Chapter 26: Heist Capades
Sneaked to the safe with his fingers felonious,
clicking the tumb’lers falling euphonious,
took the crown jewels to his buddy, Salmoneus,
nobody knew he was there...
"So this is Gabrielle's home town," Autolycus let his gaze drift around the busy market square. Shops and workplaces lined the dusty avenue. Carts and wagons stuffed with produce and dry goods rolled and bounced along the adjacent streets. "Looks no different than any other sleepy burg whose side yards and back alleys I learned my trade in. Hmm, that must be the counting house. Window's open. No screen in the casement. Ring of keys on a nail on the wall. Clerk's away from his desk. Sacks of dinars lying unguarded in the back room. I could be in and out of there as quick as a blind date with Aphrodite. By the gods, these hicks and hayseeds just beg you to relieve them of their valuables.
"Ah, faggeddaboudit," Autolycus waved the tempting thought away. "Xena'll stick my neck in a knee brace if I blow this job. Imagine: some creepy warlord busting in here and making off with Gabrielle's kid sister in the dead of night. Not that I’d mind making off with Gabrielle's kid sister in the dead of the night, come to think of it. Probably halfway to the flesh pots of Bulgary by now, poor kid. She'd be better off getting turned into a Bacchae. At least she'd get to have some fun."
The first item on Autolycus' agenda was to swap his green dickey for a suit of unobtrusive peasant clothes. As luck would have it, his gadabout took him tripping past the local haberdashers. Autolycus looked furtively to the left and stealthily to the right, then ducked warily inside the shop. Other than the proprietor, an elderly gent who squinted through a pair of spectacles hanging low on the bridge of his nose as he pored over trays of thin liederhozen, matching them into pairs and then pricing them with tags, there were only a couple of customers picking their way through the shirt and trouser bins.
"Good afternoon, my good man," Autolycus flashed his most engaging smile as he broadly saluted the shop's proprietor.
"Don't know what were good about it," the proprietor grumped amid the fleshy folds of a very dour face. "Two of our fine young girls, gone in a stroke, and the main gate near busted off its hinges. Herodotus and Clenesthides: 'twere their young 'uns what lately got nicked by a mangy warlord name of Latrinus. All the world were a trouble now. Our young men, seekin' a spot of adventure and a morsel of gold wi’ which to cram their purses, were gone off to do the king's biddin' athwart the bleedin' walls of Troy. A small lot of good this war were doin' for the common folk. I see you're wantin' for pants, shirts, shoes and a cap. By Aphrodite's round and coaxy bosom, you were lookin' more like an elf than a man, garbed in that green doublet and them skintight pair of lime-colored leggin's."
"I've been venturing, far and wide, day and night, over meadow and stream, searching for my long lost Uncle Autolides," Autolycus told the proprietor in a mock falsetto. "I'm his only surviving nephew come all the way from my happy home in far off Xenapolis. My dear, departed Mum, mere days before a bad case of the croup carried her off just before the solstice, poor thing, told me that Uncle Auto was the perpetrator of a cut-throat… ah, cut-rate jewelry shop right here in beautiful, downtown Potie... daya."
"I’m afeared I never heard of no such bloke as were called Autolides," the proprietor said, pinning and pricing his numerous pairs of long, thin, stretchy socks. "Only jewels what I'm aware of were them as belong to the family, and them be treasures what were wisely kept tucked well away from the maddenin’ crowd."
"I could have sworn that my uncle's shop was located right over there," Autolycus pointed out the open door to the white, stucco building that stood across the street.
"Nay," the proprietor followed the line of Autolycus' pointing finger. "That were Democles' tool and dye shop. You won't be findin’ hide nor hair of that ruggy lout today. Him and Trachis and t'others gone beatin' 'bout the bush in search of them poor, lost girls."
While the proprietor was staring out the doorway, Autolycus quietly fished a pair of baggy leggings out of one of the bins and tossed them onto one of the tray tables.
"Perhaps it was that funny little shop over there," Autolycus pointed out the window to the door of the building that stood caddy corner to the alley.
