The station hummed with life, people arriving and departing, coming together and splitting apart like nervous little animals come to size each other up before going about their business. A thousand conversations hung above the people like a cloud. Harried mothers struggled to keep their broods and their bags within sight while shooting wary glances at the huge clock that hung suspended from the forty-foot ceiling. Travelers, the weary ones just off a dirigible and the fresh faced ones looking to meet their conveyances, milled about in the confusion of the crowd, looking like toys that children had set in motion independently of each other, oblivious to the actions of their playmates.
I sat on a hard wooden bench and watched it all. The energy of the place made me think of a spring wound too tight. The tension in the station–the tension of departure and return–made me uneasy, as though one little problem with the dirigibles or the timetables, with luggage or tickets would throw everything out of balance; even something as simple as the discovery of a pickpocket would wind the spring one tick tighter and the whole place would pop into pandemonium. I felt it could happen. I always felt it could happen on days like this, and I did not want to be there.
All the more reason to get it over with, I thought. Just one more quarter and I would have enough to earn my night’s rest.
I’d been sizing up marks since the big clock had read 2:16. No one had struck me right. Now the clock read 4:02, and its ticking high above the rows of benches was just one more thing to worry about. If I didn’t find someone by 5:00, I would have a problem. There aren’t many places lonelier than a dirigible station on a Sunday evening once the majority of flights have left and most of the travelers have gone. The five o’clock chimes would signal the shift, the winding down of the springs, the beginning of the change from hectic to languid. I wouldn’t be entirely alone, not for a few more hours, but the crowds would thin to the point that it would be hard for me to move about unnoticed.
For now, I could, though. In all of this bustle, no one paid attention to a little boy who walked with purpose through the station. It was plain enough to see I was on my way to or from my parents, that I needed no help, made no demands. I could slip in and out of large and small parties, picking up bits of blustery greetings and tearful goodbyes as I looked for the right person. I was picky, had been taught to be, and it had always worked. I’d never failed, never been hauled up to one of the station police with their big coats and little eyes and ugly nightsticks.
Two benches away, someone’s aunt admonished her niece to be careful, not to talk to strange men on the flight, to go straight to her hotel when she reached San Francisco, to wire for money if she needed anything, and to come home right away if she felt the least bit unsafe. Her shrill voice cut through the hum of the station, and once I started listening to that voice, it would not be drowned out. I glanced back to see the pair. The aunt was gray and pinched. The niece was young and blonde but not a girl any more, and she smiled politely, surely having heard it all before, and probably having dealt already with more real dangers in life than the aunt would even let herself imagine. Neither one would make a decent mark–the aunt too cautious, the niece too eager.
I had only just dismissed them as possibilities when a more promising figure entered my line of sight. A man had sat down on the bench not far from me. He had a single, small valise at his feet, and he sat stiffly for a moment, pulling out a pocket watch and checking it against the clock above him. With a satisfied grin below his Clark Gable mustache, he let himself rest against the bench. He looked moneyed but not overly so–the kind of man who would want to hold on to what he had and who would look for opportunities to get more. His clothes were nice but not new. He had no wedding ring. All things I’d been trained to look for.
I stood, casually patted my jacket pocket to feel the bug even though I knew it was there, and walked toward the man. I didn’t look at him, didn’t even glance his way. Nothing to make him notice me. But as I passed him, I started counting my steps until I reached the end of the bench. Then I turned away from the waiting area and toward the platform.
Large marble pillars separated the waiting area from the loading platform, and I ducked behind one, glancing first at the mark I had chosen to make sure he was making no preparations to move. The clock read 4:06 now. The San Francisco flight would depart at 4:40 and would start boarding any moment. The trick was to get him just moments before he needed to start gathering his things for the trip. That way, if he was suspicious, his decision making process would be addled by the demands of the timetable, the cost of his ticket, and the importance of his destination. People make poor decisions when they have too many things to consider, like a machine running with too many parts rather than not enough.