Transitional Period

“It’ll take us about three days,” Cleo said into the hotel room phone. Her shoulder pinned the headset to her ear as she organized her things in her suitcase. “Eleven o’clock on Saturday? Yeah. We’ll be there.”

Still listening to the voice on the phone, she leaned to dodge Dixie, who was darting around the room, tossing her things into her own suitcase. Cleo put her hand over the receiver and said, “Unload that gun if you’re just going to toss your shit in there with it.” Dixie stopped in her tracks and returned to her case. She dug the her revolver out from under her clothes, popped the cylinder, let the bullets fall into her suitcase, and then dropped the gun back on top of the pile. Satisfied, Cleo returned her full attention to the phone.

“Great! Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing you again too,” she said. “Thank you again… Goodbye.” Hanging up, she said, “All right, she’s invited us to her house in New York for brunch to talk crew setups. We could be there in two days, but I asked for three so we wouldn’t have to rush,” she explained in a raised voice so Dixie, who was in the bathroom, could hear her.

Dixie came back with a zipper lock bag of her toiletries in one hand and her makeup bag in the other. She tossed both on top of the pile in her suitcase and began smoothing and smooshing the mountain of personal effects down so the lid would shut.

“Seems weird to invite us to her actual house,” Dixie commented as she struggled with her suitcase.

“Yeah, well, I think she’s more or less retired now,” Cleo said, easily pulling the zipper on her own suitcase. “What’s more weird is how excited she sounded to hear from me. I’ve only ever talked to her once.”

“Maybe she likes your work or somethin’. Hey, come sit on this.” Dixie gestured at her stuffed suitcase. Cleo rolled her eyes, but got up on the bed and sat on top of it so Dixie could pull the zipper shut on it.

“How could she have heard of it?” Cleo asked. “It’s not like the Syndicate gives name recognition.”

“I don’t know,” Dixie said, “I just imagine she must know somethin’ to be comfortable invitin’ us to her house for tea.” Suitcase closed, she got down and helped Dixie lower it to the floor so it wouldn’t thud and disturb the guests in the room below them. “That ain’t something you do for just anyone in this business, ‘specially if you only ever met ’em the once.” She slung her duffel bag of stolen money over her shoulder and pulled the handle up from her suitcase. “We got everything?”

They gave the room a glance over.

“Yeah, that looks like everything,” Cleo said, picking up her own bag of money.

“I’ll be glad to get back to civilization,” Dixie said. She held the door open for Cleo to wheel her suitcase through, and then followed.

Cleo snorted. “Montana is not that bad.”

“It ain’t that great either,” Dixie said.

“Does this lady got a name?” Dixie asked, interrupting the companionable silence of the car ride when she realized that Cleo hadn’t actually given a name for this contact of hers.

“She calls herself Bijou,” Cleo answered. Then she added, to clarify, “She considers herself a jewel thief.”

Dixie nodded, accepting this information. “Eh, it’s a little on the nose for an indie, but who don’t like jewels?”

She went back to staring out the window until the notification tone rang out on her phone. She picked it out of the cup holder and dragged down the notification menu. It was an email from her mail forwarding service. Dixie opened it and, as expected, found a scanned image of a handwritten letter. She pinched to zoom and read through it.

“Is that Carlos’ weekly letter?” Cleo asked.

“Mmhmm,” Dixie said, flicking back and forth to read over the enlarged image. Once she finished, she said, “He’s not doing so good.”

“What’s happening?”

“He says they took him off the agri-business program and put him in the call center.”

“Call center?” Cleo asked, her face scrunching incredulously. “The fuck they need a call center in prison for?”

“Apparently they got this contract with some tech company. They’re using the inmates for ‘tier one agents’,” Dixie made finger quotes at this. “They ask if you tried turning it off and back on, and then transfer you off to real tech support people.”

“That seems…” Cleo searched for the right way to articulate it, “ethically murky.”

“Dudn’t it though?” Dixie agreed. “So now he’s gotta sit at a desk all day, on the phone with pissed off old people who can’t follow directions. God, that sounds miserable.” She made a face of disgust at the thought of it. “He says they talk the whole thing up like it gives you work experience outside, which means dickall to him since he’s a lifer. I mean, he gets put up for parole and all, but he didn’t get it last time and he won’t just act like he’s sorry so ‘outlook not so good’, you know?”

“Is he at least getting paid more for it?” Cleo asked. “I mean, much as prison pays anything. Tech support is more complicated than watering cabbages.”

“Nah, they don’t pay prisoners in Texas. Reminds me, I gotta add more money to his commissary.”

“How much do you send him?” Cleo asked, curiosity piqued. “Not to be nosy or anything.”

“A couple hundred. Nothing outrageous, you know?” Dixie answered. “I don’t want them to get suspicious of him. Plus, there’s not a lot for him to buy in there anyway.”

“That still probably makes him the richest son of a bitch on the cell block,” Cleo said.

Dixie laughed. “Yeah, he’s a real Daddy Warbucks, I’m sure.”

“Have you thought about your new name yet?” Cleo asked.

“Yeah, but it’s a lot harder than I thought to pick somethin’,” Dixie replied. “I get why the Syndicate was so halfass about it now. Everything I’ve thought of so far with sounds so… I dunno, like a ten-year-old came up with it.”

“What have you come up with so far?”

“Oh, come on,” Dixie protested. “You’re gonna make me share all my lame-ass ideas? Gimme me yours first.”