"'Tweren't that one neither," the proprietor shook his head again. "That were Tim, the baker's shop. Timmy were gone with the men as well. They were all gone searchin' through the brush for any trace of them girls and gangsters, I'm tellin' ya."
Meanwhile, Autolycus eased a puffy shirt off its hanger and laid it gingerly on top of the leggings.
"Do you suppose, by any chance, that my uncle’s shop might have been the one next door to this one?" Autolycus directed the proprietor's attention to the wall behind the counter.
"Now I’m knowin’ you were dotty," the proprietor chuckled. "That were me neighbor, Zoster, the fishmonger," the proprietor gestured at the posts that held up the cross beam which supported the common loft above the two shops. "'Twere a mite early in the day for the catch to be flensed and weighed," the proprietor sucked a couple of mighty sniffs of air through his big, round nose, "but when the lads come back with their baskets of guts and sundry fishy parts, you'll smell the brine right pungent through them splintery walls, I trow."
With the proprietor's attention shifted ninety degrees away from the doorway, Autolycus grabbed a leather vest off the rack and tossed it onto the pile.
"By Poseidon's glittering trident," Autolycus smacked his thigh and shook his head, maneuvering between the proprietor and the little pile of duds to which, with a quick, behind the back toss, he now added a pair of matched stockings, "I could have sworn that my uncle was the owner of a precious gem shop just off the main square."
"Weren't no shop as were sellin' pretty baubles what I ever knowed of, not in this plain and homely town," the proprietor turned around and looked at Autolycus with a frown. "What were you sayin' that uncle of yours were called? Aut... Auto..."
"Er..., ah..., Autonomous," Autolycus said. "A dealer in boobies and churls... ah, rubies and pearls."
"Then I'd venture across the way to the countin' house and inquire of that bright young Orestes," the proprietor said as Autolycus, reaching behind his back, surreptitiously balled up his unpaid-for purchases. "Now there were a lad what were knowin’ every man's business and were blessed by the gods with the gray matter to keep track of it. 'Twere a good thing the gods give the lad a sharp noodle, bein' as how his legs don't serve him so good, the one not takin' much of a likin' to t'other. Clipped him on the pate just as solid, though, when they gone dashin’ off with the girls. The nerve of them thievin’ bandits: wallopin’ a cripple after strikin' hard ‘pon the cheek of a lusty young wench. Men done no such frightful discourtesies to the ladyfolk in my day."
"It's a sad commentary on the tenor of the times when a man can't contrive to make his way honestly in the world," Autolycus commiserated as he turned to face the proprietor and, with his shoplifted bundle plunked behind his back, edged his way backwards toward the door.
"Regrettin’ that I canna be a help to you in trackin’ down that gem-dealin' uncle of yours... What were you sayin' his name were?" the proprietor called out.
"Acidophilus," Autolycus called back as he slithered out the door. "And when I catch up with him, I'll tell him to stop by your shop and to treat himself to a fine new outfit. And you be sure to charge the old goat top dinar when he gets here."
"Ne'er mind takin' advantage of a man when he were in need," the proprietor waved away the thought of piling on the profits. "Rich man, poor man, beggar, thief, they were all payin' the same freight when they comes to my shop: cost of materials plus a little somethin' to make the cuttin' and the fittin' of 'em worth the price of me labors."
The proprietor kept smiling after Autolycus had bidden him farewell. "Antimony, the gem trader," he mumbled with a shake of his head. "Hmpf, never heard of the bloody get. By Zeus on his foggy bottom but the world were fill't to the brim with bedlam boys nowadays, the half of 'em bein' daft and connin' themselves wise, whilst t'other half were wise and connin' themselves daft. And most days, one canna rightly tell the one from t'other."
Autolycus darted into the alley, spotted a vacant doorway, squirreled himself away and changed into his new togs. Then he made his way down the cobbled side street to the pitched embankment above the pottery works.
A small showroom fronted a large warehouse whose rear storage bays were mounted on a row of broad, heavy stilts that jutted up from the wharves. Pots, platters, plates and bowls were lowered onto the docks by banks of dumbwaiters suspended on rope pulleys. Then the goods were crated and stowed in the holds of freighters listing in their slips. Attached to the warehouse, via a connector wide enough to accommodate two flatbed dollies rolling side by side, was the huge annex in which the clays, in various stages of processing, were stored, near the large firing kilns, on shelves lined, from floor to ceiling, with dyes, sealants and glazes.
