Flash Fiction: The Best Thieves (1087 words)

Caled liked Heydi, the same way he liked any of the kids that turned up under his roof. She was young, maybe six and short for that, but she’d already lost the uncertain weight that most kids carried in their hands and feet. Her hair was dark, her skin was a sun-turned bronze, and she looked as if she had been shaved out of a shadow.

Jerdan brought her in, took her straight into Caled’s office. Her head stopped a little higher than the boy’s elbow, and she stayed behind him, not to hide, just following him smoothly, turning when he turned, stopping when he stopped.

Jerdan glanced back at her, nodding when he found her waiting just inside the door. Looking to Caled behind the desk, he met his eye questioningly. The fact that she was with him was the most eloquent recommendation Jerdan could offer. He knew he couldn’t say anything more.

“What is she?” Caled asked.

Jerdan shrugged. “Nothing. Yet.” His mouth tilted into a smile. “But she could be a sneak.”

Caled caught Heydi’s eyes flick to the back of Jerdan’s head, sharp. She didn’t know what he’d said, but it also didn’t bother her. She just looked sort of curious.

Caled nodded, sending them both out of his office, and every time he saw her after that, she wore a similar look. Her eyes moved quick and he could see them catch, for a moment, on one thing after another. She scanned a room when she entered it, starting with what was closest to her, instead of what was directly ahead. She listened, sometimes watching a person speak, sometimes watching the person they were speaking to, marking both motions and reactions. Her eyebrows never came down to narrow her eyes, though sometimes they went up, and she just looked curious. She moved quietly, never underfoot, always at anyone’s elbow when they needed her.

Caled liked her.

Afternoons got hot in the house. Caled’s office on the top floor heated faster than the rest, nestled under the flat roof. It had no windows, but four safe, solid walls, and the breeze he might have gained from keeping his door open never seemed to balance the privacy he would lose, so when his shirt started to stick to his shoulders, he left. He strolled out the front door, and turned his way through the neighborhood. He liked the privacy of that, too, of idly wandering where no one would quite know where to find him, and watching a day wind through.

Heydi sat outside on the edge of the wooden walk that wrapped around the block. She ate her lunch, pulling it out of her pocket one piece at a time, chewing slowly. Her toes pushed against the ground, heels in the air, elbows on her knees, all of it steady as the street beneath her. But her eyes kept moving.

Caled watched her as he approached the house, late in the afternoon. She watched him too, but only out of the corner of her eye. When he stopped next to her, she turned her head a little and she held his gaze as he folded himself down onto the walkway as well.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hello,” Heydi returned. It was a good echo, but he thought there was an old accent hiding under her tongue. It deepened her first syllable a hair.

Caled nodded toward the bit of bread in her hands. He could see some cheese clinging to it, like it had been some sort of stuffed roll, but all that was left was the thick brown outside. “Is that good?”

She smiled, and stuck the last bite deliberately between her teeth.

“Hungry?” he asked.

Licking her fingers, Heydi shook her head. “Not a lot,” she said. And it was easy enough to understand that she’d learned a different definition for the word.

Caled considered her for a while. Her eyes held his, flitting back and forth as she focused on one eye than the other, reading him too.

“Have you ever stolen anything?” he asked.

She tilted her head to one side. Then she reached into her pocket, pulled out a red apple, and tilted her hand the same way, showing it to him. The skin had a shine on it, speckled and bright. He couldn’t see a single bruise. Maybe she was hiding it with her hand, but he suspected not.

“Did you plan it?” he asked.

She thought about that too. Then she nodded.

“How did you do it?” Caled asked.

She didn’t answer him until after she’d taken a slow, cracking bite. Juice caught on her lower lip and she licked it away, then wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “Do you know Torvald?”

Caled paused. “Where is he?”

She pointed northward, up the street. “Twelve corners that way.”

Caled shook his head.

“Do you know Vibeke?” Heydi asked. She crunched through another bite, paused and sucked the juice from the white flesh.

“No,” Caled said.

“Torvald den’t either,” Heydi said simply. “But he wishes he did. She comes walkin’ down his street every mornin’ an’ his head turns allaway round, watchin’. I can take anything I want.” She rolled her shoulders, hunkering forward around her treasure, and looked at him sideways, proud.

Caled smiled to himself. “Well, look at you,” he murmured. “You did it right.”

Her shoulder came down a little. Her eyes opened again, curious.

“There are two ways to steal,” he said. “You can rob a place, figure out how to break or pick locks, find just the right window to get out into the four walls you want to be between, scale buildings, slide across roofs, slip through a town unseen. You can be a ghost, and laugh at walls because they don’t know how to stop your hand.”

Heydi wasn’t smiling, but she was listening, head tilting again. Her apple rested against her knee, forgotten for a moment.

Caled smiled for her. “But the best thieves,” he said. “The best thieves rob people. They watch. They listen. They wait, and sometimes they push a few things here and there, and instead of taking whatever’s in reach when it gets dark, men and women hand them the very best things without even knowing it.” He nodded toward her rich red apple.

Heydi followed his gaze and rewrapped her fingers around the fruit. Then she looked back at him, raised her hand and took another long, cracking bite. Behind it, she smiled.

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