To Catch a Thief

For what it's worth, I never stole from anybody who would go hungry. - John Robie

The street lamp at the end of the alley between the rows of Seam houses went out years ago, saturating the ramshackle backyards with night. Here and there, neglected shirts and trousers swung limply from laundry lines like forlorn ghosts. Somewhere, a door rattled on rusty hinges in the breeze. Above, the silver sickle moon's pale glow dissolved behind sleepy autumn clouds. Darkness reined in District 12 and the thief liked it.

The thief scrutinized the yards butting up against the alley, looking for the fence with a shriveled ash tree. He spotted just the one hanging over the fence like a broken hose, too leafless for early fall. Compared to the electrified fence, the rickety wooden gate behind lot 207 posed no problem for the thief. His long legs cleared the space between splintering slats one at a time. No sound betrayed him, not even his left boot with the squeaky rubber sole. On second thought, the sole might've come off in the woods earlier. It had worn down till it was thin as a playing card and he couldn't tell the difference between bare or shod feet anymore.

The thief paused, listening for anyone else who might be in the garden. It was the time of year when anyone stubborn enough to raise vegetables from the packed earth of District 12 ought to stand guard over it. People felt hungrier when the temperatures dropped and the threat of frost made the air taste coppery.

But the thief had heard promising things about this plot. Besides, the potential run-in with the owners added to the thrill of the forage. After taking stock of his surroundings, he decided that the yard looked abandoned for the night. What damned good luck! He treaded softly around a rubbish bin and a heap of stinking canvas piled against the privy shared by the occupants of this row. The decayed wooden structure listed dangerously to the side, making him wonder how a guy stood up in there to do his business. A fleeting thought. From the looks of things, nobody had bothered maintaining the lot in years, just that small patch of garden before him, a tangled, dark rectangle that rose out of the hard dirt and cinder.

Despite the decay, the stink of loam and compost wafting in the chilly air told the thief that he'd found the right backyard. It stung his nose. The best greens this side of the Fence, he'd heard from a guy he knew, who may or may not have attempted what the thief, was about to attempt. No topsoil existed in the Seam. It would take dynamite to break up the ground for planting. He wondered who hauled all the dirt from the meadow, the only place in the district where anything could grow on its own, to scrape together the little garden. For an instant, the thief felt a sliver of guilt chill his stomach. But then a hunger cramp returned him to the comfort of his former greed. Ahead, shadowy rows of curling vines, leafy stalks, and wire ran between him and backdoor of the house.

The tip of the thief's boot caught a piece of gravel from the decaying alley. It plinked ahead of him as he approached the vegetable patch, betraying his presence. He paused. Listened. Swore under his breath when no one from the house responded. He'd reached the patch.

Then the thief reached around his back for a low-slung canvas bag hanging off his shoulders and unhooked the top flap. He followed his nose toward the stronger-smelling vegetables. The spiky tips of an onion stalks prickled his palm; a bit too early for it, but he traces the narrow leaves down to the swollen base in the dirt. He pulls until the ground gave up the onion.

A smile threaded over his dirty face as he shook the dirt from the onion and slipped it into his game bag. Greedier with success, he reached for a big, leafy cabbage the next row over. Unlike the onion, it was more than a little ripe. It joined the onion in his sack.

The vegetables slipped into his pack so easily, he almost wondered at it. The fools who lived in 207 deserved to be pillaged, he thought, for leaving such a bounty unprotected. Suckers, the lot of them. He reached for another cabbage.

The thief couldn't see the heap of rags quivered to life behind him. The figure loomed out of the murk of the privy, silently creeping over him. It raised an arm over its head.

The thief felt his skull crack from ear to ear. A meandering pumpkin vine cushioned his face when he pitched forward into the patch.

Hazelle prodded the boy's belly with her father's old boot and exhaled sharply when that failed to elicit so much as a twitch from the thief. Her heart thudded against her ribs like a bodhran. She hadn't meant to kill the intruder when she busted him over the head – her chicken-bone arms packed more muscle than she realized. Hazelle held her thin limbs out in front of her for inspection. Maybe more like bean poles, she concludes. The worn wooden laundry paddle rested heavily in her hand, the way it always did when she caught a thief unawares. This time, though, she had outdone herself.

Slivers of ice seemed to have slipped into her stomach as she considered her predicament. Hazelle bent down to hold her hand over the thief's nose and mouth to feel for a breath, condensation, anything that would tell her she hadn't done what she though she'd done.

