i hugged back, and i stealthily picked his wallet.’ bingo’!! Then we got engaged in a conversation. He said he was a doctor who served in navy. He also said that the smog killed his wife and his 4 year old son. His son breathed his last today and he was coming back from his funeral. ‘You know what the irony is?? i knew exactly what was happening with them but couldn’t stop doing that from happening, all my knowledge, money and experience couldn’t even be used to save my dear ones’ he wiped off some of his tears as he said it.
We ended up by exchanging contacts; he gave his card which said ‘ Dr. ERICSSON CORE’. i wished him good luck.
I gave the wallet of CORE along with other pocketed goods to Glades. We operated by that way. If someone tried to investigate inside the bus i could stall them while Glades could escape from the scene. he now had all the goods in his jacket and was about to get down at the next station and me next to that. It was a good day for us, Glades pockets were full and our hard work had been finally rewarded. But little did i know the real show was about to begin now.
An elderly couple got into the bus; the man wore an expensive woolen jacket, and possessed a shiny walking stick with a golden arch attached to it. The lady looked almost exactly like him, she wore a pearl necklace around her neck and had a designer women’s wallet hanging through her shoulder, there was an engraving over her wallet which i couldn’t read from where i sat. The man had a rounded face which was quite familiar to me. I racked my brains, but couldn’t place him. Glades was now totally mesmerized by the couple. ‘That’s our jackpot, the cherry topping for our cake’.
But my gut feeling signaled something entirely the opposite. Then my brain finally recognized his face. He was MR.JOHN W.ELEMENT, the famous politician. He who would be the city’s next mayor if he won the elections. The woman must be his wife, i assumed. She was coughing hard and breathing heavily, they must be going to ST.MARY’S hospital. Element shook hands with the driver of the bus as he made his way in. He and the lady occupied the front row seats. Glades was already making his move, he walked slowly towards the couple. I thought of warning Glades about it, but choose not to. ‘Some things are better left unsaid’.
Element pulled out his smoking pipe and a fancy lighter from his pocket and was about to smoke when the lady said’ as there isn’t much smoke in here, put that away will you’.Mr.Element shamelessly smiled at his wife and put his smoking pipe away, but he still continued to play with his lighter. ‘tap, tap, tap’ i could hear the sound of metal hitting metal when the lighter’s cap hit its chrome body. It was an Aspray tank lighter. The sound made me notice his lighter again, this time i got a much closer look and that was the moment where everything fell into place. A sudden bolt of electricity flew through me when i recognized the lighter. It was the same expensive piece that i had stolen from a gentleman a few days ago.
‘But how could someone have the same piece unless…unless he is related to the WHEEL’. Now i was determined to stop Glades, he was now about to rob someone important to the WHEEL and someone important to WHEEL well knew our tactics.
The lady now was coughing harder, she kept one hand over her chest and bend herself, while MR. Element rubbed her back, consoling her ‘we are near to the hospital laverna’. I knew Glades was going to play the ‘hospital card’ on them, i knew the couple was going to recognize his mirror move, and i knew he was going to get caught in that process. If he gets caught, then our entire day’s work will be in vain .i ran towards him and pulled his collar backward. He pushed me away, i could see veins pulling up over his eyes, he was angry at me.
‘What the heck’ he muttered. I hissed into his tiny ear, ‘don’t pull em, they belong to the WHEEL!!’, but i didn’t know his tiny ear was connected to an even tinnier brain.’ Why not’ ‘ look at his lighter you fool, it was the very same one that i pulled a few days back, remember’, but Glades didn’t care to glance, he was determined to make the pull, he pushed be back again.
I tired one more time to make him understand, this time i got a real close look at the lady’s necklace. It was the same one Glades picked up a month ago from jewellery shop. I pulled Glades back at his collar
‘ look at that lady’s neck, do you remember that’
Glades adjusted his eyes to get a glimpse of the necklace. i knew he had recognized it, but he pretended not too. ‘So what, if i could steal it once, i could steal it twice’ said Glades.
i raised my bar for anger this time.’ listen to me you blockhead, you know very well that if we steal from the Wheel it is treason, and you know that goods that we sell to Wheel never sees the shores of London again, they get imported and i am pretty sure WHEEL breaks its rules only for someone important, & that guy might even be the emperor’. i was breathing hardly, i couldn’t control my rage against him. Glades looked me in the eye & he removed my hands from his collar, he was a strong man. As he did, he asked ‘ do you have any proof that they belong to wheel’ that question stunned me; i didn’t have any proof to convince him that they belonged to the Wheel, but my gut instinct said they were the wheel.
