There are times when he feels so old.
Like now. He's sitting at the bar of a club he can't pronounce the name of, listening to music he doesn't recognize (though that last one, he decides, doesn't count as a point against him – the music's so loud you can't hear anything but the bass).
Sean slides a drink across the bar towards him. It doesn't look like a proper drink, all blue and bubbling in an oversized martini glass. And an entire fruit cocktail on a stick. Cherries he can understand, but kiwi fruit is just excessive.
“Shouldn't drink while we're working,” he reminds, raising his voice to be heard over the music.
“This is a top club,” Sean hollers back. “They put less alcohol in the drinks so you have to buy more to get drunk. It'll help us blend in,” he adds, and tips his glass. After a moment, Ash does, too. It's too sticky, too sweet, and tastes mostly of raspberries. And then, at the very end, just when you've sucked the last of it out of your teeth, something that might be very cheap, watered-down rum. Hardly enough to make your eyes wet.
It's legwork. He and Sean have trailed the mark from his office to his bank (the kind that specializes in undeclared Swiss accounts), from his bank to the restaurant (one that had a three month waiting list; that had been a devil to talk their way into), from the restaurant to his apartment and his wife. And now, after faking an emergency call on his cell phone, they've followed the mark from his wife to this club. They'd lost him almost the moment they'd walking in, watched the mark slip into the sweaty press of bodies on the dance floor.
Now, they watch.
Beside him, Sean politely declines another invitation to dance. That's four now this evening; three girls, each with a cluster of friends giggling behind them, and one forward young man who'd made Sean's ears turn pink with a rather illicitly-worded offer to share a drink. He'll be able to eat on that story for years to come.
No one's offered to buy him a drink. He wouldn't take it if they had, but it's nice to be asked. Used to be he could count on at least one bird looking for a bit of rough, but it's been a while since anyone's asked him to dance. Fifteen years and ten kilos ago, maybe.
Sean taps him on the shoulder and points. The mark, tucked away in a corner booth, sliding his hand up under the skirt of one of the younger club girls. She barely looks old enough to be drinking the martini she's holding loosely in her hand. She's slender. Blonde. Giggles when the mark presses his lips against her bare neck.
“Looks like we found our in,” says Sean with a sad smile. It's not every con he has to watch his sister get groped by sweaty men with no scruples, but Ash can tell he's not looking forward to zipping Emma into another mark-baiting dress and releasing her into the wild. Ash wonders if Sean will ever be ready to really let Emma go. Wonders if he even knows how.
Ash knows how. He's had a lifetime to learn how to turn people away. If he'd known then what he knows now...well, he'd still probably be a grifter, he just would have gotten an earlier start on the cynicism.
* * *
'Bloody hell,' he sometimes thinks. 'Does Albert ever feel like this?'
But then he watches Albert work his magic on a strapping young lad with a fit bird by his side and a full wallet in his pocket. Watches as he talks an easy twenty-pound note out of the young man's wallet, and charms the girl right off the young man's arm. And he decides, no. Albert has never felt like this.
* * *
He almost trips over it coming into the penthouse. The terrier puppy dances around his feet before bounding back to the sofas, where Mickey, Sean, and Emma are pouring over the blueprints for the mark's office building. They've never had to send someone in through the air ducts before, but there's a first time for everything.
“When did we get a dog?”
“It's for the job,” says Sean, smiling as the puppy rolls around his feet. “Our mark is still trying to win over his new girlfriend.”
“Fortunately,” continues Mickey, clapping his hand on Sean's shoulder, “his new business partner, through an unexpected and no doubt hilarious turn of events, has a dog he's trying to unload.”
“And Charlotte just loves puppies,” Emma finishes, reaching down to tickle the pup behind his ears. He twists his head, trying to catch her fingers with his tongue, and whines when he can't reach further than his own nose.
Mickey retreats to his room, cell phone already in hand to call the mark about an exciting new opportunity in property development. The puppy trips over his paws trying to follow. The pup is a tragic figure, though. The door shuts in his face.
It's been a long day. He's at that point in his life when he can feel the hours in his bones, every tick of the clock resting heavy on his joints. He eases himself down onto the sofa and folds his hands behind his head, lulled by the comforting sounds of Sean and Emma bickering over just who is going to have to break into the mark's office via ducts that are probably full of spiders. Sean has broader shoulders, but Emma's hips are wider (though he'd never say that to her face). They're settling in for a good long bout, but Ash already knows how this will end. They'll stall at the three-hour mark, when Emma will put on a pout and go talk to Mickey, and before Sean knows it he'll be arse over tit in the bowels of a London high rise. Lad ought to save himself the heartache and give in now.
Something warm knocks against his ankle. He doesn't have to look to know what it is.
The puppy is too small to climb up on the sofa on his own. The tip of a tiny black nose bobs over the line of the cushion with ever aborted jump, each attempt punctuated with a frustrated squeak. Ash may be a crusty old bastard, but even he can't resist that.
“No paws on the furniture,” Mickey calls from the other room. But Ash wouldn't be Ash if he paid any attention to Mickey. And what Michael Stone doesn't know, can't hurt him.
As soon as the pup's paws hit the cushion he's on his back, little legs waving in the air. He looks Ash right in the eye, as if to say, “Rub my belly. I'll die if you don't, and do you really want a dead puppy on your conscience?” He tries to pretend he's not a soft touch, but even the puppy can see right through the act. He rests his hand on the puppy's soft, warm stomach.
"Cheer up, old chap," he says, the puppy squirming under his fingers. "It's all uphill from here."
* * *
There was a time, once, when no one cared about his socks.
There was a time, once, when then name “Mickey Bricks” meant nothing to anyone, and no one ever spared a thought to what could happen if you put Michael Stone in a suit.
