Almost a Thief

“Hold this! Keep holding it. Don’t let go!”

The young boy looked on with surprise as he took it in his hands. All I gave him was a tiny piece of white paper, torn at the edges. It had a number written on it. I found it lying among all the broken pieces of furniture in the room. I was no detective. It wasn’t the usual crime scene. The police didn’t arrive yet. I didn’t call them either. I hesitated to the point of confusion, fear and regret. Something within stopped me from doing so. I wanted to fix things, set it up, before the police were called in. I looked around frantically in the room, walking with my socks on. I asked the boy to stand guard at the door and give me a shout if anyone came. Another pair of socks acted as gloves to hide my hand behind the act.

It was two in the afternoon. The sun never shone in this part of the city. It made the apartment a dank and smelly place. The lights had to be kept on. The kid was too young to understand what happened. He thought the man was sleeping. I kept it that way for now. Poor chap! Why should he know the truth! I was still skimming through the rubble. I couldn’t find it. Another fifteen minutes and I would need to give up, but that would be too risky. The police are smarter nowadays. They smell a rat before they see it! I smelled one too. It just ran over my feet and I screamed aloud. The boy shushed me. He thought the man would wake up. The neighbors would have been alerted. I should be more careful. It was blunt force that did him as there was no bleeding. It was all internal. Probably one single blow to the head. After all, the steel pipe was large and heavy. Was it a break in? I checked the kitchen. There was water still running from the tap. I closed it. I checked the bathroom. There was a saw blade on the floor. The smell was overpowering and the door had to be closed as soon as it was opened. I took a few deep breaths, held it strong, stepped inside, checked and came out. Nope! Couldn’t find it. I was losing hope. God! There had to be a clue somewhere.

I knelt down for a moment to rest. I was standing for over an hour now. But, I didn’t want to sit anyplace. Ensuring no evidence of my presence was the mantra. This was an old apartment in a building that was ready to collapse any day soon. It had a few residents who were probably more dead than alive. Some old men, no families, shady criminal records, unholy relationships, unknown and unwanted by the government. Normally, the police would be happy if there was one less resident. But, this guy was different. He had the evidence!

“Did you find what you were looking for?” asked the boy. He startled me.

“No! a few more minutes and I shall give up. Now, quiet kid!” I said.

I was losing hope. The man lay flat on his face, his feet at odd angles and his hands spread out like wings behind his back, palms facing up. He was the only unchecked thing in the house. How did I not do that!? Anyone smart would have first checked the victim and then the room. Boy, was I an amateur! The man left a subtle impression on the soft brown carpet. If I changed his position, it would become evident. Using a pair of socks as gloves was a stupid idea. But, it worked. Except for the difficulty I had in lifting the shirt and reaching in the pockets.

“You will wake him up!” the boy whispered, playing along well so far into the idea that the man was sleeping.

“Don’t worry. He won’t. He is probably drunk. Don’t be scared,” I reassured while still reaching out deep into his pant pockets.

I felt a sharp object and carefully tried removing it. After some struggle, I pulled it out. It was a key! Made of brass, with circular perforations of various sizes and uniquely shaped protrusions. This was no ordinary key. Certainly, this house didn’t have a lock. It was just free to open anytime. As a bank assistant who handles safes for rich customers, I could say that this was a key to a very well-designed safe. The kind of safes that keep very precious things. Something for which a life could be taken! Now, wait a minute…Did they make their own key to the safe!?

“Is this what you were looking for?” the boy enquired curiously, as he was getting impatient with the silent searching and the odd sleeping habit of the man on the floor.

“No! it isn’t. I don’t need this. But, someone might have wanted this badly,” I said while reaching further deep into the other pocket. The attacker must have left the place in a hurry and missed taking the key.

“Aaha!  I got it! This is what I was looking for…,” I said with a triumphant glee, raising the trophy in my hand and flashing it towards the boy.

“What!? Another piece of paper!” The boy almost screamed aloud in surprise. He was obviously anticipating something more dramatic, like a gold coin, maybe!

“Yes! But, not just ‘a’ paper. It is ‘the’ paper!” I said, while adjusting the folding of the paper to open it up.

“What does it say? Does it say anything?” The boy asked as he got more curious seeing the excitement on my face.

“Give me the paper in your hand. That will solve the missing link,” I said after straightening the edge of the paper from where the smaller piece was removed.

“That does it kid! All the numbers are there. The last number was faintly scribbled on the paper in your hand,” I said while reading the rest of the writing.

“Now! We should leave this place immediately. Don’t touch anything on the way out. No noise. No one should know we were here. Let us use the stairs to go down and leave using the backdoor. We won’t be seen there,” I said while carefully closing the apartment door behind me.

“Ok! But, what were those numbers on that paper? You never told me! What about that sleeping man? What if he wakes up and finds out that you stole his paper??” the boy asked as he tried to pace himself to my rapid steps by jogging along, holding my hand for balance.

“I will tell you. But, not now! That man is dead. He won’t be waking up,” I said.

“Oh God! Dead like in killed or dead like in he just really died, like just fell down like that and died?” the boy asked, shocked and confused that he stood next to what he thought was a sleeping man all along.

“Just dead. Look, remain calm. We don’t want to catch anyone’s attention at this time. We have to be like a cat stealing milk. Like a mouse stealing cheese. Like a…”

“Like a man stealing paper from a dead man…” The boy concluded my sentence and chuckled at the dramatically silly comparisons I was making.

