The Dorobou Prince of Kyoto

August 24, 2009

IMGP1221Sennyo–so lithe and graceful that his black-booted feet barely clicked against the cement–strode along Kawaramachi-dori placidly. The neon danced, chanted, and screamed against the pavement, and the honeycombs of windows refracted it all back; but no garish hue, no harsh light, no cumbersome display of emotion dared violate the boy’s elegant features. His pale and gently chiseled face generated its own light.

He owned this Asphalt-and-Illusion-choked stretch of Kyoto. The pachinko palaces vomited up dozens of almost-as-beautiful kids in eye-straining blues, pinks, and reds; and the eyes of locals and gaijin alike glowed from the artificial illumination. Every one of them either ran with Sennyo, or were potential prey for him and his Fineboys.

Sennyo developed an unspoken language, an uncommon rhythm with the sculpted and exquisite battalion of young men he led. With their unthreatening features they never looked capable of crime, which rendered committing such acts stunningly easy for them.

Oftentimes Sennyo would point a slender finger, and a shaggy-maned masterpiece of smooth angles and immaculate cheekbones would brush insouciantly against a lady tourist’s handbag, producing a fat stack of yen notes just seconds later. A healthy profit could be milked from the inattentive, or from the gaijin who crawled along Kawaramachi-dori like so many cockroaches.

We all worked well for our daily profits, but Phoenix was Sennyo’s star pupil and right-hand man. He always walked to the elfin ringleader’s left and possessed a wild swath of bushy tumbleweed hair that defiantly stayed put, even when the massive fans outside the videogame parlours shot out bursts of canned air forceful enough to knock about small children. I’d been eating out of garbage DSC02091cans just weeks before, but Sennyo took me under his wing. And when he paired me with Phoenix to learn the craft, I knew I’d been fully embraced.

My introduction to Phoenix’s gift came when he pilfered several wallets from a group of businessmen. They haunted the front of a game parlor, all drab greys and navy blues relieving the humdrum repetition of their office positions with the bells, buzzers, and clattering life of the pachinko machines. Sennyo assigned me to be the diversion; Phoenix would rob them blind.

In a past life on the beaches of Okinawa I’d learned an armada of card tricks, and they carried me in good stead that day. I challenged one of the muted army of workhorses to pick a card, any card. And when I shuffled, twirled, and fanned that glossy stack of numbers and suits my mark was hooked.

Soon, the rest gathered around me, admiring my dancing fingers and lighting up every time the smooth stutter of the shuffling cards punctured the evening air. Then Phoenix went to work.

He drifted slowly around the horseshoe of buttoned-up humanity that formed my audience.  All of the workshirts were crouched in front of me, so they were out of Phoenix’s arm’s length. Not that it mattered.

I’d balanced my con art well, nabbing 1500 yen from one portly grayshirt one minute, then deliberately yielding 700 yen when another ‘beat me’ at my own game. Of course, once there was a waft of potential income to my parlour tricks the button-downs focused on me even more intently.

Phoenix shrugged his shoulder, and out from underneath his hooded jacket slithered what looked like a vine–an appendage rife with spines and adorned with burrs that each looked like miniatures of Phoenix’s head. The tendril neatly pierced the shoulder of his garment and moved stealthily around the marks thrilling to my show.

The burrs swinging from the ends of the thorns opened their tiny mouths, and each set of tiny teeth clasped down on a different man’s wallet. In the space of three seconds Phoenix’s surrogates/familiars had lifted eight billfolds. His shoulder-vine retracted slowly with nary a rustle of fabric or a decibel of suspicious noise, pulling the haul inconspicuously beneath his sweatshirt. Then Phoenix backed up into the forest of flashing neon and spasmodic pachinko machines, and disappeared.

I manipulated the final card game to be a nail biter, with one workshirt actually accruing 1300 yen in the course of our game. And I’d placed myself above suspicion by being in front of them the whole time. None of the poor fools even realized they’d been had until well after I’d re-boxed my deck and sauntered away.

Twenty minutes later I’d arrived at the outdoor patio of a Tonkatsu restaurant–our agreed meeting place. The smell of frying pork–and the noises of sizzling meats, vegetables, and noodles–backed up the plumes of food-steam slithering from the kitchen window. Sennyo, Phoenix, and four other boys emerged from behind the kitchen door.

“Your share,” Phoenix said as his shoulder-vine squirmed out of his sleeve once more. Six of his burr-faces held a 10,000-yen note in each of their mouths. I reached over and plucked each bill from each mouth like Adam picking a half-dozen forbidden apples.

Sennyo looked at me, his gorgeous angled cheekbones giving way to the faintest of smiles. “Good,” he said in a voice that chimed like a plucked harp.

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