It was too cold to tell. She must've hit him just right. Or maybe the man was already a little soft in the head.

Hazelle swallowed past the lump of panic rising in her throat. She'd only meant to stun the thief and scare him off. But murder?

Maybe the peacekeepers would thank her for doing their job for them? Maybe they'd just leave her alone?

Or maybe her whole family would disappear one day and a new family would inexplicably hang their laundry on the frayed line at 207.

The sheets she had hunkered under during her watch over the garden fell around her ankles. She chewed her lip ragged, thinking of a plan, then she crouched down on her knees to try and roll the thief onto his back. Not that she wanted to see a dead man's face. The thought made her stomach flip. Maybe she could go inside and pretend she didn't know? After all, who had seen her strike him?

But she knew. So, Hazelle set the paddle down and hoisted the ragged sleeves of her mother's old coat up to her elbows. Then she dipped her hand underneath the thief's stomach and hip to flip him over. His head thunked against a pumpkin. She flinched.

Slowly, she leaned over the prone body. Her hand hovered over the thief's face. She couldn't feel any breath stirring the air. Descending lower, she could almost feel the sharp prickle of his beard, and then –

Warm breath on her skin. A tight band of fingers ensnared her wrist.

Hazelle choked on a scream.

"Blrghl." The thief groaned. Then he execrated the dirt and the pain in his head in single word sentences.

Hazelle fell onto her backside in surprise. The thief writhed in pain, making it easy for her to pry the fingers off her wrist. The hand immediately fell to clutching the knot forming on the back of his skull.

Hazelle's fingers scrabbled blindly over the dirt to find the paddle she dropped. Alive, the thief presented a quite different problem than he had as a corpse.

The thief spat out dirt and a bit of a leaf. In his one hand, he still gripped the top layer of a cabbage. Whatever confusing emotions his death and resurrection caused, anger bubbled its way up to the top of Hazelle's list.

She broke the oppressive silence of the night. "If you're not killed, then...then get out of my garden."

The thief glared up at her, unimpressed. "I ought to thrash you for busting my head open. Hell."

"Don't you dare." Hazelle scrambled back up on her feet and raising her paddle so he could get a good view of it. "The Peacekeepers are on their way," she fibbed.

The thief snorted at her bluff. People in the Seam did many things, but calling on Peacekeepers for help wasn't one of them. "What are you, some kind of witch?" he groused, dropping the cabbage leaf. His dark eyes raked up and down the girl's scarecrow figure, taking in her overlarge coat and the pile of grubby sheets on the ground by her boots. In the dark he saw a tall, frumpy girl with a shadow over her face and dark hair piled under a rag. "Should've notice you coming. I hear everything," he added as if to himself. "Usually."

His voice sounded young, she decided, though the darkness made it difficult to discern. "Greed must make you deaf, then." Hazelle crossed her arms awkwardly with the heavy paddle. "I'm not a witch and you're not the first sneak I've caught out here."

"Let me guess," he groused, gingerly sitting up, wincing with each raised vertebrae sending another jolt of pain through his skull, "you hide under those rags waiting for unsuspecting victims to drop in."

Hazelle deigned not to answer, though, yes, it was her favorite tactic and fools fell for it all the time. Fools like the young man sitting in her dirt.

"Locke didn't mention you," the thief garbles, clutching his abused skull. He leaned forward, almost falling into his own lap. A few plosive curses peppered the air between them.

The paddle had to have hurt, but that's what he deserved for skulking around stealing things, she told herself. Besides, she didn't know who this Locke was and why he would know anything about Hazelle. Unless he also visited her vegetable patch in the past. Maybe one of the successful ones who took advantage of the few nights Hazelle couldn't fend of exhaustion after endless deliveries of laundry before and after school to be able to stand vigil over the garden. The thought makes her eyes narrow to angry slits.

"Going to be sick?" she asked, with a hint of satisfaction in her voice. "You can go throw up in the alley if you have to, but don't do it in my yard."

"I don't throw up," he griped. "Wouldn't give you the satisfaction, anyhow." The thief slowly rose first to his knees, then up to his full height. Hazelle stepped back. He easily cleared six feet and then some. Hazelle, who could hold her own when it comes to grabbing things down from a high shelf, still had to tilt her head up to look him in the eyes. Only the whites showed in the dark.

