Thief

Stealing The Marbles In an early draft of Stealing the Marbles I toyed, briefly, with a prologue, told in the third person, that covered the theft which ultimately led to Danny’s estrangement from Kaz and his exile on the island of Kefalonia. I always rather liked the piece but, as a prologue, it was rather long and detracted from the main story line of the book so I pulled it.

Since the publication of STM, I’ve had several people ask me about that theft and so, I’ve decided to give the story away in Kindle, and possibly ePub, format here and elsewhere. Amazon will likely make me charge .99 USD for it but my publisher will have it available for download and I intend on trying to publish it through Smashwords.

Thief
EJ Knapp

An old Lovin’ Spoonful song kept running through his head, over and over, just that first line. Hot, yeah. Damn hot.

It was dark now, past midnight. The hours without sun hadn’t cut the temperature by more than a degree or two. He could smell the mixture of sweat and fear rising from him in a malodorous cloud. It was a good thing his destination didn’t have BO alarms. He’d be busted for sure.

Turning up a dark alley, he looked about for any signs of life. All was quiet. What traffic sounds there were this time of night were far away and now little more than a low hum. He stood at the end of the alley a moment, a moment longer, stretched it into five. Nothing moved. No sounds. No lights. Just a long black stretch of alleyway.

Voices whispered in his head. Go. Stay. An old argument, hashed and rehashed. If Kaz couldn’t understand his need to do this then she didn’t understand him at all, did she?

He turned. Several meters away, at the edge of an overgrown field of tired weeds, broken concrete and shattered glass, was the fire hydrant, just as Wu’s map said it would be. It jutted out of the sunbaked earth, once white, the paint chipped and dotted with rust. Silencing the voices, he sprinted to the hydrant, turned to face the alley, clicked his ankles against the cast iron hydrant and began to walk forward, counting his measured steps.

The dark shroud of the alley engulfed him. The smell became a palpable thing that filled his nose, his lungs, like cotton dipped in rat shit and overheated garbage. He thought of the penlight in his pocket, dismissed it. He would trust to the map, confident that each step he took was exactly one meter in length. He had certainly practiced it enough times. He could come within a half meter of any target he chose, even with the blindfold on. Not that he was blindfolded tonight – didn’t have to be. The alley was a blindfold.

At one hundred paces he stopped. His heart was pounding in his chest, the fear ringing in his ears. It felt good.

The smell wasn’t so bad now. Thick still, but, though his stomach had stopped churning like an out-of-balance washing machine, his lungs were still reluctant to expand too far. He stood bent over at the waist, hands on his knees, drawing in the fetid, hot air, trying to slow his heart. Seventy more steps to go. Seventy more meters.

The tool belt he wore had ridden up past the waistband of his pants and was chafing the skin across his back. The heavy backpack dug deep into his shoulders. The crowbar hooked to his belt had been banging against his bony knee all night. None of this he noticed.

Straightening up, adjusting the belt, the backpack, shifting the crowbar, he began moving again. One hundred and one. One hundred and two.

At one hundred and seventy he stopped again. His eyes had adjusted to the dark and he could make out the dim shapes of garbage cans, stacks of disintegrating boxes and splintered wooden crates. The building to his left was boarded up, the bricks crumbling, returning to the dirt from whence they had long ago come.

Gang tags ran from the ground to just over his head. They were old, faded, the hard winters and boiling summers wearing away at the paint. From the age of the tags, it looked as though even the graffiti artists had abandoned this part of town.

He pulled a pair of gloves from his tool pouch and slipped them on. Slowly he began to run the toe of his sneaker lightly across the glass-strewn pavement. First forward, then to either side of where he stood. Nothing. He moved ahead a half meter, repeated the sweeping of his foot. Still nothing. He debated going back a meter then moved another half meter forward instead. His foot scraped against something that was not glass, or cement either. He knelt down and ran his gloved fingers over what his foot had found.

A slight indentation filled with something soft and pliable; a strip of something hard, then the soft indent again. He had found the grate, just as the map had indicated.

Unhooking the crowbar, he began cleaning the crud from between the iron slats of the grate, working his way outward to its edge. Slowly he circumnavigated the lid, running the tip of the crowbar between the grate and the iron pipe it rested in, brushing away the debris. He stopped when he found the notch that would allow him to lift the heavy iron shield from its place.

