It’s those hands. As he speaks, he continuously covers one with the other in a sly rotation. It seems he is trying to hide them from me with this loopy misdirection. It has the opposite effect. I am mesmerised by them.
They are gnarled and pitted and the colour of cheese. They are big hands. I have seen these hands before. Hanging from the sinewy arms of exhausted workers that once used tools. Dangling off ex-footy players’ levers, digits crippled with arthritis from stopping those long kicks from outside fifty with their fingertips. Again and again and again. Lead guitarists too, having played that searing break once too often, now doomed to wrestle disobedient fingers into basic configurations that allow only the dreamy thud of slow blues.
Clifford Francis Plains is none of these. He has no business having these clumsy mitts. I would have expected something finer, more precise. Because Clifford Francis Plains is a thief.
He is sitting on a stool opposite me in a pub he once liked to drink at. He tells me he hates this place now. It has been gentrified, he sneers. While the bones are still here – tiled floor, tiled bar front and tiled walls up to there to allow for the morning hose-out – much isn’t.
‘Jack’s not here.’
Plains remembers Track Jack occupying his spot at the end of the bar.
‘He was there ‘til he carked it,’ now pointing at a shadow at the end of the long bar, ‘a packet of rollies, racing form, transistor radio and a pot that never emptied. No one saw him move. No one saw him drink. Turns out he owned the joint and then some. Left $8 mill to the Salvos when he went.
‘Sort of regret not relieving him of a few bob when I had the chance.’
Those were the days.
The X factor
I first met Plains in my living room at 4.10 am on Boxing Day 2005. I am a light sleeper. Particularly so after having had a big Xmas day. In returning the brand new Xbox 360 to its excitement-scattered packaging, Plains had brushed glass baubles hanging from the yule tree above his head. This created, in my mind, the sonic equivalent of fingernails/blackboard. I was instantly awake.
From the top of the stairs, I could see his frozen shadow, those absurd hands silhouetted against the double doors that open onto the backyard. I padded back into the bedroom and retrieved the Nokia 6230 from the bedside table. I closed the ensuite door behind me, thumbed through my contacts and pressed ‘Emergency’. They told me not to engage but to wait for the patrol car to arrive.
Nup. I was fit then. I had assets to protect and a hangover to propel me. And I was furious that my sanctuary had been breached. I pocketed the phone and flew down the stairs.
Plains remained motionless. He had dealt with people like me before. ‘You lot are all piss and wind,’ was how he later described my bravado. As I launched my considerable frame at him, he rolled onto his back catching my chest with his feet. Using my momentum, he effortlessly hurled me, winded, into the corner. He calmly gathered up the Xbox box and slipped the phone from my pocket.
‘Merry Xmas,’ he whispered over his shoulder as he sauntered out through the front door and into the vanishing night.
Plains and I crossed paths again five years later. I was in the magistrates court, barely awake, doing penance. My sins found me reporting petty crimes and misdemeanours for the newspaper where my employment contract hung by a thread. I was being punished for a piece I had submitted that would have exposed a minor city council official to humiliation beyond what was tolerable by my editor.
Councillor ‘X’ had been harvesting backhanders from bent developers. These wide boys were prepared to line his pockets in exchange for a lesser scrutiny of their activities, as they went about inflicting dodgy housing on an unsuspecting parish. Councillor ‘X’ was also a member of the same ‘gentlemen’s’ club frequented by my editor. The story was spiked and I was banished to purgatory.
In amongst the sadness, murk and lowlife grime awaiting justice, something familiar roused me from my torpor.
‘Clifford Francis Plains, you are charged with breaking and entering when on the 26th of December you did enter a home for the purpose of stealing. You are further charged with assault after you allegedly kicked the property owner in the chest, incapacitating him and preventing him from protecting his property against your offence. How do you plead?’
‘Not guilty, your worship,’ was Plains’ practiced response.
This modus operandi was enough to jolt free the memory of our post-Xmas encounter all those years ago. The over-sized hand that took the bible from the prosecutor confirmed it. Time to pay attention. I might even be able to add a little something to his punishment burden while satisfying the desire for revenge for my impotence that had haunted me these five years.
But that’s not what happened.
This quietly spoken, neat man set about loosening the knotty judicial proceedings designed over centuries to polish off the likes of him in quick time. As I watched, my rage devolved into admiration for his deft mind. He played every card in the deck. Here was a man who was utterly familiar with the system and knew exactly where its stress points lay. When to lean in, when to lean back and when to take an exit ramp. He built an extravagant defence from fresh air, stacking word upon word, gradually pulling both prosecutor and magistrate closer and closer to its maw until they were consumed by it. Within short order, he was freed without conviction.
I followed him from the court. I wanted to hear his story.
Cliff Plains has another talent. He can erase himself from the memories of those around him and vanish. A useful skill for a thief. If it wasn’t for those hands, this unremarkable man would have slipped into the river of pedestrians outside the courthouse and just floated away. He made the fatal mistake of waving away a blowie with a fat paw, and I was on him.
‘Yes’, he said. ‘I would love to chat with you.’
This, of course, a delaying tactic – a chance to explore an escape route. I ushered him into my car before his instincts could do their work and allow him to vanish again.