We finally reached the backdoor. Once outside, I slowly looked around, above the building and across the street. No one could be seen. I removed the socks from my hands and put it in my pocket. We acted casual like nothing happened and slowly disappeared from the building and from the street on which it stood. A few tense steps, fast paced and deliberate, and finally we mixed into a crowd of revelers celebrating a religious event. There were one too many of such events nowadays. Literally every other day. Worked out fine today as we could blend into the crowd.

“I wish I’d been there earlier. It might have made all the difference. So all I can tell you is why he was murdered.” The boy now started pestering me for all the gory details. Don’t kids fear anything nowadays? I would have expected him to shut completely out of fear or shock or whatever seeing a dead person should have done to a ten-year old kid!

“That man died due to a strong blow to his head. A person attacked him. One single blow and nothing else. Hence, it was deliberate and well-rehearsed. The attacker was also known to the victim. He was let inside. Let all the way inside the kitchen and even the bathroom. He picked the steel pipe from there. This was no bad argument gone wrong. This was meant to be a violent attack,” I said while dragging the boy closer to me, placing my hands on his shoulder, while we walked slowly and peacefully on the pathway.

“Why did the bad man attack the dead man?” the kid asked.

“Well, did you notice the key? It was never taken. It could have been easily taken if the attacker wanted to. It wasn’t so. Because, it was the attacker who placed the key in the dead man’s pocket. He wanted the police to find the key there. You know why? Because, both were bad men!!” I said while tossing my hand in the air for dramatic effect.

“What? Why? How?” the kid asked more surprised as ever.

“Oh! They were both thieves. They picked on the safe in the nearby bank, emptied all its contents, cash, gold and what not. Then, they proceeded to the dead man’s apartment to count their bounty. The bad guy realized that this was a bounty worth keeping it all to himself. So, he pretended to first go to the kitchen for grabbing some food. There was none. But, he left the tap open so that the water would catch the dead man’s attention. Then he went to the bathroom, dislodged the pipe that connected the sewer with the saw blade, and then waited for the dead man to rush to the kitchen on seeing the sink overflow. This the dead man did, while the bad guy came from behind and whacked him on the head!” I said, trying to wrap up the climax. The kid’s eyes brightened in excitement.

“Well, then. Then, what happened?” he asked.

“What else! The bad man had the key to the safe. He planted it in the dead man’s pocket so that it would prove him as the thief. The bad man then kept a part of the bounty in the draw nearby, mostly cash, scattered things that didn’t matter to him on the floor and left with the rest. Nobody knows what’s inside this safe except for the customer who kept them. The bank doesn’t keep a record. But, no owner of the contents in the safe will be willing to divulge the details of the gold jewelry and diamonds that lay inside. That, the bad man went away with knowing the police will not chase him. For upholding justice, everything else would be recovered from the dead man’s house!” I said.

“Wow! So that explains it all! No, wait! Then, why did you panic? What about the paper you desperately searched for?” the boy implored.

“Huh! You are a clever boy…You still remember that! Now, go home! We are already there. There is nothing about the paper. It just had my phone number written on it. Now, don’t talk about this incident with anyone else. Swear to God! Swear on the dead man’s grave!” I said, while shaking up the boy to make sure he got the message in all seriousness.

“I will! You are my hero! My guide! But, tell me this before I leave. Why did the paper with your number end up in the pocket of the dead man!?” the boy asked in one final relentless attempt at clearing all his doubts.

“You are a kid. You will never understand. Now go home or your sister will panic. I don’t want to be yelled at and abused by her every night! I want to sleep peacefully. I have work to do at the bank tomorrow. I have a real job too, you know! Now, go on!” I said, almost shoving the boy towards the direction of his home. He still looked confused, but that was fine. He was after all a kid.

As for me, well, what can I say. The evidence was taken care of. The police will never call me. I reached my apartment and settled down on the rocking couch. I made some tea for myself, took a deep breath, had a sip, while rocking away in peace.

Hmm…what idiot would give his number to two thieves asking them to call him if they had any doubts? What idiot would hire two thieves to steal something from a safe and eventually get nothing in return except for an empty safe to deal with next day in the bank? Well, the idiot rocking his chair and drinking tea sounded like one bright candidate for that!!!

The police didn’t bother to chase the other culprit. The bank awarded me for mysteriously leading them to the dead man’s apartment to recover the lost bounty. The owner of the safe complained about the bad service at the bank and talked no further about what else he lost. The bank realized the safe was tampered with as a duplicate key of the owner was made without his knowledge. I cleared all the waste in my house overnight. The boy met with me the next day.

“Say, I couldn’t sleep last night! I woke up in the middle of the night and was bothered by one question. May I ask?” he pleaded.

“Fire away! But, remember, that will be the last question I will entertain regarding this matter,” I said with a stern voice, raising my eyebrows for effect.

“Sure! Sure! Now, you said that the safe contained gold jewelry and diamonds. The dead man didn’t have them and hence it wasn’t in his apartment. You said the bad guy took them. How did you know about the diamond and the gold…?” he asked, dragging along the last words in serious thought.

I smiled back at him. I didn’t respond. Sometimes, a little mystery for a ten-year old kid doesn’t hurt. He can learn to live with that. As for me, I had to live with my own little misery.

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