The remainder of the pottery works consisted of a semi-protected area, covered by a series of overlapping awnings, in which the silts and sands were combined into useful construction materials. There was a small, windowless pump house in the back lot around whose circumference a yoked mule cranked a large wooden pole. The pole's wide, circular motion created, via a system of juxtaposed levers and gears, the siphon and suction which made possible a continuous flow of water through shunts and conduits that washed through an intricate network of swales, flanges, ducts and drains.
Across the road from the pottery works, wedged into the embankment, stood the lower rear floor of the building occupied, on the ground level, by the counting house, the reevers' office and the constable's station and, in the basement, the town lockup.
Autolycus took himself for a stroll around the yard and the back lots, getting a feel for the lay of the land. Xena was playing her hunch that there was some kind of a tie-in between the warehousing of these goods – of which there seemed to be an enormous supply in a wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes – and Latrinus having kidnapped Lila and Alexis.
Xena had first encountered Latrinus during the run-in she'd had with Mezentius which had ended tragically when Marcus had heroically given his life to save a royal princess. Latrinus had been one of Mezentius' gofers. Marcus hadn't trusted Latrinus, believing him to be a wily opportunist who'd been dealing weapons to both warring kingdoms during that bitter, drawn out conflict. Latrinus had afterwards done a stint with Talmodeus and had witnessed, at first hand, the way in which a warlord's overweening ego could easily bring about his downfall – all that reveling in the imminent execution of Gabrielle, so delicious in anticipation that the idiot, to his prompt demise, never quite got around to pulling it off.
If Latrinus wasn't stupid – and to have gone into the warlording business, even at the head of a small band of raiders, he couldn't have been a total washout between the ears – he would have learned that successful warlording, even on a minor scale, required a skillful mix of the pride of the lion and the skulk of the fox. Xena had been nine-tenths roaring lion in her warlording days, scorning the sneaky ways of the fox, but Xena's success had been exceptional. Few warlords could hope to copy Xena's methods without rapidly coming to grief. Latrinus, who had few illusions about his capacity for warlording on the grand scale, appeared to be nine-tenths fox. At this point in his career, Xena reasoned, he was apt to be in the game for the dinars, not the glory.
So, Autolycus had muttered as the Dutchman's ship had gone airborne, if it takes a thief to catch a thief, a little sleight of hand might be just what the Doctor of Deception ordered. If Latrinus and his gang were to come barreling into town, looking to knock over the pottery works, how about we pull off a little switcheroo and drag the pots across the road to the jailhouse and move the creeps in the holding tank across the road to the warehouse? Then Latrinus' raiders, mistaking the one locale for the other, might, before they’d become aware of the ruse, go rushing smack into the hoosegow where the iron cell grates would merrily clank shut behind them, locking them up toot-sweet. Meanwhile, the jailbirds could be roped together in the warehouse under the threat of being fired in the kilns, in the shape of tasty casserole dishes, if they tried to take advantage of the ensuing commotion by untying themselves and making a run for it.
Xena liked the idea but made a couple of modifications. The main objective, in the event of a raid on the pottery works, would be to funnel the raiders and their horses into the staging area between the warehouse and the annex where the gang would be partially confined by solid, foundry walls at ground level and would have nowhere to go but splash into the drink or flush into the pokey after Xena and Gabrielle had finished working some of their butt-kicking magic on them.
Well, then, Autolycus stroked his goatee, how about we begin by light-fingering some of these pretty crocks, jugs, pitchers and bowls out of the salesroom and then figure out a way to tunnel under the road and set them up in the windows of the slammer to make it appear that the raiders' heist ought to be focusing on the other side of the street where, unbeknownst to them, the booby trap, when the time came, would be wound up and ready to spring.
