Kori wasnít thinking of stealing that day. She moved through the crowded street absently, thinking of things non-theft related. Later, she wouldnít remember what she thought about. Something more important was about to happen.
She moved between people with a grace that came easy to her. She knew few noticed as she passed. She didnít have to think about it.
Then she saw him walking towards her. Nothing special, just a guy in a sea of guys. But he had a pouch hanging from his belt. It looked heavy. And it would pass just by her left hand.
She saw all this in less than a second. She had been doing pretty well for herself lately, in her own small-time way, and she hadnít done it by passing up easy opportunities. She slipped a dagger out of her left sleeve and into her hand. He was close. He hadnít looked at her.
She held her fist against her hip and jut the blade out. She held it perpendicular to her body with the blade flat. He didnít blink. She kept this dagger sharp for just this purpose. She kept it very sharp. They passed, and the blade passed just below his belt. It cut neatly through the top of the pouch. She smiled as she felt the blade cut though only cloth. No skin. He didnít notice.
The bag dropped as he walked away. She twisted around, kneeling as she went. In one motion, she caught the bag in her right hand, stuffed it into her cloak, then brought her hand down to her feet. She calmly pretended to lace her boots. She watched as his feet moved away from her.
When he had gone a few yards, she stood. She slipped the dagger back up her sleeve. Now she needed to stall a bit. What an amateur, a hack, would have done at this point is run. But doing that would only announce what youíd done. Instead, stand and stall. Do nothing to attract attention.
She also knew not to look at the guy sheíd stolen from. At any second, he could discover his pouch was missing and look around. The last thing she needed to do then was make eye contact. This part took guts. It separated the amateurs who ended up in jail from those who did pretty well for themselves in their own small-time way. Stall, she told herself. Donít look at him and hope no one spotted you.
She saw a street vendor to her right. She slipped past a few walking people and stepped up to the stall.
"Max," she said to the man behind the counter. Donít look at the guy.
"Kori," he said, smiling a little thinly and looking around at the items on display. She knew he was taking a quick inventory. She didnít feel insulted. "Interested in some jewelry?"
"Oh, maybe," Kori said, moving her eyes over the items. Gaudy stuff, most probably fake. "Just out for a walk, really." Donít look at the guy.
"Nice day for it," said Max, running his fingers through his thinning hair. She saw him eyeing her hands, making sure he had both in sight at all times. Not that it would have mattered.
She figured she had stalled long enough. "Well, nothing today." She smiled at him. "See you."
"Yeah," said Max, looking over his inventory again. "Goodbye."
Kori stepped away from the stall and scanned the street. No sign of the guy, no sign of commotion. Good. She walked to the nearest alley. She wanted to inspect her catch.
Imagine her surprise when she slipped into the alley and saw the guy standing there. She froze and stared at him. She realized he wasnít looking at her. He was facing the alley wall, staring at it. He looked bored. He hadnít seen her.
She was afraid to move. She knew any motion he caught in the corner of his eye would give her away. She heard voices from the far end of the alley. Someone was coming around the corner. The guy turned to meet them, moving his back to Kori. She took the opportunity and ducked behind a large trash bin.
She ran her mind over the events of the last few minutes. She curse herself. The guy had been heading to this alley. She had snagged his pouch just a few yards from his destination. He must have turned down the alley as soon as she turned to Max. She should have gone the other way.
Her thoughts broke as she heard three people talking. Men, all three, by the voices. Kori eased her back up the trash bin. The bin had a lid that couldnít shut due to the large pile of trash under it. She carefully turned and saw that the trash hid her. And, by peeking through holes in the pile, she could see the men.
The guy she had stolen from had his back to her. Two men faced him and Kori. The two men had thick, hard faces. When they spoke, it looked like their skin might crack from the strain. The guy she had stolen from fidgeted, running his hand over the top and down the back of his head.
"Hey guys," he said, then coughed. "HowÖhowís it going?"
"Shut up, stupid," said one of the thick men.
"Right," said the guy she had stolen from.
"You got the gem?" said the other thick man.
"Sure I do," said the guy she had stolen from.
The first thick man smiled. It looked like quite an effort. "Well thatís just fine. The bossíll be very happy. May we see it?"
"Of course," said the guy Kori had stolen from. "Itís right here." She saw him look down to one side of his waist. He paused, then looked to the other side. "Whereís my pouch?"
Kori felt a twinge of guilt, but dismissed it. The guy was obviously rich enough to carry around bags full of gems.
"Your what?" said one of the thick men.
"Is the gem in it?"
"Well, thatís a problem."