Glades freed himself from my grip and started walking again. But i didn’t give up, i was about to pull Glade’s collar for the third time when suddenly he punched me in my stomach. I fell down, but no one in the bus surprisingly noticed it. Blood threw up from my insides, and got splattered over the floor.’ go see a doc, kid’ Glades murmured as he made his way to the couple. As i fell down, i noticed the same engravings that i had seen on the lady’s purse engraved over MR. Element’s walking stick. It ran all the way from the bottom and ended at the golden hook. It was his name, his full name which read ‘JOHN WHEELER ELEMENT’.
Glades was now walking into a lions den, even if he was successful in pulling their goods, he will be caught by the agents of Wheel and executed for the crimes against the EMPEROR himself. But if he is going to be executed, then his partner will also not be spared. I had to save myself from death. The only way to stop Glades was now to betray him now. The bus was slowing down to a traffic junction, i saw a couple of policemen walking in parallel with the vehicle.
I didn’t care about the money anymore, and i sincerely didn’t care about Glades now. All the hatred against him swirled inside my head, and slowly it settled in form of a plan, a plan to stop Glades once in for all. I decided to throw him inside the bars. I decided to shout at the top of my voice to grab the policemen’s attention. I had to do my part convincingly so i moved my hands over my jacket and pretended to search for my wallet .i was ready to shout, then all of a sudden Glades turned and looked me in the eye, he saw my hand inside the jacket, he saw my awkward expression, he saw the policemen outside the bus, but most importantly he saw what was inside my head. He stood there for a second, salting in the situation, gave me a wicked smile and then he shouted’ help someone, please that man stole my wallet’. his fingers were pointing at me.
I couldn’t believe what had happened next , the policemen came rushing towards me , one got to my back and other to my front, my legs were frozen to the ground. It was a mouse trap but i knew it wouldn’t last long because Glades was just bluffing. He needed me out of the bus, but i wasn’t ready to throw my towel. I turned to the policeman in front of me and said’ i am no thief, i am a student at oxford’ ‘ prove it lad, show me your I.D.’ said the policeman.
Finally they had someone sensible enough in the police squad to understand my situation. I emptied my jacket pocket to find my I.D, that’s when i felt something odd in my pocket. That’s when i knew Glades wasn’t bluffing, because that’s when i knew i had Glades wallet inside my pocket.
The policeman saw the wallet and grabbed it from the pocket, ‘is this your wallet sir?’ he asked Glades.
He brought out a surprising look into his face and said’ yes officer, that’s mine arrest that thief, i am gonna press charge on you, you son of a bitch, i will see you at the jail, officer please take this disgusting man away’. The policeman who stood behind me clipped my hands to a handcuff.’ how can i be so foolish, Glades must have put have put his wallet inside my jacket when he had punched me,’ this was one lucky day for Glades, but i had an ace left in my pocket.Mr.Element congratulated the policemen for the arrest’ good work, gentlemen good work you two are London’s finest’. ‘Thank you Mr.Element, it was pleasure to meet you finally, i hope you win the elections this year’ said one of them.
‘i hope you rot in hell’ i didn’t know where i gathered the courage to say that, but now i decided to leave all my gentlemanly ways behind and bring out the criminal inside me, i turned to the officer and said,’ that man over there is the head of the WHEEL, the criminal organization whole of London has been searching for years’. MR. Element’s face got flushed with anger,’ what in god’s name are you talking about,’ MR. Element shouted back. He stuttered when he talked, ‘this… this man is lying, i have no connection to any cri…criminal organization,’ Glades moved his palm over his forehead.’ blew it’, moke just blew it’. I turned to the girl who had lost her doll, she was staring at me, her trembling hands got hold of her mother, ‘that man stole your doll ‘ Glades thought of jumping off the bus, but the driver had closed its door . The policemen turned to the girl and asked her weather it was true, i saw her nodding back. The policemen were patient.’ now i can explain officers’ Glades started to sweat. One of the policeman looked at Glades,’ is this true?’I need to frisk you right away’.
25 wallets, 3 necklaces, 3 watches, 4 lighters, and one doll were retrieved from Glades jacket.’ that’s quite a catch, where did you learn to pickpocket? You could teach us a thing or two about pickin;’ said the sarcastic policeman who was awestruck by the catch. This was never Glades lucky day, it was his. Glades had a tinge of shame on his face when the policeman coupled him to my handcuffs.
‘Now lad, tell me what kind of evidence you have against him to prove your allegation against this highly respected man, you better have something good under sleeves son or you aint seeing the sun again’.