They studied each other for a long moment. Hazelle couldn't tell what he thought, but his hands perched on his hips like he's in no hurry to go, so he'd probably sized her up as a non-threat. She, on the other hand, preferred him prostrated in the dirt to looming over her. Not dead, but prostrate.

The clouds dissipated for a moment. Weak moonbeams revealed splotches of coal and dirt smudged the thief's face so it looks like his eyebrows have overgrown his forehead. Short tufts of dark hair stick up at odd angles on his head from mussing it after she hit him. His shoulders look like they'd fill a doorway.

Hazelle swallowed again. The moon drifted behind another cloud.

The thief seems to move toward her, but it's hard to tell in the dark. She held the paddle between them with both her hands in case he had thoughts of revenge on his mind for the crack to his skull.

"Alright, you're on your feet," she said as steadily as she could. "Now get off of my lot, thief, or I really will call a Peacekeeper."

"Thief?" He balked. "Now how is that supposed to make me feel?"

"What?" she stammered.

He'd swapped out the grousing for something that sounded as genial as a Sunday morning stroll in June. "I was only going to borrow an onion and maybe a cabbage. You've got so many." He tucked an arm around the bulging sack hanging from his shoulder. "You got me and I got you, so let's call it even?"

A sliver of white appeared on his face, which she took for a smile. It made her want to knock him down all over again.

Hazelle's eyes flash silver in the dark. "It isn't even. You're stealing food from our mouths," she said dangerously.

The coal and dirt smudges on his face ripple toward the center of his forehead, probably following his invisible eyebrows. "But what about tesser-"

"I've only got one year left," she snapped. "And I don't care to know how you'd borrow back an onion."

"One year, hmm?" the thief muses. "So you're only about...seventeen?"

A muscle ticked in Hazelle's cheek. She cursed, realizing too late that she'd given away information – that he might have been fishing for it. That triumphant grin appeared again. She can tell because his teeth practically glow white in the dark.

"I'm only nineteen, which means no tesserae," he said airily. "And you've probably taken at least five years off my life tonight, which is five fewer years of income for my family. You've killed us all."

"You sound fine to me," Hazelle huffed, sounding extra sharp to mask her surprise that he was a mere boy. If he thought he could bamboozle his way out of this, he was seriously mistaken. She prodded him in the chest with her paddle. "You can clear out now. I mean, after you've taken all the vegetables out of your bag."

"What?" He rubs his chest where she jabbed him. "No need to be unneighborly."

"I'm unneighborly?" Hazelle gasped. For protecting her own food? For not wanting to socialize with a low-life burglar? Her body thrummed with irritation at his attempt to turn the tables on her. "That's it. Go!"

Hazelle waves the paddle menacingly. She didn't even care about the vegetables anymore.

Unimpressed, the thief stood there puzzling at the makeshift weapon like a puzzled prince being fanned by a servant. She had had more of an advantage over him earlier when she'd had the element of surprise on her side.

"That paddle's getting annoying," he observed dryly.

The thief stepped closer to her until the paddle pressed lengthwise between them at both ends. He squinted down at her and reached across the space between them to brush her dark hair off of her cheek to get a better look. Hazelle wanted to smack his hand away, but she was momentarily stunned by the turn the evening had taken.

"What's your name?" he asked smoothly.

"None of your business."

"Maybe we have met," he asked jovially, "at the slag heap?"

If Hazelle was the blushing sort, she would've then. The slag heap? What kind of girl did he take her for? And was he flirting with her? His voice sounded devoid of its earlier gruffness when he first woke and threatened to give her a paddling. She found she would have preferred that to this.

"I'm not acquainted with thieves," she said stiffly.

"Do you want to be?" He leaned in toward her with his head cocked to the side like he could see in the dark. "I think I'd remember meeting you. I mean, you come on so strongly." He scrubbed the back of his head, "And I don't forget a name."

The cheek! The mind-numbing cheek. "Again, none of your business. And I don't want to know your name either," she quickly interjected when he tried to speak.

The thief sighed. "Alright, no names. But at least you could invite me over for dinner some time, given that you've concussed me."

"Oh for goodness sake," she muttered. "Won't you go home?" Hazelle lowered the paddle. Whatever he was – lousy thief and more than likely a little simple – he probably couldn't do her any more harm than he'd done to himself by wandering into her yard.

He shrugged. "Well, that's something of a problem, see – oh, shit!"