Albert Stroller, he thinks, has always been Albert Stroller, even when he wasn't.
He can barely remember those days anymore.
He can't decide if he misses them or not.
* * *
June used to call him "The Natural Curmudgeon." Started using the name after their first date. He'd taken her to the cinema - he thought she might be impressed by a free feature. (“Impressed” wasn't exactly the right word. “Charmed,” maybe.) He doesn't remember what film they saw, because he spent more time watching her than watching the screen. And when he wasn't watching her or the screen, he'd glowered at the young couple in front of them, lips and bodies pressed together, hands underneath the other's shirt. He'd clear his throat pointedly each time they pulled apart. They never seemed to notice.
“That, Mr. Morgan,” she'd said, taking his hand and placing it on her knee, “is what young people do.” And he'd loved her so much in that moment. He'd left his hand on her knee until the lights came up.
He still thinks about her, though his visits have gotten less frequent. He doesn't mean to leave her alone for so long, but she's started to forget him. Oh, she remembers Ash, that there was once a man named Ash in her life, but when he visits her now, he doesn't know if she's going to greet him warmly, or patiently wait for him to introduce himself.
He can't bring her flowers anymore. “I don't think my husband would appreciate my receiving gifts from strange men.” He loves her so much it breaks his heart.
She doesn't remember the old crew. The photographs he'd left behind have all been turned away or hidden in drawers – no one wants pictures of strangers watching over them as they sleep, after all. Sean and Emma don't even know she exists. He supposes he'll have to tell them one day. That day. The worst day.
That day a sallow-faced orderly catches him at the front desk, and sends him to the administrative offices instead of that room on the second floor. That day his phone rings while they're at the hotel and he has to abandon everything. Or worse; his phone rings while they're working a con, and he can't leave because there's a job to be done.
He never thought he'd be so old that he'd be waiting for his loved ones to die.
* * *
The puppy ends up back at the hotel a day later, carried inside Emma's bag, a pink bow and a Happy Birthday! tag tied around his collar. The mark is ready for the take.
“What's going to happen to him now?” Emma asks, setting the puppy on the floor. Overexcited, he chases his tail for an exhausting minute before bounding into Sean's lap.
“We could keep him. He could be like our mascot.”
“Please, Sean. We're not American television.”
“Well, then he could be like our pet.” He's done more bad than good with the pink ribbon. It hangs sad and limp from the collar, but the puppy hardly minds. It's too busy jumping up from Sean's lap, licking under his chin.
“I don't know if the life of a grifter is well suited for dogs.”
“Sure it is. Everyone's life is suited for dogs. Even the royals have dogs.” Sometimes he forgets how young Sean is. Not now. Not with that face begging mummy and daddy for a new toy.
“Caring for an animal is quite a responsibility,” warns Albert. “Are you sure you're up for it?”
“It wouldn't just be my dog. It would be ours. A real family element.”
And suddenly they're all looking at him, like this is his decision. It's funny – he always knew your crew was your family, he'd just always guessed that Albert would be the father-figure. But, no. Albert is the favorite uncle, the one with a twinkle in his eye and a pound in his pocket just for you. Mickey is the older brother, ready to teach life lessons and cause more trouble. Sean and Emma are exactly what they were meant to be. So there's nothing left for Ash but to be the Dad.
(He and June never got around to having children. He wonders if he missed much. He thinks he might have missed everything.)
He huffs a frustrated breath out through his teeth. Sean holds the puppy up, hiding his face.
“Pwease, Mr. Ash?”
“Shove off.” Sean laughs, and holds the puppy closer to Ash's head. The puppy wiggles excitedly in his hands, and as soon as he's within sniffing distance, licks the tip of Ash's nose. It's warm, and wet, and smells like dog biscuits.
“I'm not walking him,” he says, finally. “And if he goes in my shoes, it's coming out of your cut.” He means it to sound gruff, like he's a dad who means business. Like he's too old to be taking on puppies (which he is). Like he doesn't care about the happiness of the team (which he does).
* * *
And then there are these times.
They're tucked into the alley shadows, him and Sean, watching their angry mark chase down a unsuspecting business man, one who has suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in possession of Ash's quite distinctive briefcase.
Sean's breathing hard into his neck, harder than Ash, even, and Ash has smoked since his uncle bummed him his first cigarette on his eleventh birthday. (Once every month or so he tells himself he should quit, try to adopt a healthier lifestyle for the sake of the kids, but he can't quit the fags any more than Mickey can quit conning law enforcement officials. They all have their vices.)
"What the bleedin' devil are you on about?" The reverb makes it sound like the mark's right there in the alley with them, and for a hot second his heart beats a little harder, but no. The mark is still down the street, taking his hands away from a man's shoulders, murmuring apologies to a civilian who sort of, but not really, looks like Ash.
Their suits have rumpled in the run. They can probably still return Ash's tomorrow if they steam it well tonight, but the stitching's come undone around Sean's shoulder where the mark's "secretary" made a grab for him. They'll have to write it off as a loss, but they've made the transfer, so where are his worries now?
“That was fun, yeah?” says Sean when he finds his voice. He's got his own briefcase, the one with the prize, clutched tight to his chest. His knuckles are turning white, his fingernails are cutting half-moons into the imitation leather. His cheeks are flushed red. His eyes are bright. And he's looking at Ash like he's some sort of hero, when all he did was pull the boy out the door and tell him to run faster.
Ash runs his fingers through Sean's hair, because he can, and when his hand falls to Sean's shoulder he leaves it there, because...well, because. Because he knows Sean will let him. Because there are times when he feels so old, but this is not one of those times.
“Yeah,” he says, reaching into his trouser pocket for the crumpled pack of cigarettes he officially doesn't own. “That was fun. Let's go home, and do it again.”