The guy she had stolen from ran his hand down the back of his head again. "Hey, itís no problem. Iíll find it. Tell the boss heís got no problem."
"I donít think you understand," said the other thick man, moving his arm in a way Kori couldnít quite see. "Youíre the one with the problem."
Kori saw the guy she had stolen from jerk three times. She couldnít see why.
"But not for long," said the thick man. The guy she had stolen from slumped down, out of Koriís view. The thick man held a long dagger in his hand. It was wet and red.
"Now, look at that," he said, frowning down at the dagger. He bent down out of view, then came back up. The dagger was clean. "Thatís better."
The two men turned and walked down the alley, away from Kori. She waited until they turned the corner and were out of view. She realized she was shaking. She crept around the trash bin and looked down. The guy she had stolen from was still, staring empty-eyed at the sky. Blood seeped into his clothes from three holes in his stomach. Some of his own blood was smeared on his collar, where the thick man had wiped his dagger.
She stepped backward until she met the alley wall. She stared at the dead man. She was very aware of the weight of the pouch in her pocket. She slipped the bag out, her hands shaking, and opened it. But she didnít need to. She knew the gem would be inside.
It was a good thing Kori knew her way back to the inn so well. She had no thoughts of streets, landmarks or turns as she made her way there. Her mind was full of gems and staring corpses. She still had the gem with her, in her pocket. She didnít know what else to do with it.
"The inn" was the Sleeping Crane, a run-down place by the docks. Or on the docks would be more accurate. Any closer to the docks and it would be in the water. It was hardly on prime territory, but it was the closest thing Kori had to a home. A street orphan as far back as she knew, the Crane had sheltered her and fed her when she needed it. The Craneís owner, Loril, looked after her. He had sheltered her when she was young and had nothing. He had taught her the first few tricks on how to spot those with more than they needed, and how to relieve them of their burden. Kori had taken to these skills quickly and soon developed many skills of her own. She still stayed at Lorilís inn, but now she paid for it herself.
Not that the rooms were expensive. The Sleeping Crane was far from a class place, and most of its guests looked just a few coppers away from life on the street. Sometimes it seemed Loril had few guests at all. Still, the docks were not a popular or high-rent location and so Kori had thought little of it.
Loril was a big man with a round face and little hair. Sometimes his round face hardened when he dealt with guests who seemed to be giving him trouble. But his face was always soft for Kori. She had come to expect it, even depend on it.
He was standing behind his work desk in the front room when she stumbled in. The bag in her pocket felt very heavy. She found a chair on the other side of the desk, across from Loril, and flopped down.
Loril furrowed his brow at her. "Kori? Are you alright?"
"No," was all she could say at that moment.
"Okay," said Loril, nodding. He sat down on his side of the desk. He examined her face, like he was looking for clues. Apparently he found none. "Whatís the matter?"
"They killed him," she said, mostly to herself.
"Who killed who?"
Kori looked at Loril. He looked interested and concerned. She softened at the sight of his round face.
"I was walking downtown," she started. "I was going toÖtoÖI donít even remember where I was going now." She shook her head to try to clear it, and continued.
Loril nodded and frowned as she told him the story. Kori would have felt uncomfortable at the way he stared if he had been anyone else. But this was Loril, staring at her and soaking up every word. She relaxed enough to tell him everything.
"And so they killed him," she said as she reached the end. "Right there in the alley. Over this." She reached into her pocket and pulled out the pouch. She opened it and held it upside down, allowing the gem to drop into her hand. It just filled her palm and had a translucent green color.
"Thatís the gem?" asked Loril.
Kori blinked at the gem. She hadnít thought of that. It was the first time in her life sheíd looked at something and not immediately calculated its value.
"I suppose it is," she said, turning the gem around with her fingers.
"We should sell it," said Loril, not taking his eyes off the gem. "Use it to spruce up the inn."
"No," she said, dumping the gem back in its pouch. She saw his arm jerk, like he was moving to snatch it from her. He stopped. "No," she repeated, acting like she hadnít seen. "It wouldnít feel right."
"Right?" Loril snorted. "Youíre a thief. I used to be a thief. Now Iím a thief who runs an inn and teaches little girls how to steal."
"Iím not little anymore," she said, bunching up the top of the pouch and sticking it back in her pocket.
"No, youíre not," Loril said, nodding. "Youíre a very competent young woman. And youíre also a thief."
"Iím not a killer."
"Killer?" said Loril, sitting back in his chair and giving her an odd look. "You didnít kill that man, Kori."
"It almost feels like I did," she said, shaking her head. "If I hadnít stolen this, he would have given it to those thugs and they would have left him completely un-killed."