The boy suddenly crouched beneath the crooked outhouse to her puzzlement, melting into the shadows by some instinct. Then light from the kitchen flooded the doorway, blinding her. Hazelle blinked painfully in the brightness as she turned around.

"Hazelle!" called a gruff voice that caused her heart to jump into her throat, even if she hadn't done anything wrong. "What's going on out there? I better not catch you with another one of them boys!"

Hazelle's eyes widened despite the painful light. It figured the electricity would be up and running this night of all nights. At least she was already half numb with cold. It made it easier to face the man stumbling his way through the kitchen.

"Doggonnit, where is your mother's paddle? I'm going to learn you both a lesson when I get out there," he bawled. "You're the easiest girl on this street."

Hazelle's jaw tightens but there isn't a sign of embarrassment on her face as her father's voice echoed in the canyon effect caused by the rows of houses.

"There isn't anyone out here but me," she said firmly. As if in warning, she hefted the paddle in the thief's direction, willing the boy to imagine it in the hands of someone taller, stronger and meaner than the girl in front of him. "I thought I heard an animal getting into my garden."

A grunt from inside was followed by a tall, heavy-set shadow filling the doorway and blocking the light. The thief could see the grizzly ends of a long beard.

"Well, get inside," Hazelle's father grumped, staring down at his daughter with eyes black-rimmed with coal dust than never seemed to wash off. "Ain't nothing here."

"In a minute," she said, though meekly coming toward the door, though having no intention of leaving the boy alone with the vegetables. "I need to check something."

Her father snorted, but turned away from the door, not bothering to hold the door for her. Hazelle stopped at the stoop, listening. They heard the heavy plod of feet over old boards and the slam of an interior door. Hazelle took a deep, steadying breath after what almost turned into a catastrophe, and then eyes the thief with disgust when he materialized below the stoop.

"Idiot," she muttered as soon as it was safe.

The thief leaned against the side of the house, arms crossed. "So according to your dad, Hazelle," he crooned with a smirk. Only now there was a thread of iron in his voice that spoiled the effect. "You meet a lot of guys out here? Maybe wander down to the slag heap?"

The paddle cracked over his head that time and Hazelle feels a bud of satisfaction as the weight of the wood suddenly fell away in her hand.

The thief cursed and clutched the crown of his head.

"As if I'd let some fool drag me to a place where the grass can't ever grow," she said, crossing her arms defiantly. The thief wrinkled his nose, as if the setting didn't figure into whatever reasons you'd have to go to the slag heap. "Now go away before my dad comes back to take a swing at you himself."

"Alright," he said, dropping the ridiculous, congenial tone he'd tried on her. "It was only a joke. I can see I got you into trouble. I'm sorry."

"Sorry enough to give back what you stole?" she challenged.

He grimaced. "Ah. I can't do that. But for what it's worth, I am sorry."

"I don't need your sympathy."

The thief glowered at the door, then at Hazelle, still rubbing his head. Without another word, Hazelle watched him scarper out of the yard, over the fence and into the alley. Once he's over the fence, she retreats into the doorway. But she couldn't help looking back one more time just to make sure he'd really gone.

The thief slowed in the alley with the fence between them. Their eyes meet and she saw another flash of white teeth. She turned on her heel and slipped in through the back door.

Rhys Hawthorne shuffled backward down the alley with two eyes on the backdoor of house 207 where the willowy girl still stood with a broken handle held rigidly in her right hand. Her eyes shimmered in the night, following his every step. Laughter bubbled in his chest as he combed a hand down the back of his head, then he winced when his fingers brushed the knot forming at the base of his thick skull from her first hit. He'd remember her for that. It was a wallop worth having.

At the end of the alley, he paused just around the corner of a shed so he could still see a sliver of her backyard. Probably satisfied that he'd fled the scene, the girl slipped through her door and closed it against the night.

"207," he whispered to himself. "Hazelle. Hazelle who?" He'd find that out tomorrow along with the name of the brute she called Dad.

Rhys adjusts the bag over his shoulder, then shoved his hands in his pockets. He whistled the nonsensical tune of The Cat Came Back and slunk through a maze of alleys to the community house on the edge of town. Tonight he'd have an onion, a few cabbages to contribute and a story. That was something.

...

Thank you for reading! I had this sitting on my hard drive while looking for Gadge Day material. It seemed a shame to leave it there.