Two Thieves

September 21, 2009 at 8:01 am | Posted in Short Story | 2 Comments
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Today I learned to be wary of heroin addicts who hum along to Indian devotional music, and doe-eyed temptresses who bemoan the size of their breasts. For today, unless I am gravely mistaken, representatives from these singular demographics ripped off the handicraft shop at which I work.

The day had been quiet and pleasant, until a diminutive humanoid stepped past the caneware. The straps of her mismatched gym wear rode like tendons over her emaciated frame, binding her together.

I was certain I’d seen her before – in a colour-coded dissecting manual. Her eyes were tar-black and crossed. Her jagged teeth jutted. Three meagre sprays of greasy hair sprouted from terry towelling scrunchies; brown, smeared with molybdenum grey.

‘Owareyedarl?’

It talked. I gripped the banister and stared from the mezzanine. Her face twisted up in salutation, her good eye boring into me.

‘Good, thanks.’ Alarm bells shrilled. Druggie! Thief! Flipper! Though the costume was unique, the demeanour was familiar. I recalled previous dealings with the dispossessed and my manager’s insistent advice: ‘You can spot them. They’re over-friendly. They don’t stop talking. They cart you all over the shop until another customer distracts you; then they strike.’

Yet this woman was tiny. And we’d hidden the Thai sword after the terrifying Christmas incident. I was free to watch her every move. So why was my heart racing?

‘Beaudifulday.’

‘Y..yes.’

‘Gunnabehottertamorra.’

‘Really?’ My wooden words tumbled like blocks. What was she after? Her hands were spiders, scampering lightly and at speed over the stock.

Then she picked out a carved box and held it towards me. ‘Where’sthismade, darl?’

Her face got me. Suddenly, the drug addict was gone. In its place, a pathetically disabled woman, with no friends, no government support and nothing to do all day but seek contact with strangers.

I saw freckles, and echoes of what she once looked like. Privileged and whole, who was I to judge? Flayed with Catholic guilt, I pompously granted her the benefit of the doubt.

I lengthened my answers to her ceaseless questions. She was looking for a present. Pay day (pension day?) was Thursday; she’d come back then. She wanted to find a nice wooden box. Maybe for some tarot cards. What did I think? Did I know the tarot? Where could you buy tarot? Could you get lessons? What about runes; what were they about? Did I know? She didn’t believe in them, but you never knew, did you? Still, a nice box was always nice, wasn’t it? She could get one of those even if she didn’t get the cards, couldn’t she? How big were tarot cards anyway? Oh, so there were different sizes, were there? Should she get some cards first, to make sure they fitted the box?

And so on. I listened and responded as a community service. My good deed. Keeping up with her was draining and I willed her from the shop with all my might.

Finally, she completed her obsessive examination of everything downstairs and mounted the mezzanine. As she passed the register, she threw yet another inquiry over her bony shoulder. It was only after answering that I thought I detected a faint change in her tone.

‘Whatsyername?’

‘Paul.’ I tasted where the word had been, feeling like it had been plucked from my tongue. I shot back clumsily. ‘What’s yours?’

Again the friendly, lopsided grin. ‘Ronnie.’

Great. So that was the name I’d give to the cops if something went missing? Mistrust raised its hand from the back of my class.

‘Geez, yerdoin the right thing with this jewellery, with the glassanall. Otherwise people’d comeinere an pinch the lot.’

Surely this was proof she was testing the water. I decided to frighten her. ‘Yeah, we get a lot of thieves in here. Once we caught a woman trying to stuff a dress down her underpants. She said she was “trying it on”. Then she stood outside and begged from passers by until she had enough money to buy it.’

‘Geez, I’m surprised ya didn’t call the cops.’

Touché. Slippery bitch. That was it; she was gearing up for a hit. I resolved to stop her.

Then came the humming.

We play music from the countries in which our goods are crafted. I had on my 16th Century Indian chants. On quitting the jewellery cabinet for the clothing racks, Ronnie’s fingering became even more intricate and exaggerated.

She muttered comments, stood on tiptoe, peered intently, nodded to herself and hummed along with the sitar. The sound was awful, her tuneless drone spectacularly out of sync with music she could not possibly have known. Yet she persisted. And it grated.

At last there was nothing left to explore. She approached the counter, her wretched face wreathed in an oily smile. ‘Gottapen, darl?’

‘Why?’

‘I juswanna getta few prices down, ferwhen I come back.’

Yeah. Sure. I leaned back to witness the pantomime. It began where she had – the front of the shop. I winced. Christ, she was going to do the grand tour again! This time taking notes!

I had nothing on her. All I could do was watch, wait, and listen to her murder my music. Ten agonising minutes later, three school girls breezed in like a cool change. Ronnie looked up sharply, straight into my eyes. The kids can take what they want, Ronnie, but you shall have nothing! She crouched over a pile of rugs. Her paper bag cleavage sagged open, incongruously large on her wiry frame.

The sheer sadness of the ploy, if it were one, almost made me look away. Then the giggling girls sought my attention. I spun abruptly. Yes they could try on the f*cking sarongs. As I looked back, Ronnie’s scoop-necked leotard slapped back into place.

She stood and turned, her attitude subtly different. I spotted the faint lump between her breasts. The fruit of her labour. My pulse leapt and I swallowed. A thief in the shop! With the goods still on her! Apprehend her this instant! Go!

I stalled, terrified. I hadn’t actually seen the act itself. What if I were wrong? What if it were a… a tumour on her chest? How would I confront her? What were the rules of citizen’s arrest? Would I be able to hold her captive and call the cops? How long would they take? What if she were armed? With a blood-filled syringe? Would the neighbours help? Was her boyfriend outside? Oh Jesus! I can’t do it!’

