SHORT STORIES: Damaged Goods

"Every thief in the city knows not to steal from Him and yet that was what I had inadvertently done."

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They’re so close I can hear them breathing. I shut my eyes tight and will them to go away. It doesn’t work. I concentrate on controlling my own breath, hoping they won’t hear me. My thoughts are so loud in my head I swear they’ll give away my location. All I can do is wait, and pray they won’t find me.

A hundred heartbeats later, they move on. I breathe a sigh of relief. Quietly. I don’t want to push my luck. I crawl out from my hiding place, trying to listen for sounds of them returning. It’s hard to hear anything over the pounding of my pulse.

Casual as you like I make my way back to the main thoroughfare and disappear in the crowds. Even at this time of night there’s enough people about for someone like me to disappear. Home is less than twenty minutes’ walk from here, but I’m paranoid and jittery so I take the long way round in case someone is following me.

Back in the sanctuary of my own home I can finally relax. I empty my pockets and go through them, wondering if the night’s takings were worth all the running I’d done. There are a few old looking coins, some gems that I’ll take for appraisal in the morning and a few bits of jewellery that look like the genuine article. Not a bad haul, but nothing to write home about.

I’m about to start feeling disappointed when I pull something from the very bottom of my jacket pocket. It looks like a pocket watch, old and worn. I’m intrigued. Flipping it over, I can see there’s an engraving on the back. I have to squint to read it, and recoil as soon as I do.

No wonder the law were chasing me so hard, if they knew I’d taken this. If I’d realised what it was I’d never have taken it in the first place. Every thief in the city knows not to steal from Him and yet that was what I had inadvertently done. I need to get rid of this watch as soon as possible. If anyone manages to tie me to the theft of this watch then I’m dead, and unpleasantly so.

Still, there’s nothing I can do until morning, so I go to bed. I hardly sleep.

I drag myself out of the house as soon as the shops open, taking just the watch with me. The rest of the night’s takings can wait. I grab a coffee from a street vendor before I go to see my usual fence; it wouldn’t do to negotiate when I’m half asleep.

I know I’m up shit creek as soon as my fence lays eyes on the watch. I’ve never seen him look that pale before.

“Where did you get this?” he asks in a tremulous voice.

I tell him.

He shakes his head. “I don’t know how it wound up there but there’s nothing I can do for you my friend. This item is just too hot. It would damage my reputation if I tried to sell this on.”

My stomach feels like its dropped twelve inches. I’m starting to feel properly afraid. “Please,” I say, and I’m horrified to hear a note of begging in my own voice. “I need to get rid of this.”

“I’m sorry,” he says, and by the look on his face he truly is. “But you’re a walking corpse as long as you have that thing on you. Anyone who helps you will share your fate. I can’t. You won’t find anyone in the city who will help you.”

There’s a note of finality in his voice and I take that as my cue to leave. I scoop up the wretched pocket watch and go for a wander round the city to think. Rationally of course, I know he’s right; passing this on to anyone else will only put them in danger. And the rest of my haul is worthless until I get rid of it; once word spreads, and it will, none of the city’s fences will want anything to do with me.

My feet take me to the top of the city’s cathedral. It’s always been a good place for contemplation, high above the cares of the world. I take the watch out of my pocket, and I marvel that such a small thing could spell the end of my career and possibly even my life.

For a moment I seriously consider throwing myself off the tower as a way of dealing with the problem. Then I hit upon a better idea. If I destroy the watch itself then there’s no evidence, no way to trace it back to me.

Smiling for the first time since I first realised what I’d stolen, I wind up for the throw. Watching that old battered pocket watch sailing through the air on its way to its destruction is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done. I come down from the tower with a lighter heart then when I went up. I treat myself to a hearty lunch and go back home.

The place has been ransacked. The jewels from the previous night are gone and everything is a mess. Whoever had been here had obviously been looking for something and I knew it was the watch. They’d even cut my mattress open in the search. My good mood vanishes, replaced by paranoia. I’m not safe anymore, that much is clear.

I have enough cash hidden in safe locations around the city to get by for a while. It wouldn’t be safe for me to go thieving again any time soon; I need to hunker down and hope this passes. If it was the watch they’d been looking for then they were out of luck. It’s currently in about a billion pieces in a gutter somewhere. I hope that will be enough to keep them off my back.

I make triply sure no one as following me as I make for one of my caches. It takes all afternoon for me to be certain I don’t have a tail, but that’s probably just the paranoia. I grab some money and make for one of my least favourite bolt holes, only stopping off to pick up enough supplies to keep me a few days.

Over the weeks that follow I move around every few days or so, burning through my emergency cash as I attempt to keep myself safe. I don’t dare work. No one follows me. After more than a month on the run I decide it’s time to get back down to business. I set myself up in a new area of the city with a new fence, starting the game from scratch.

Half a year passes with nothing happening. I do small jobs well below my skill level, just enough to make ends meet. I don’t dare go for anything big. Big jobs attract attention and that’s something I don’t want.

My luck starts to run out. I struggle even with the small jobs that any novice thief should be able to pull off without problems. I have more close calls with the law in one week than I’ve had in my entire career until then. I wonder if I’ve been left cursed by that watch or whether I’ve just lost my nerve. Either way, it feels like time to be getting out of the thieving game. Time to go legit, get some proper job. Maybe move to a new city.

One last job first though. So I can go out with a bang.

Given my recent run of luck, I don’t pick anything too ambitious but it’s still a mistake. I should have just quit while I was ahead.

The job seems easy enough at first; get in, grab the jewels and get out lickety split. Security is minimal and when I case the joint I find that the locks are old. They’ll be easy to pick or break if necessary.

The first part of the plan goes off without a hitch. I’m in without anyone being any wiser. I barely disturb the dust on the floorboards. Getting through the locked doors is easy, my first real challenge is getting into the safe. Safe cracking isn’t exactly my forte, but it’s an old design that’s been cracked thousands of times before. I’ve been taught the tricks and the door swings open after a few minutes.

Inside is my first real surprise of the night. I’m expecting gold, silver, jewels, family heirlooms. Instead there is a purple velvet cushion with a single object lying in its centre; a pocket watch that is all too familiar.

I start to shake uncontrollably. It can’t possibly be the same watch, I threw it from the tower. I could confirm or deny my suspicions by picking the watch up, turning it over to check the engraving. I don’t dare. The resemblance is uncanny enough that I completely lose my nerve.

I stumble backwards into the dark, heedless of the amount of noise I’m making. My heart is pounding and my breathing far too loud. I go for my escape route but in my haste I’m careless. Security collar me as I’m attempting to scale the garden walls and I know I’m done.

They can’t get me for thieving on this occasion, but the trespassing charge is enough to hold me while they tie me to several other robberies I’ve committed. Thankfully they don’t manage to get me for the theft of His pocket watch. The trial is swift and the result a foregone conclusion.

Now I’m languishing in the city prison, doing time for a job I should never have been caught on. It’s the end of my thieving and, if I get on the wrong side of another prisoner, the end of my life too. I have to focus on surviving until my release date. That’s all that matters now.

Maybe I really am cursed…