‘Don’t park too close,’ he told me as we drew near his chosen watering hole.
We left the car a block away. Cliff walked a few paces ahead of me. His head, cocked to maximise the hearing in his good ear, swivelled continuously, bright blue eyes gathering in his surroundings. He walked past the Haunch of Beef, paused to inspect a neighbouring alley, then returned to the front door of the tarted-up pub. We set up camp in the front bar. Cliff, his back to the wall, sat facing the entrance. Like a gunslinger.
Asked why the careful study of the street, Cliff said that he’d done ‘some of my best work around here’. While he was confident that he had completely evaded detection, a recent experience of a ‘colleague’ had reminded that eternal vigilance is the bedrock of all good thievery.
‘Bindy Flight had knocked over a top end frock shop that had a tasty till. On her way out, an ensemble caught her eye so she grabbed it. A rare but fateful mistake. She wore it to one of the society shows she frequented for ‘research’. Frock shop owner was also there. She recognised the cloth, bowled Bindy, sat on her chest and kept hurting her until the jacks arrived. Bindy’s now off the road for the next four years.’
He’d used the word ‘research’ and I wondered if he too spent time studying blags before he embarked on one, or was it more opportunistic?
“Mostly thoughful, yeah. Spontaneity can happen, but it’s best avoided. Too many unknowns for mine. I once spotted an open backdoor to a betting shop. In I went and the door slammed behind me. The owner, a considerable human emerged carrying a ballpein hammer. I watched through the crack of the open toilet door I had squeezed behind as he checked the room. He opened the backdoor and stepped out into the alley. I quickly closed it behind him, wandered past his tellers and out into the street. I was knackered. Too much nervous energy expended for no result.’
Absent while present
Cliff’s career choice was not born out of poverty, family circumstances that denied him a good life. He just liked getting stuff for free.
‘I started early. As a kid, the old man would send me to get him the morning paper. It was an honesty system. Folks left money in a box outside the newsagent before taking a paper. I took both. Though careful not to take it all. Always thinking.
‘Lessons were learned though. Once, I pocketed a Sony 8 transistor radio from the manse my family was visiting. When we arrived home, I accidentally bumped the ‘on’ switch as the old man was holding open the car door. He made some smartarse comment about my jeans broadcasting the news, before handing me a belting with his chosen discipline enforcer [a riding crop]. He told me to walk back to the scene of the crime, admit my thieving and offer reparations – free domestic slavery for a day.
‘I had my own plan. I returned the radio to the spot I’d stolen it from without alerting the owners to my presence. My father had inadvertently provided me with my first stealth lesson and it was a valuable one.’
Cliff told me he practiced ‘absent presence’ from that moment on. He tried to claim some mysticism around his technique, but his smirk betrayed him. He didn’t know how he became inconspicuous. Though it was clear that it worked. Teachers would overlook him. Even as he moved around the classroom helping himself to various treasures, he somehow remain camouflaged.
Once, when a teenaged Cliff was adding free rings to his fingers in a jewellery store, a bony, liver-spotted claw clamped onto his wrist with surprising strength. Thinking he was gone for all money, he was relieved to turn and find himself staring into the bloodshot eyes of legendary thief, Jeremy Spicer.
At the fleet feet of a master
Spicer, a master in the art of absence, had been watching Cliff go about his work. The boy had talent but it was jeopardised by his conceit. One false move and he would likely begin the inexorable journey down the judicial toilet. Spicer, keen to share a lifetime’s experience (read, ‘protect his legacy’) offered Cliff an apprenticeship, retaining his vice-grip on the boy’s wrist until he agreed. And so began Cliff’s education in the fine art of careful thievery.
‘He covered everything: low return palming; picking pockets, emptying handbags, lifting wallets; second floor burgs and overnighters; alleyway busts, loose roofs and dumb locks; vehicles for resale, vehicles as tools, vehicles as weapons (never; if you need to, you’ve already lost); right up to mob-handed blags (avoid at all costs).
‘Spice had done a bit of porridge in his time and was keen for me to stay clear of the plod. We spent a lot of time watching mates getting worked over by the courts. Learnt plenty. Enough to keep them at arm’s length. I’ve never been inside.’
I had to know. Why me? What set me apart from my neighbours?
Plains said he knew Santa was delivering an Xbox to my home. He was passing by when my wife unloaded the Xbox box from the car. He also said that my front door was ‘a butter jamb’. Any thief worth his light fingers can recognise these soft access points from the driver’s seat of a passing car travelling at speed. Not absolutely necessary for a successful score, but a bonus.
‘I had a client who wanted an Xbox. You had an Xbox. Nothing personal.’
Then his phone rang. He listened intently but said nothing.
‘Got to go,’ he said, ‘give me a five minute start before you leave.’
I watched him pause outside the door and scan the street. He broke open the phone he had just answered and dropped the pieces into a stormwater drain. Then he vanished.
I finished my beer and reached for my wallet to pay the tab. It was gone. I bolted into the street in time to see Clifford Francis Plains drive by in my car. He waved and mouthed the words, ‘merry Xmas’.
*not his real name.