Posing as a jobber on behalf of a wealthy, international dealer in Etruscan terra cotta friezes, Autolycus sauntered into the showroom and snooped around until closing time, at which point, when the shop foreman was temporarily distracted, he louvered himself into the warehouse though some rotting slats in the wall and hid out behind some stacked tubs of packaged caulking material. When the foreman closed the showroom for the night and the warehouse at last seemed deserted, Autolycus sprang out of hiding and settled down to work, locating the grunge traps and removing their drain covers to explore the sub-surface tubing that washed the sludge from the processing pits through the waste ditches down to the bay to pour, as untreated effluents, into the sea water beneath the docks. Then, a little ways into the underground and off to one side, Autolycus found what he was looking for: the main conduit, a ceramic tube some ten arm spans in diameter, that connected the pottery works with the constable's station and, below decks, the prisoners' cells.
All that needed to be done now was the drudge work: dragging the goods, a pot and a pitcher at a time, from the warehouse, under the road, to the constable's subterranean holding tanks.
It was slow but simple going, toting items of the warehouse's inventory down the drainage chute, into the large, circular tubing, under the sub-flooring and through the culvert which crossed, beneath the street, to the cellar of the lockup. For the time being, Autolycus figured, he'd amass the goods in the long, cobwebbed crawl space at the rear of the holding tank, ready to display them in the small, high windows of the prisoners' cells once the ne'er-do-wells who were currently occupying those cells had been escorted and safely deposited, bound and gagged, in the annex behind the clay bins.
"To think that at this very turn of the sandglass I could be swiping Hippolyte's belt and dealing it, for mucho dinero, to the Amazons. And what am I plugging away at instead? Petty cat burglary," Autolycus groaned and threw up his slimy hands in frustration, his arms covered in grime up to the elbows. "Why do I let Ms. Warrior Princess and her sweet-eyed sidekick inveigle me into doing my bit for the greater good? 'Cause I'm a sucker for a pretty face, that's why. Two pretty faces. Ah, well, once a fool, twice an idiot..."
Thus, in tendentious bouts of self-reflection, Autolycus whiled the evening away as he made multiple trips back and forth, through the mushy conduit, under the road, setting up the little trompe l’oeil in the basement of the jail house. Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, a voice came thundering down the stink hole. "Who goes there? It weren't no kind of a rat. A rat don't whistle the tune to Take Me Out To The Crawl Game."
Dangnab it, Autolycus cussed, I must've gotten so bored that I accidentally started whistling. Now I've gone and sicked the store dick on my tail.
"Can’t you see we're closed for the night? Come back in the morning!" Autolycus shouted from down in the drainage ditch back to the spot, at floor level, where the guard was standing with a glowing lantern suspended in his hand.
"Aha!" the guard cried, not taken in by the attempted subterfuge. "’Twould seem a scurvy knave were lookin' to make off with me master's fine goods. You weren't the first thief to come burglin' these bowls and basins in the night, Jack; yet ne'er, in these dark and drafty passages, have I spied a rogue so rousty in the rustlin' of 'em."
Unable satisfactorily to account for his efforts at re-arranging the warehouse's stock without giving the plan away, Autolycus tried bluffing. "I'll have you know, my good fellow, that I represent a wealthy, Etruscan, terra cotta frieze dealer who could buy and sell these half-baked cheese nibs a dozen times over."
"The only thing that were wont to be freezin' this night were the cheeks of thy chilly backside, Jocko," the guard sprang into the pit and, with his two large hands, grabbed Autolycus by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his pants.
"Owww!" Autolycus whined, caught in the guard's iron grip. "Watch out for the collar and cuffs, wouldja. I went to a passel of trouble to shanghai this two-toned outfit."
"'Twere off to the clink with you and make no mistake," the guard began to usher Autolycus through the culvert and into the long crawl space now thick with an eye-catching array of newly glazed crockery. "We'll let Herodotus, Clenesthides and them what were gone in search of the girls sort this bungy business out in the mornin'."
"Ah, now I know what your problem is. You must have me mixed up with that wily King of Thieves," Autolycus ho-ho'ed as the guard gave him the bum's rush into the lockup. "Okay, I’ll level with ya. I’m an undercover OSHA inspector, springing a surprise, middle of the night visit, to make sure your health and safety procedures comport with all the latest government regulations."