"Those two were going to kill him anyway. Most likely, they were. Thatís how people like that operate. You were just lucky enough to get the gem before them."
"Lucky?" she asked, smirking at him. It made her feel a little better.
"Competent enough to get the gem before them. Letís use it to make our lives a little easier."
Kori shook her head and stood up. "Iím sorry, Loril. Not this time. Iíll steal us something nice later. Something where no one ends up dead. Then we can sell that."
Loril sighed at her. "And just what do you plan to do with the gem?"
"I donít know," she said. "I guess Iíll put it back in the alley."
"Are you crazy? Those menÖ"
"If they want the gem, they can have it. I want no part of it. Iíll slip in, drop it nearby, and it will look like the guy dropped it or something. If someone else finds it, good for them. They wonít know about the murder and they can sell it in good health. If the thugs find it, thatís fine too. The gem, the murder and the guilt will all be theirs." She frowned. "Most of it, anyway."
"Youíre sure about this?"
"Yes." She headed for the door, feeling better for having decided. "And donít worry. Iíll make it up to you." She left.
She found the alley easily enough. She had known that part of town well to begin with. Now, it was burned into her brain with images of stabbing thugs and bleeding men. Night was coming and the streets were clearing. A half-hour more and the streets would be empty. No one wanted to be in this part of town after dark. She took a quick look around and slipped into the alley.
The body was gone. This didnít surprise her, but she felt relieved all the same. The stones were stained red, still wet in the cracks. She shook the memories from her head and steadied herself. She stood at the edge of the stain. She took three steps backwards and stopped. She held the gem bag at her waist, on the same side the man had worn it. She let it drop. She hoped it would look like it had simply fallen off the manís belt. As for why the top of the bag had been neatly sliced off, well, she hoped that would remain a mystery.
She took one last look at the stain and turned to leave. She had only taken a few steps when a voice said "excuse me." She had heard the voice before.
Turning back, she saw one of the two thick men bending down to pick up the bag. He straightened up and bounced the bag in his hand. "First of all," he said, "thanks for this."
"No problem," she said, backing up. She hit something behind her and turned to see the other thick man standing behind her. She stepped away from him and turned back to face the man with the bag.
"You can keep that," she said.
"Oh, I will," the man said, and smiled.
"Are you sure about this?" said the man behind her. "The boss said to stay hidden."
"Boss says lots of things," said the first man, continuing to bounce the bag. "Talks a little too much, if you ask me."
"Look," said Kori, feeling the man behind her step up closer. "Youíve got the gem. Thatís what you wanted, right? Keep it."
"Itís more complicated than that," said the man in front of her. "You stole from the boss. And you saw the gem. And you saw us."
"We should have stayed hidden," said the man behind her.
"You shut up," said the man with the bag, scowling at the man behind her. He looked back at her. "And you," he said, pulling out his dagger, "you just stand there."
Kori took an involuntary step back. She ran into the man behind her.
"Hold her," said the man with the dagger. The man behind her wrapped his arm around her throat. The man with the dagger stepped forward.
Not knowing what else to do, she kicked at the knife. The man held on but his arm snapped to one side. She kicked again, connecting high on his chest. "Oof!" he said.
She pushed upwards off his chest, flipping herself up and over the man holding her. She grabbed the arm he had around her neck, pulling him down with her. She landed kneeling on the stones behind him. He slammed to the ground on his back. Pain shot up her leg. He said "Oof!"
Her knee was killing her. The man with the dagger was recovering from the kick to the chest. She realized the exit behind her was open. She turned to run.
The man on the ground rolled over and grabbed her leg. She slammed to the ground on her stomach. She said "Oof!" She heard the man with the dagger come up from behind. He straddled her and bent down to stab.
Panicking, she brought up her other foot and slammed it down on the hand holding her leg. The man yelped and let go. She brought the leg up to the rear of the man with the dagger. She couldnít kick with much force from that angle, but it was enough to knock him off balance. He stumbled forward and turned. His face was flush. He gripped the handle of the dagger so tightly his knuckles went white.
He moved towards her. Kori hunched up her legs and dove forward. She aimed between his legs. She almost made it all the way through. Her foot caught his knee and he fell forward, facing away from her. Her foot was wrenched sideways. The exit was open again. She scrambled up and ran off, limping.
She couldnít run as quickly and smoothly as usual, but she still lost them. She was in her element now. She wasnít a fighter. Men lunging at her with daggers was not her territory. But hiding, avoiding being seen, she excelled at that.
She didnít head straight back to the inn. Even though she was almost sure they werenít tailing her, she couldnít risk leading them back there. She wanted so badly to stop moving. Every step sent pain up her leg. It was fully dark now. She had to stop.