Ronnie continued her tour of the stock, though with markedly less interest. It was time to get out. I stayed safe behind the register and plied her with a coward’s shower of questions, hoping she’d take fright. But she did not. Talking and humming, she paced herself magnificently, manoeuvring ever so slowly towards the door.

‘Thanks, I’ll seeya Thursday.’

In despair, I tried oblique guilt and answered sweetly. ‘OK Ronnie, see you then. Have a lovely day.’ Even then I stopped short of ‘God be with you.’

My harmless missiles fell at her feet and she slid outside, stopping to examine one last thing. A back scratcher. For a long time, she studiously dragged the bamboo claws across her mottled flesh; luxuriating in her triumph. Or just itchy.

I tore down the stairs. Eight hand-tooled candles stood mute on the shelf. Had there been nine? Would that I had counted them that morning. The size seemed about right for Ronnie’s lump. I mitigated my guilt with the shaky affirmation that she’d taken forty minutes to steal a mere $2.95.

Plodding back to my station, I regarded the fresh-faced school girls. For all I knew, their capacious school bags were stuffed with loot. I assumed a position of vigilance, methodically casting my gaze to every corner of the premises.

The fringed face of a young female materialised suddenly in the street window. She peered intently into the shop, her body shrouded by glancing reflections of afternoon sun. On spotting me, her small mouth dropped open and she squinted. Then she was gone.

Minutes later, she was back. Like a vixen at a bait, she crept tentatively into the shop. Her voice was hushed and secretive. ‘Where’s the… other girl… the dark one?’

‘She’s working tomorrow.’ Immediately I scolded myself for revealing information without reason.

The girl approached my counter and leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘She… yelled at me.’ Her blue saucer eyes stared at length past her flaxen fringe. Then she drew back with a solemn nod, as if having imparted a critical truth.

‘Really?’ The warning bells sounded again. But this time my visitor had identified herself. The “other girl” was Rachel, who only ever lost it with thieves and threatening customers. After the debacle with Ronnie, I was in no mood to suffer either. ‘What happened?’

‘She… yelled at me.’

‘So you said. Why was that, do you think?’

The girl shook her head, hands splayed out in patent bewilderment. ‘I don’t know. She just…’

Yelled at you.’

Yes. That’s right. It was awful.’

The voice belonged to Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps the girl was insane? This thought angered me, because it clouded the issue. Could Rachel have misinterpreted her behaviour? I was gripped by uncertainly, bane of the reasonable. ‘Well, the other girl rarely loses her temper, it must have been…’

‘Oh please don’t talk about her! Look at me, I’m… I’m trembling.’

She fled to the clothing racks, patting her chest and hyperventilating. I began to think that eleven bucks an hour was a little lean for this sort of shit. Of course it was a stunt. But what if she were truly deranged? I shut up and watched. She calmed down and began sorting through the designer section.

‘Can I try these on?’

She held three garments aloft. I counted the hangars. Twice. There was no way she was going to make off with one of these.

‘Sure, use the left cubicle.’ The closest to the counter.

She took a long, long time. Customers came and went, receiving indifferent service as I kept my eyes on the girl’s ankles, moving mysteriously below the tattered curtain.

Finally she emerged, wearing the most expensive dress in the shop. It was a stunning, aquamarine creation with a lace up bodice. The sort of thing Tinkerbell would wear to the Hilton. Sequins sparkled from the hem, which cascaded in petals to the floor.

Gaily the girl pirouetted and studied herself in the mirror. ‘I love this dress.’

She looked fantastic. I tried to close the sale. ‘Many have tried, but no one has ever managed to make it fit.’

She slid her hands slowly over her breasts. ‘It’s a pity I’m a bit too big up top, don’t you think?’

I looked at her eyes, immune to her seductive pose. Though light years away from Ronnie in terms of technique, she too was seeking to beguile me, perhaps even turn me to stone. Well, I’d fix her.

‘My girlfriend has the same figure as you. She wears Elle MacPherson Intimates. The effect is stunning in dresses like that.’

A shadow crossed her face and she flattened her lilting voice. ‘Really?’ Abruptly she re-entered the cubicle. And lingered long.

To my astonishment, she returned two dresses to the rack and handed me the third.

‘Do you have Eftpos?’

‘Absolutely.’ I took the card. Sylvia Jeffries. A sale instead of a loss. I’d won. No matter that she’d yielded solely to quell my suspicion until her next attempt. She would find me just as vigilant next time.

The Eftpos machine said ‘damaged card’. I swiped until it took, extracted money from Sylvia Jeffries and wished her the most pleasant of evenings. She took her defeat like a pro.

Now I was humming to Indian music – in the correct key. It was time to close up. I tidied the clothes racks and checked the cubicles.

The empty hangar mocked me with great mirth.

It spoke of an exquisite $215 slip dress, concealed between the twice-counted garments Sylvia Jeffries had carried carefully into her cubicle.

Filigreed plastic speared into my palm as I destroyed the evidence of my second failure. It could have been the schoolgirls, but I think not.

Crazy, Drug-F*cked Thieves:                                     2.

Degree-Qualified Former Personnel Manager:   0.

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2 Comments »

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  1. I did not like first 3 paragraphs but then the story gripped me and I was really interested in plot and characters.

    • Thank you very much, Clive. I greatly appreciate your feedback. Thank you for taking the time to tell me. Best regards, Paul. 🙂


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