As he wedged the tip of the crowbar into the notch, the voice in his head returned. Don’t do this, it said, almost pleading. You risk too much. Applying his weight to the end of the crowbar, he ignored the voice, pushed it from his mind.

Despite his eighty kilos the grate didn’t budge. He threw his weight on the crowbar. It poked into his ribs painfully but still the grate didn’t budge. He pushed again and a third time. On the fourth try he felt it move ever so slightly. He rested a moment, gathered his strength. The fifth try lifted it an inch. He let it down slowly so as not to make a sound. From his pouch he took a wedge of wood and set it on the ground near his feet. Resetting the crowbar, he gave it everything he had. The lid rose and he quickly slipped the wedge into the gap.

Over the next fifteen minutes he wheedled and twisted and cursed softly under his breath until the grate was free of its rust and crud prison. He slid it to one side to expose a dark pipe that disappeared into the earth. Running his hand around the rim of the pipe, he found the steel ladder welded to its side. So far so good.

He spent several long minutes cleaning the lip of the pipe where the grate had been, spreading a layer of grease along the iron surface once it was clean. He spent several more minutes cleaning the edge of the grate, again spreading a layer of grease along its scoured surface.

He wondered briefly if anyone would notice the cleaned grate and then dismissed the thought. No one capable of understanding the meaning of a clean grate, in an alley filled with garbage, in this desolate part of town, was likely to ever see the grate. It was a risk but a small one.

Down the hole he crawled, keeping his feet as close to the sides of the ladder as he could. The rungs were rusty, weak: he doubted they would hold his weight. The bulging backpack he wore scraped lightly against the surface of the pipe. After several long moments of descent, he looked up and was astounded to see a single star beckoning between the slats of the cleaned and replaced grate overhead.

As he gazed at it the voice in his head pointed out that if he were caught, they would throw him in a dark hole very much like this one. One where there wouldn’t even be a solitary star to keep him company. Was his quest worth that? Worth losing his freedom? Worth losing her?

He pulled his gaze from the star. All theft is risk, he said to himself. This job isn’t any different. He took a deep breath and continued his descent.

At the bottom of the shaft he dropped down into a large sewer pipe, this one made of brick and concrete. It was cooler down here, much cooler. He shivered. The air was damp and fetid, smelling of earth and the things that grow in darkness. He could hear water dripping.

An inch or two of sluggish effluent flowed along the curved floor of the sewer. Moving away from the overhead shaft, he pulled his penlight from his pocket and switched it on. The walls of the sewer were cracked and crumbling and covered in slime. Sections of it had fallen away exposing the hard-packed dirt behind.

Dark roots hung from the curved ceiling, gnarled and twisted as though trying to reclaim what had been stolen from their grasp. Crouching low to avoid the hanging roots, he began to make his way down the sewer line.

He had memorized the route he must take, knew it would consume at least two hours, maybe more. If there were obstructions, cave-ins, immovable objects then the job was off. Though the prize he sought was out in the open, seen by thousands, the security around it was enormous. There was only one route to its taking and this sewer line was the first leg of the journey. He would spend a day here, deep underground, in a passage so old even the rats had forgotten it. A day to find – and get past – the one barrier he must breach. Then the real danger would begin. The real thrill.

The sewer line twisted and snaked its way beneath the city, intersected from time to time by other dark passages: an underground highway for Trolls and Orcs, though he encountered neither in his travels.

Twice he turned into other sewer lines, each time taking a moment to scrape the slime from the walls and mark his turn with iridescent white paint. Despite his memorization of the route, it took him closer to four hours than two to find the spot he sought. He passed it twice, coming and going. Third time was the charm.

Slipping off the heavy backpack was a relief he hadn’t been aware he needed. He felt suddenly light enough to float. Kneeling to the floor, he opened the back pack and began pulling out what he needed. First, a small heavy duty battery. Next, a folding tripod and finally a small, energy-efficient klieg light snug in a cushioned box. He set them up quickly and, when finished, flipped the switch for the light.

The sudden illumination stung his eyes, brought tears to his tightened lids and caused his breath to catch in his throat. It took a moment for his light-starved retinas to drink their fill and move toward satiety. When his eyes recovered, he stood staring at a bricked-in section of the sewer line. Newer bricks than the other patched sections of the pipe but not by that many years.