"And what, pray tell, were OSHA?" the guard frowned. "The god of skates and scoundrels?"
"Oblates and Saints for Helping Autolycus," Autolycus palavered. "C'mon, lemme go. I'm a charitably minded guy. You've heard of the March of Dimes? Well, I gave a quarter in February."
But Autolycus' dickering fell on deaf ears as the guard ushered him into the jailhouse. Securing Autolycus' compliance by twisting one of his arms in a painful hammerlock, the guard reached for the keys to one of the cells.
"In you go, Mister O’Tolicus," the guard chucked Autolycus unceremoniously into the cell, sliding and locking the bars behind him. "And if that thievin' neck of yours don't end up swingin' from the knotted loop of a rope at first light upon the morrow, it won't be for want of the noose."
"Well, now that you've shown me my bed for the night, I'd like my breakfast served promptly at eight," Autolycus groused as the guard wandered away to continue his rounds. "Eggs over easy and don’t break the yolks!"
The guard and his lantern slipped out of the underground lockup, plunging the place into silence and darkness but for the dull, hissing pallor on the far wall which came from a lit torch protruding from its sconce and rapidly burning its way down to nothing.
"Why, oh why did I ever leave Ohiopolis," Autolycus fussed as he began to pace back and forth in his cell. "Xena’s gonna rootie my patootie for goofin’ off on duty, and I got nobody to flame but myself."
From behind Autolycus came a humph and a shlumph as a body stirred and a voice yawned on the bare, wooden rack that was chained, head and foot, to the wall. A round, gray-haired, roly-poly fellow in a rumpled blue evening gown sat up and stretched. Then his eyes darted around the cell.
"Who's there?" the fellow's voice squealed in a bout of panic. "Somebody's there. Did I just hear somebody mention Xena? As in the Warrior Princess who's My Very Best Friend In All The World?"
"Salmelodious!!" Autolycus let out a revolting cry. "Cripes, talk about adding insult to injury."
"Oh, so it's you!" Salmoneus, now fully awake, let out a righteous grunt. "It's about time you showed up, you no-count son of a shifty shoplifter!"
"For one thing, it isn't me; it only walks and talks and is extremely good looking like me. For another thing, I haven't just showed up. For the past several candlemarks, if you must know, I've been toting my tootsies off across the way," Autolycus gripped the bars of the cell in frustration, wondering: shall I choke him quick or strangle him slow?
"Sure, I get it," Salmoneus hopped off the rack and came up to the bars across from the cell in which Latrinus' pair of detainees were awaiting their day in court. "You want me to think you're Cupcake in disguise so I'll be nice to you. Except Cupcake hasn't got hairy legs. Or a little goatee that I'd like to give a great big tug on."
Salmoneus reached out to give a tug on Autolycus' goatee but Autolycus easily dodged the effort.
"You leave Cupcake outta this," Autolycus growled. "And don't think you can butter me up by trying to make me think that I look better in a dress than Cupcake does. Just because Cupcake looks best in nothing doesn't mean she doesn't also look good in something."
"Never mind Cupcake. Just tell me if you brought the stash," Salmoneus badgered. "You stood me up, you big creep. You were supposed to be here with the crown jewels of Namibia when the block party got underway, and, as usual, you never showed."
"What block party? What crown jewels?" Autolycus griped. "Look, I'm a busy guy. I’m in demand, what can I say."
"What crown jewels, he says. Crown jewels like necklaces, bracelets, earrings, gold lammé body paint? You know, the stuff you said you were gonna bring if I cut you in for half the take."
"Sounds like boys' night at the lingerie shoppe," Autolycus snapped. "Look, I’m sorry to disappoint you, Sal, but I've got bigger fish to fry. I only hope that one of 'em doesn't turn out to be my derriere."
"Did you forget about our little deal, speaking of Maenads?" Salmoneus chided.
"Your nads?" Autolycus huffed. "What about my nads? If you wanna know the truth, those nads are pretty darn sore long about now from hauling all those packed crates through that damp, moldy grease trap."