She slowed in an open crossroads. It was dark and empty. She sat down in the middle of the street and felt tears come. She cried into her hands.
She stopped crying but kept her face in her hands. She listened to the sound of her breath echoing off her palms. She almost hoped the thugs would steal up from behind and stab her.
But they didnít. She lifted her head and looked around. No one. Nothing. She forced herself to wait. Her knee throbbed. Her heart was pounding. No one came. She gave them plenty of time to show themselves. If they had followed her, intent on killing her, surely they would take this opportunity. She was sitting in a dark, abandoned crossroads. She was wide open.
But no one came. Finally, she decided she must have lost them. She stood, wincing at the pain in her knee and ankle. It was almost worse after having had time to stiffen. She did her best to shake off the pain and started for the inn.
Imagine her surprise when she got there. She opened the door and at first saw exactly what she expected. Loril was sitting behind his desk, like heíd been waiting for her. He must have been worried, she thought. He was right, she thought next.
"Kori, are you alright?" he asked when she stepped inside and her limp became obvious.
She shut the door and headed for the chair across from him. "Not exactly," she said as she got to the chair and sat. "But believe me, it could have been worse."
"The gem?" he asked.
"I left it," she said, shifting around in the chair, trying to find a comfortable position. "Then the thugs came and got it. They tried to kill me."
Loril nodded in a way that struck her as a little odd. "Yes. That was Ö unfortunate."
She heard a click behind her. She turned to see one of the thick men locking the door. She whipped her head back around and saw the other thick man standing behind Loril. The one who had tried to stab her.
She started to stand. Her mind raced over every possible exit. In less than a second she had mapped out an escape route through the kitchen and out the back door. "We have to get out of here," she said to Loril.
"Kori, please sit," said Loril, looking alarmingly un-alarmed at the presence of the thugs. "This is difficult enough as it is."
Kori stared at him. She was half in and half out of her seat. She was suddenly very aware of the pain in her leg. She didnít know what else to do, so she sat back down.
"Whatís going on, Loril?" she asked.
The man who had raised her looked very far away. "Iím sure you figured out some of it. These men work for me."
Kori looked at the one standing behind Loril. She noticed his face for the first time since he had come in. It was bruised and swollen. One eye looked sealed shut. A thin trickle of blood hung from one corner of his mouth.
"What happened to him?" she asked. Her head was a jumble. Images of Loril teaching her, feeding her collided with the dead man in the alley and herself running through the kitchen and out the back door.
"That?" asked Loril, motioning to the manís face. "That was a lesson. For trying to kill you. I hadnít authorized that."
"And the guy I stole the gem from?"
"Yes, that," said Loril, leaning back in his seat. "That was going to be his last job for me one way or the other, if you understand. Donít frown at me like that, Kori. I couldnít trust him. He was skimming off the top. You canít allow something like that to happen if you want to do well for yourself."
Kori was staring, still struggling to re-arrange her thoughts. Her blank-ness must have shown, for Loril sighed.
"It was a set up, Kori. I didnít expect him to even have the gem. I expected him to have taken it for himself and sold it. It wouldnít have been the first time. Imagine my surprise when you walked in with it."
"Must have been something," Kori said, slumping down in her chair.
"Now donít get petulant, Kori," said Loril. "Youíre like my daughter, and I want you to understand this."
"You had that man killed."
"He was stealing from me, Kori. Besides, he was incompetent. He couldnít even hold on to what he had stolen. You, on the other hand, are a very competent young woman. You brought me this." He opened a drawer on his desk and pulled out the gem. He placed it on the desk and shut the drawer.
He smiled at her. "And this will go a long way to sprucing up the Ďhotel.í Weíre small time right now, Kori, but that doesnít mean weíll always be."
"We?" Kori raised an eyebrow and slumped down further. She put her good foot up against the edge of the desk.
"I want you to work for me, Kori. That was always the plan. I just hoped for a better time to tell you."
"I donít kill people," said Kori.
"Who says you would?" asked Loril. He moved a hand to indicate the thug next to him. "Does this guy look like heíd be a good thief? Different people for different jobs."
"You kill a lot, then?"
"I donít kill anyone. And I only have it done when its necessary." Here he looked at her and shifted around in his chair. "Which brings me to the unpleasant part."
Kori tensed her good leg and pushed her foot harder against the desk.
"You see," he continued. "In order to keep a business like this going, you have to make sure certain things donít happen. For example, you canít have anyone stealing from you. And you canít have people knowing about your business who arenít part of the team. If you understand me."