He knew from the map and the other information he’d obtained, that this section of sewer had been bricked-up long before even his mother had been born. The edges of the bricks were rounded, pitted, falling away to dust. The mortar binding the bricks together was little more than sand once again. He should have little trouble in pulling apart the wall.

From his backpack he pulled a hammer, a chisel and a paper face mask. This would be the second danger after finding and cleaning the grate. Not quite as small, but small enough. The end of the chisel was wrapped in duct tape. Not enough to cushion the hammer’s blow but enough to keep the clang of metal-on-metal to a dull thud.

This was more for the sake of his ears than any idea there might be someone near enough to hear the noise. And, if there were still functioning sound detectors in the small tunnel behind this wall or the larger one beyond it, the gig was up anyway. No amount of sound deadening would save him from capture.

Using the penlight he began to examine the mortar more carefully. Below the third row of bricks from the top he found a long gap where the mortar had eroded. Slipping the light back in his pocket and the mask over his mouth and nose, he inserted the chisel and began to chip away. The going was slow at first. He had no leverage to work with. It took nearly an hour to remove the first brick. After that, the work progressed faster.

After five rows he set down the hammer and chisel. His fingers were numb, the muscles in his upper arms throbbing from the exertion. He looked at his watch. Nearly 6 AM. The world above was waking up, beginning the navigation of another day. He thought he could feel a slight vibration in the air but there was no sound. He might as well have been the only living thing on the planet.

He was tired now and tired people made mistakes. He knew he should rest, take a small nap, just an hour would refresh him, but his schedule was tight and there were too many unknowns. He would take a small break, have a sandwich, a drink of water from the canteen. Then back at it again. Time became measured in bricks removed. By noon he had a hole big enough to crawl through.

The room on the other side was more of a closet than a room. The light from his penlight showed jagged ends of old iron pipes that poked through a cracked concrete wall. Ancient electrical wires twisted crazily from a spot where once an electrical box had hung. Overhead a ventilation shaft, long ago blocked off, disappeared into darkness.

According to the map, he would be just inside the fence now, well below the sound and motion detectors buried in the ground far above him. He moved the penlight beam from the broken ventilation shaft overhead to where it had once emerged from the concrete wall. That was his next objective; twenty-five meters of tight, dark squeeze.

Returning to the sewer, he quickly scraped the slime off a portion of the wall across from the hole and spray-painted an arrow pointing back the way he had come. No point in taking chances. He may well be in a hurry when he came back and confusion could be his downfall. Provided he made it, of course, but he wasn’t going there. Not now. Not ever.

He gathered up his things, carefully returning each to the backpack and then switched off the light, plunging himself into darkness. While the klieg light cooled he smoked a Sherman, psyching himself up for the long crawl. Damn good thing he wasn’t claustrophobic.

When he was finished, he broke down the light and put it in the backpack. As he zipped up the pack, something nagged at him but his tired mind wouldn’t grasp it. He let it go. Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he stepped back into the closet.

Though the ventilation shaft was clear of obstructions, the going was slow. The pitted metal was friction incarnate. Arms outstretched, the backpack tied to his ankle and dragging behind, he had to pull himself along by his fingertips, push with the sides of his shoes. Progress was measured in centimeters and half-taken breaths. He couldn’t take a full one; there wasn’t enough room in the shaft to expand his lungs that far.

To pass the time and keep the ghosts at bay, to focus, he began converting meters to decimeters, decimeters to centimeters and centimeters to millimeters. He wasn’t up enough on the metric system to remember what came after millimeters. Something divided by ten. Kilometers? No. Kilometers were multiples of meters, not divisions. Nanometers? Were there such things as nanometers?

Finally, after what seemed an age but, on the clock, was less than sixty minutes, his fingertips scraped across the rusted vents of an old grill. Pulling himself closer, he locked the fingers of one hand through the tiny openings and pushed with the other. The grill disintegrated and fell to the unseen floor below. As he pulled himself forward again, sticking his head through the opening the grill had filled, he suddenly realized his predicament. He was three meters above the floor on the other side. He couldn’t turn around, leaving no way out but head first. That wouldn’t work.

He fished about in the pocket of his shirt and came up with the penlight. Shining about the room he noted that the walls and floor were flat and bare with a thick coating of oily dust. He paid particular attention to the floor. No footprints marred their coated surface. That was a plus. Now he just needed to figure out how to get out of the shaft without breaking his neck.