I didn’t have any proof, but all i had was a combination of gut feeling and circumstantial evidence. JOHN WHEELER ELEMENT was perfect for serving as the head of WHEEL, he was wealthy, influential man who had connections everywhere & i knew now he had a stolen lighter with him knew his wife had a stolen necklace around her neck, and i knew his middle name was ‘Wheeler’ but i also knew these all well could be part of my imagination. I was walking over a thin crust of bread that could crumble down anytime. I took a breath, and looked around. Except for the sleeping old man, every one was starring at me.
I cleared my throat and began,’ officer that man is using a stolen lighter, it’s quite an expensive one and rare to find’ ‘but this lighter. this light.. .’
Element was trying to defend himself but his words got struck off by the policeman,’ continue’ he ordered. ’and the lady’s necklace, i paused ‘that was stolen from Heathrow station” oiy how did you know it was stolen? ’ because i stole it,’ interrupted Glades.’ and i assume the owners must have reported it to the police’. The policeman gave a hard stare at Glades and then nodded at his partner; his partner took out a brown covered log book, scanned through the pages and nodded back at the policeman.
‘Well well MR. Element, you got some explanation to do ‘,’ but i can’t, i di…dnt’ he struggled with his words. Then i heard a loud thud, the sound send ripples through the floor, which even woke up the old man from his sleep. I saw MR. Element’s wife lying down on the cold floor of the bus. Her necklace was broken and its beads scattered on the floor, some of them rolled towards me. Glades looked at the lady & shouted ‘we need a doctor, someone please call a doctor, and she’s dying’. I saw her body shiver, her eyes flutter as she tried to breathe. Then i remembered, we had a doctor inside the bus, i turned my head and shouted ‘ DR.CORE, please help her, DR.’ the old man rushed to the spot ’i am a doctor, make way please,’ the crowd splitted up for him. I looked around to find DR. Core but he wasn’t there to be found. I shouted his name again into the crowd. Two doctors are better than one. Then the old man replied’ will you keep your mouth shut, i am DR.CORE’.
In the midst of all the mumbling, i couldn’t hear what the old man had said, he now was busy checking the patient, i repeated ‘ are you DR.ERICSON CORE ‘ ‘should i label it on my face young man, yes i am DR. ERICSON CORE’, now someone please fetch my suitcase .i need my stethoscope. There, it’s over my seat’ he pointed out to the seat he sat, as he pushed the lady’s chest.
I couldn’t believe what was happening today, the world around me was collapsing in a way i had never imagined. this was the day i learned everything is not what it seems, and it was far from being over. If this was DR.ERICSON CORE, then who was that young man?’ that question pounded in my head, as the doctor pounded over the lady’s chest, to make her cough out the mucus. She was trying her best to breathe, Mr. Element locked his fingers with her, ‘ don’t give up laverna, please don’t give …’ then she let out a loud hiss, her body stopped shivering, and everyone stopped talking. The doctor checked her pulse and gave a sympathetic look to MR. Element,’ i m sorry.’
A teardrop fell from his eye, and then it became clouded. He opened his mouth and tried to yell, but hollowness filled in, a soft moan was all that left out from his voice box. then his sadness solidified into rage. He charged towards me and pushed me down, i hit the ground, and Glades followed me. MR. Element waved his stick aimlessly in the air trying to hit us, he growled ‘ its because of you … she died because of you ,..you bunch of dippers, you killed my sister’. The policemen separated him from us. Glades mocked back at him’ look who’s talking, the emperor himself, it wasn’t us, consider this as an outcome of your own ill fate’. i couldn’t hear them shouting but the only thing that i heard was the word ‘sister’. I stared at the corpse as the doctor closed her eyes. The lady was her sister, not his wife, that’s why they looked so similar.’ MR. Element this is a really bad time for you but you gotta explain how you got that lighter, and how your sister got hold off that necklace’ the policeman intervened Element took his time, and then replied.’ it was a gift from my sister’. And what did she do for a living, MR.Element’.’she worked for her majesty, I don’t know where correctly, she had been away from me for a very long time, but always took the time to send gifts for me, and this one was the very last one she gave.’
i now understood why she never mentioned her profession correctly to him, if a politician could run WHEEL well, a spy could run it better and she could well be one of them, and i hoped this time my assumption didn’t go wrong. Nobody saw the Emperor of WHEEL, because Wheel never had one, it only had an empress, and now she is gone so will be the WHEEL.
Now only one question remained, who was the young man who pretended to be DR. Core ?As the policemen led us out of the bus i noticed the misty window near to where the young man sat, something was written over it, it read’ luft ist überall’. It meant ‘Luft is everywhere’ .
by Glen Gerard