“Well… I’ve been thinking about calling myself Cairo,” Cleo said, after a pause. In fact, she had already decided on this ages ago, not long after the idea of leaving the Syndicate began to form.

“Like in Eygpt?” Dixie asked for clarification.

“Yeah. I’ve always wanted to go there and see it for myself.”

Dixie rolled her eyes. “Man, fuck you, that’s a great name” she huffed, both annoyed and amused at Cleo’s reservation. She knew damn well that name was perfect. “Fuckin’ actin’ like you’re havin’ a hard time comin’ up with shit too. Go to hell.”

Cleo laughed. “Come on, it sounded stupid to me because I came up with it.” It did not. “So tell me some of yours so I can tell you they’re great too.”

Dixie scowled but conceded. “All right, fine.” She took a moment to decide which one she could bear to state out loud first and then submitted for approval, “What about Fancy? Like the Reba McEntire song?”

Cleo considered it. “It’s not bad, but it does make me think of a poodle first. Or the Fancy Feast cat.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. It sounds like a pet’s name,” Dixie agreed. “I was kinda hopin’ that my accent would make a person think of the song first. It’s relatable, you know? White trash girl pullin’ herself up from the gutter an’ all.” Dixie put on an Aw Shucks kind of smile and gave Cleo a winning look.

“Yeah, but Fancy was a hooker and you’re not,” Cleo pointed out. “And she was from New Orleans.”

“That’s true,” Dixie said, dropping her goofy country bumpkin face. “Doesn’t fit quite right. Not like fuckin’ Cairo does,” she harrumphed.

“Give me another one,” Cleo said, ignoring Dixie’s grumpiness.

“All right, what do you think of, uh, Coyote?”

“Too many syllables.”

“How ’bout Bonnie? Like Bonnie and Clyde.” Cleo looked skeptical so Dixie added, “She was from Dallas too.”

“Yeah, but she didn’t actually do anything herself.”

Dixie frowned briefly, but ultimately agreed. “Yeah, okay. Jack Rabbit?” She had already run out of her serious ideas and was starting to throw shit at the wall to see if it stuck.

“Too many syllables and it sounds like a vibrator brand.”

“I thought you were supposed to tell me my shitty name ideas were good?” Dixie complained.

“Do you want me to be honest or do you want to get stuck with something you’re not sold on? ‘Cause you might as well keep Dixie if you’re just gonna do it Syndicate style again.”

“I don’t wanna be Dixie anymore,” Dixie grumped. “They only picked that for me ’cause-a my accent.”

“Mmhmm, and they only picked Cleo for me because they heard about all that shit I stole from that museum,” Cleo reminded her. “They weren’t exactly trying to sum up the whole of us with those names.

“Look,” she said, changing tone, “I’m only picking on all of these because I know you’re not in love with any of them.” Cleo understood that it was a frustrating process. Dixie hadn’t been planning to abscond from the Syndicate for more than a few days, and therefore hadn’t had as much time to come up with a new alias. “I know I sprung this whole mutiny idea on you out of the blue and there’s a lot we have to sort out before we can get back to work, but you don’t need your new name until our next job.”

“I’ll keep thinkin’ at it,” Dixie said, settling back in for a nap before it was her turn to drive.

When both of their phones rang out notification ringtones simultaneously, they could assume it was an automated Syndicate email. Since Cairo was still driving, Dixie was on phone management duty.

“We need to get rid of our burner phones too,” Cairo noted aloud, mentally adding it to their to-do list.

Dixie let out an abrupt “Ha!” when the email loaded on her phone.

“What is it?” Cairo asked.

“The rating reminder.”

Cairo snorted. “Oh Jesus. Well, participation fucking counts so definitely give that no-show driver a zero.”

Dixie brought up his profile so she could enter a zero star rating for him.

She let out a low whistle when it loaded.

“This dude, Petey,” Dixie took a moment to puzzle over the codename’s relative normalcy, “he’s got a perfect five star ratin’. Our zeroes are gonna ruin it.”

“Good!” Cairo said.

“Well, sure, but don’t it make you curious?” Dixie asked. “I mean, for a score that high, it means he’s one of them consummate professional types. And then one day, he just doesn’t show up to a job he’s signed up for? That’s intriguin’ as hell. What if he died?”

“Look, if you want to give him a benefit-of-the-doubt score, that’s your business. But I don’t give a shit why he wasn’t there. If he was such a “consummate professional”, he would have had a contingency plan in place. He made his absence our problem, so he’s getting a zero from me.”

“All right, all right, if that’s how you feel about it,” Dixie said, sliding her finger to the left across the star rating to empty them out and then tapping the confirmation button. She repeated this on her own phone. She held far less ill will than Cairo did, but she did feel that if one was going to ruin someone’s perfect score, one should ruin it to the furthest extent possible. Then, moving on to the remaining member of their ill-fated crew, she said, “Okay, follow-up question: how do you wanna rate that other guy who we know for a fact is dead?”

Cairo shook her head and her mouth pulled in a straight line as she considered. “I mean, he was doing all right until he got shot in the face. Three stars, I guess.”

Dixie snorted.

“What?” Cairo asked.

“Well, it seems a little callous, knockin’ him down two stars just for havin’ a big, easy-to-shoot head. Kinda figure bein’ dead is enough of a punishment on its own.” Nonetheless, she put in Cairo’s three stars and then gave him a four on her own account.

Cairo let out a beleaguered sigh. “I am so glad we are not going be having these fucking rating debates anymore.”

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