He could return backward through the shaft, get back to the other end, turn around and crawl backward to this spot. But that would take time, another two hours at least and he didn’t have two hours to spare. He arced the light upward toward the ceiling and spotted the old water and electrical pipes hung overhead. They were less than a meter from his reach.

He began the slow process of twisting himself around and onto his back. His shoulders wedged top and bottom in the rectangular shaft on his first attempt and he could twist no further. He would have to crawl partway into the room, clear his shoulders and then roll over.

Gripping the penlight in his teeth, he crawled forward until the top half of his body was hanging out in space. Using his legs to grip the inside of the shaft, slowly he began to turn. The muscles in his stomach pulled taut, his breath came in short gasps around the body of the penlight.

Finally he was facing up. He had always liked doing sit-ups but there had always been a floor to rest his shoulders against, give the stomach muscles a rest, if even for an instant. Here, the floor was three meters away. Here the stomach muscles were on their own.

With a grunt he pulled his upper body forward, his legs braced against the inside of the ventilation shaft. At the top of his arc, he flung his hand out, fingers grabbing for an instant and then slipping off the slick pipe overhead. He began to fall backward. Clamping down on the penlight in his mouth, he threw all his will into his stomach, buttocks and thigh muscles and, with a strain that felt as though it might blow off the top of his head, stopped his descent.

He lay there, suspended in air, half in half out of the shaft, his whole body quivering with the effort, the sweat pouring from his face. He closed his eyes, removed all thought from his mind, visualized the pipe alone and flung himself forward again. One hand hit, slipped, the other found purchase. Clinging to the pipe, breathing hard, he brought his other hand up and locked his fingers, taking the weight on his arms, giving the rest of his body a break. He felt faint, almost nauseous. His breath was sharp gasps that hurt his dry throat.

Slowly he calmed down. His cramped muscles relaxed. He pulled his legs from the shaft, swinging them far enough out so the pack cleared the hole. He steeled himself for the moment the weight of the pack reached the end of its tether. When it came, it wasn’t the heavy jerk he’d expected and the thought that had nagged at him back in the sewer revealed itself. He hadn’t repacked the battery for the klieg light. Tired people make mistakes, he though as he let go of the pipe. He had made two.

The first, crawling into the shaft head first instead of feet first. That had been an inconvenience, a strain on his muscles. The second was more dear. He had only the penlight now and there was a lot of work ahead. Knowing he should have rested earlier, back in the sewer, he set the alarm on his wrist watch, pushed the pack against the wall and lay down. He was asleep in moments.

The vibration at his wrist woke him. He opened his eyes to total darkness and for a brief instant felt he was falling. He sat up, fumbled for the light, remembered the light was no more and took a deep breath instead.

He found the penlight, the canteen, took a long swig of water. He switched off the penlight to conserve battery power. It was already growing dim. He had an extra set of batteries but the penlight was all he had left to beat the darkness. Without it, he’d never find the marks he’d made on his passage here; never find his way out.

He was in an old utility corridor, long abandoned. Pipes snaked along the ceiling. Except for the thick layer of dust, the floor and walls were bare. Brushing away the dust from the wall beneath the vent he spray-painted a large X.

From his backpack he took a rope with a heavy fishing weight on one end and a rope ladder on the other. With the penlight between his teeth, he swung the rope at the overhead pipes. It took several tries but he finally managed to loop the pipe and pull up the rope ladder. With a hand drill, he drilled a hole in the concrete, screwed in an anchor bolt and tied off the ladder. Returning his tools to his backpack, he checked his compass, slung the pack over his shoulder and began to make his way down the corridor.

A hundred meters in, the corridor turned to the right. He knew from the map that this passage went nowhere, a dead end another hundred meters further down. He turned to the left, walked twenty meters and let the penlight wash over a door-like structure, the kind you might find on an old submarine. There was a large wheel in the center of the door. In the center of the wheel was a combination dial.

He pulled a can of WD-40 from his backpack and soaked the dogs holding the door to the frame. He soaked the hinges twice and, lastly, the combination dial. He pulled a small, black box with a magnetic base from the pack and attached it to the door near the combination dial. When he slid the switch to the on position the box hummed for a moment then quieted. A green LED blinked in the corner. As his fingers grazed the combination dial, a crackling sound came from a tiny speaker in the box. Everything was working as expected.