Kori felt a bead of sweat run down the back of her neck. She heard the thug behind her step closer. Youíd kill me if I didnít join?"
"Iíd have to, Kori," he said, looking honestly pained. "I wouldnít like it. And frankly, it never occurred to me you wouldnít join. Itís what youíve been groomed for."
He looked at her, waiting for her answer. She heard the man behind her shift impatiently. It occurred to her she should be scared. But she wasnít. Her head suddenly felt very clear.
"I could never be part of an Ďoperationí like this," she said.
Lorilís face fell. "Please reconsider, Kori. Youíre a thief."
"Iím not that kind of thief," she said. She shoved her foot against the desk as hard as she could. She and the chair slid backwards, into the thug behind her. He said "oof!" and doubled over.
She hopped up to a standing position on the chair. She elbowed the thug behind her in the face. He staggered back. Loril sighed and looked at the thug next to him. "Make it quick," he said.
The thug behind her recovered and grabbed for her legs. She jumped from the chair to the desk. She kicked the gem and sent it flying across the room. It bounced into a corner and stayed there. She saw the thug next to Loril draw his dagger and lunge for her side. She twisted so that the blade just missed her.
"Get the gem!" Loril yelled. The other thug moved to the corner where the gem lay. She braced for the pain and leapt for it. She almost yelped as she hit the ground. Her bad leg gave way and she fell to her stomach. Her hand flew forward and knocked the gem. It bounced off the wall and flew back into the room.
The thug who had been grabbing for the gem turned to her. "Gotcha," he said and started to reach out. Kori flipped onto her back and kicked up with her good leg. She hit the thug in the chin and he stumbled back. She climbed to her feet as quickly as she could.
The thug righted himself. His face was red. He swung one of his thick arms at her. She ducked and punched his stomach with both fists. He stumbled back, bent over. She rushed him and drove her head into his stomach.
They both tumbled over onto the ground. She saw the gem and moved to grab it. He rolled over onto his stomach and tried the same thing. She twisted herself into a sitting position and kicked the gem. It flew past the manís grasp. Even better, it flew in the direction of the kitchen. She stood and went to grab it.
The man with the dagger stepped in front of her. She heard the man on the floor behind her stir. She hopped backward, landing on him. She had one foot on the back of his head and the other on his back. He squirmed underneath her. She struggled to keep her balance.
The man with the dagger stooped to pick up the gem, never taking his eyes off her. He straightened back up. He had the gem in one hand and the dagger in the other.
"Get off me," said the man beneath her, on the floor.
"Pity," said the man with the dagger. "You should have just made for the kitchen. Youíd be gone by now."
"Oh, I intend to make for the kitchen," she said, balancing on the man beneath her. "Iím just going to steal that gem first."
"Get off me, you stupid bitch!" said the man beneath her.
"This?" said the man with the dagger, indicating the gem. "I thought you didnít want this."
"I donít," she said. The man beneath her almost bucked her off. She slammed her foot down on his head and he slumped, unconscious. "I just donít want you to have it."
She jumped to the floor and ran straight for the dagger. She knew she was taking a big risk. She ignored it. Pain shot up her leg. She ignored that too.
He frowned at her as she ran. He looked like he was trying to decide if she could really be so stupid. In the end he just smiled and prepared to stab her. He spread his legs wide. He held the dagger firmly.
She slipped the knife she had in her left sleeve into her hand. She kept running until she was just a foot away from him. He thrust the dagger out. She dropped to her knees, letting momentum carry her forward. She fought back the pain in her leg. She arched her head back as it slipped just under his dagger. She thrust her own dagger up into the space between his trousers and his belt. Half of her was under him now. She snapped her knife out, slicing through his belt. His pants fell as she slid out and behind him. She flipped over, caught the pants and tugged. He fell forward, his head clonking to the floor. He started snoring. The dagger and the gem bounced away from him.
Her leg screamed pain at her. She stood and looked at the two thugs on the floor. She picked up the gem and looked at Loril. He still sat at his desk, looking at her sadly.
"You know Iíll catch you eventually," he said.
"Youíll never get this close to me again," she said. She headed through the kitchen and out the back door. Loril made no move to stop her.
The back door let out onto the docks. The moon was high up in the sky, reflecting clearly in the water. She stepped to the edge. She felt the weight of the gem in her hand. Then she flung it as hard as she could. It arced out over the water then was gone.
She watched the ripples make their way back to the dock. She wanted to cry again, but she didnít allow herself. She knew she had to keep moving. She had no idea where to, but she had to keep moving. She turned away from the edge and headed off into the dark.
Bio:Robb Best lives in Missouri with his wife and three cats.
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