"So you've conveniently forgotten the little arrangement we had with that troupe of raging Maenads, the ones who were gonna take us Where No Man Has Gone Before," Salmoneus reminded Autolycus of their botched confab with the luscious troupe of sweetly fanged Maenads. "And I don’t mean the make up counter in the powder room of the ladies lounge. But first they insisted on getting paid up front by what I promised you'd have no trouble getting for them – like you said you weren't going to, O Mighty King of Minotaur Dropping artists."
"Gimme a break," Autolycus tried to blow Salmoneus off. "Every thief's entitled to have a bad snare day. Boy, Xena's gonna cast my ass in brass if I end up deep-sixing this gig."
"My rep with the Maenads has gone up in smoke," Salmoneus complained. "And it's my butt that's at risk of getting deep fried if and when they hustle back here to light the pan."
"Then look at it this way," Autolycus said. "If you're lucky, those girls'll tear you limb from limb. If not, they'll pass you by and tear some other lucky loser limb from limb. So you got busted for playing spin the throttle with the Maenads, did you?"
"That wasn’t what got me chucked me in here," Salmoneus sulked. "It was because they said I was trying to be someone I wasn't."
"Sheesh, you're not still hung up on pretending to be that dippy chick that King Tolos had the hots for, are you? The one that nearly got the lights turned out on us in the master bedroom of the inn that we were being men in pink in?"
"No, it wasn't her. It was the Queen of Namibia."
"You were what? Posing as the Queen of Namibia?" Autolycus raised a sceptical eyebrow.
"I am the Queen of Namibia," Salmoneus pouted in his blouse and long skirt. "I only wish the Queen was here to tell them that."
"Go back and hit the rack, I gotta think this thing through," Autolycus stroked his goatee. "The Queen of Namibia, hmm? Well, if you can't take the pots out of the warehouse, maybe you can take the warehouse out of the pots. Yeah, doing it that way might work."
"So where's Xena?" Salmoneus said, impatiently. "And when's she gonna bust us out of here?"
"What’s this ‘us’ all of a sudden?" Autolycus eyeballed Salmoneus who'd plopped his butt down on the hard wooden bunk.
"A bunch of hairy goons made off with Lila and Alexis when the kids were out in the square, dancing in the moonlight," Salmoneus informed Autolycus.
"Yesterday's news," Autolycus lowered his voice so that the two goombahs who were cooling their heels in the cell across the way might not hear any mention of what had befallen Lila and Alexis at last night’s block party.
"How do you know what happened? You weren't even here."
"I know 'cause Xena told me."
"How does Xena know? Xena and Gabrielle are way down in Tiryns trying to jawbone Queen Admete into handing over some jeweled belt that’s got the Amazons’ petticoats all a-flutter."
"They were down in Tiryns. They're back. Xena's on the scene and moving."
"And then the most wonderful thing happened...," Salmoneus, waxing angelic, broke into a broad, blissful grin.
"When Xena started moving?" Autolycus said.
"When the girls got kidnapped. This gorgeous creature somehow materialized out of the aether, then came and found me in her desperate search for a strong, sturdy shoulder to lean on," Salmoneus began to drift into a wan reverie of the previous evening's vision of spectral, enaretes kores loveliness.
"I trust you told her I hadn't yet arrived," Autolycus said.
"She could have been a nymph, a sylph, a nereid, a naiad. She could have been Aphrodite on the half shell except that she wasn't blonde and her boobs weren't... well, when it comes to top quality boobs, I guess Aphrodite's pretty much sewed up the competition... but over she came, just the same, weeping and moaning, reaching out and begging me to take her my arms..."
"Give it up, Salmagundus," Autolycus grunted. "Get with the program. Lila and her pal are somewhere out there in the sweet bye and bye. With a little help from Xena and her blonde amanuensis, I'm fixin' to bring 'em back alive."
"How? By getting your toosh tossed in the slammer?"
"Why not? Makes it more of a challenge," Autolycus said, twirling his moustache and contemplating his next move. "Besides, though most guys'll tell you that life behind bars might not have much to recommend it, I've yet to hear most folks sing the praises of the life that often gets lived in front of bars either."
Continued in Part 27
The Bard's Corner