He turned the dial, heard the rotation of the shaft in its bearings and the brushing of the tumblers. He could have used earphones but the sound device was so sensitive that a cricket’s fart could blow out your eardrums. And there was no one around to hear it but him; if the door was armed he was screwed anyway.

But there was no indication in the information he had that it was armed. The corridor he was in hadn’t been used in fifty years or more. The one he’d be entering, though visited from time to time, was itself all but abandoned.

When the last tumbler fell into place, he shut off the box, removed it from the door and twisted the big wheel counterclockwise. The dogs slid free without a sound. When he pulled the door toward him there was a tiny screech and then it swung back with nary a peep from the hinges. Grabbing his backpack, he stepped into the second corridor and pulled the door closed behind him.

This new corridor was dim and full of shadows. Low watt bulbs in wire cages hung from the ceiling every twenty meters or so. Some of the bulbs were blown, casting portions of the long tunnel into deep darkness. Electrical and water and sewage pipes snaked overhead but, unlike the corridor he’d come from, this one was anything but empty.

Crates lined the wall, stacks of crumbling boxes spilling yellowed paper onto the floor. Several old handcarts stood waiting next to a line of ancient wooden filing cabinets, their oak veneer cracked and peeling. Everything was coated with the same oily dust. He checked the floor. Dust there as well but scuffed footprints too, a worn path that disappeared into the dimness ahead. The tracks were old but just how old he couldn’t tell.

He knew from his Intel there were no alarms in this corridor just as there hadn’t been in the other. No motion sensors, sound detectors, no cameras. Recollection of the potential security breach between this corridor, the one he’d come from and the sewer before that, had long ago faded from everyone’s mind. That it existed on paper somewhere, much less in memory, a tidbit for someone like Wu to find, was a miracle in itself. What he was about to do, whether he accomplished it or not, would cause all hell to break loose.

The idea made him smile.

The corridor took a sharp bend to the left. According to the map, that would put him at the edge of the building. Things would be dicey from here on out.

He slowed his pace, unconsciously hunching over as if to make himself smaller; as if to disappear. He was tiptoeing by the time he came to the final barrier to the entrance of the house. This door was alarmed though not on camera. Leastwise not according to his Intel, which had served him well up to this point.

There were cameras in the rooms on the other side of it, to be sure, but not in the one on the other side of this door: an old utility room, once a coal room, long ago fallen into disuse in the modern age of gas and electric heat.

This door too was dogged shut, with a combination lock securing it. He looked back over his shoulder, back the way he had come. This was the point of no return. He could turn around now, leave, and no one would likely be the wiser.

What is the point of this anyway? the voice in his head asked. Her voice. Always her voice. The painting isn’t even worth that much, it continued. Stealing it goes against the basic premise you’ve taught me; never steal what isn’t worth the cost of being caught. Stealing this painting will be poking the hornet’s nest and they are very big hornets.

I’ve led a charmed life, he retorted. Twenty years at this and I’ve never been caught. Not even close.

Well, countered the voice, what about that time in Tel Aviv?

But that hadn’t been his fault now, had it? he countered. He hadn’t tripped the alarm. Mac had.

Are you sure?

Yes, was his too quick response. Yes! I deserve this painting and more, I deserve the stories that will be told of this theft. The most secure mansion on the face of the planet and I’m going to violate it.

And what will this violation cost you, she asked? Even if you gain your prize, what will you lose in its taking?

The voices stopped. Focus returned. He took a breath and realized he hadn’t taken one in awhile. He felt dizzy and for a moment, depressed, trying to remember what he’d just been thinking about but, like a dream on waking, the thoughts were gone. He turned back to the door.

Mesmerized, he sprayed the dogs, the hinges, the dial and then, his penlight clutched between his teeth, the light growing dim now, he examined the seam of the door, finding the telltale trace of wiring he was looking for on the first pass.

It took him twenty minutes to trace the wires to their source, pry off the cover of the box where they disappeared and rewire the circuits to bypass the alarm. He then attached the black box to the door, this time inserting the headphones. Another twenty minutes and he heard the last tumbler click into place.

Slowly he turned the big wheel, swung the door back on its hinges. The voices in his head went quiet. Welcome to the White House, he said to himself in a whisper as he stepped into a darkened room, the point of no return crossed.

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