Lying there, gems scattered on the floor, amid pools of my blood… I realized something.
There’s a surprising secret to being the greatest thief who ever lived. It’s this: you don’t have to be that good.
In fact, you can be absolutely average. It’s your mark who makes you famous.
There’s a secret to that too. Most people lived in a fluffy pocket of security, begging to be picked. And then when it happens, their ego is shattered.
What’s the first thing Goliath does as soon as he gets back home from the front? He talks about how his head was bashed in by an entire legion of Israelite war machines. Anything but the truth. Because the truth is embarrassing.
And most of these millionaires live under embarrassingly scanty security. They hire a squad of guards who can be drugged, blinded, and slipped past. They lock doors and safes, but those are easy to pick. They rotate and randomize shifts. But if you watch long enough, and have enough lattes and a telescope and a sofa to be comfortable, you can discover the routine behind anything.
So I set my sights on something bigger. My big score. Something to set me for life.
I’d done the long game. Now I needed to see if I could cheat the ultimate game.
Death. Yep, the old geezer himself.
I’d learned something recently that changed my outlook on him. And it was this.
He was getting lazy.
We’d done such a good job staving him off in the First World, he was getting positively desperate to make his quota.
Things like hygiene, medicine, and institutionalized common sense, had sent him packing like a salesman with bad breath.
And he was getting the rap for it.
So I wanted to grab his bag. The simple, black bag, into which he tucked the soul of dearly departed, and carried it carefully across the Great Divide.
What happened over there I’m not sure; but I learned that he tested its quality like a fine wine, and then either tossed it into some compactor, or let it flutter free into the sunshine.
Getting that bag was the challenge. And I think I’d figured out how to do it. You see, like I said, he was getting desperate. He was even showing up early, like those pallbearers who finish their cigarette’s 5 minutes to early and come skulking in to the back of the church, and then hang back in the shadows until they can come up and wheel the dearly departed out.
Why steal the bag, you ask?
Why challenge the Grim Reaper?
Well, no-one else has ever done it.
But also, and I guess I’m embarrassed to say this… but I’m dying.
I’ve been shot.
It was my last job. 10 minutes ago, I had been quietly picking a lock, palming the diamonds and pressing them into wads of chewing gum on the undersides of my shoe, and then someone came in the door.
I don’t know how I missed them. But they didn’t miss me.
Great, big bleedin’ shotgun goes full bore at me and the safe. I rolled out of the way, but caught part of the slug through my ribs.
Strangely, the shot knocked the man back through the open window, and in a shower of glass and bits of French door, he took a swan dive onto the cobbles below.
So I know who was waiting for him on the street, rolling a cigarette, and waiting for the impact.
And with a glance at the blood swelling from my wound, I can tell that I’m next.
So yeah, I need to steal his bag. And see if I can make it through this alive.
Already, I can feel a chill settling into my extremities, and my ribs are aching and stinging, and it’s a mess.
That’s when I hear the sound of steps on the stair.
They’re not ordinary footfalls. They sound like a rhino picking its way through a pile of porcelain. He’s not here for the stairs. Just my soul.
I slump down, relax, and close my eyes.
He enters the room.
Typical, Victorian gentleman. Distinguished, white whiskers, broken nose, blue eyes. And a chartreuse cravat.
He doesn’t even glance at me. He assumes I’m dead.
He set his ivory-topped cane down against the shattered safe, and sets his black bag down next to mine. I can’t believe it. My eyes want to bug out.
The bags are identical. I see my chance.
He pops open his black bag. He’s preparing to put my soul in there. A kaleidoscope of lights wink out, brightening the ancient cracks and crevasses of his dimpled, crows-foot wrinkled face.
Then he turns to me. He’s expectant, hoping that I’m about ready to give up the ghost, and he can catch me as I flit up through my bones right into his fingers.
Nope. Not yet.
My eyes are slits. I’m watching him through my lashes. I need him off his game.
He waits. He checks his fob watch, and then taps his foot.
I’m sure glad that he’s not in the business of hurrying things along.
Then I cough, and push myself up.
He staggers, glances around, snaps his bag shut, and stares at me in shock.
“Sorry, dear boy,” I say. “You see, you’re the thief of life. But I’m renowned as greatest thief who ever lived.”
Death grated his teeth. He ran his gloved hands through his mustache, twisting the tips like a corkscrew. They didn’t hold.
“So, if you don’t mind, I’m not about to let you take my soul from me. But I will consider giving it up to you.”
Death blinks. And then his eyes brighten.
And then his fob watch glows red and starts chiming. He’s getting irritated.
I think he’s late for another appointment.
I sigh, a deep, bubbling sigh that comes out my mouth… and somewhere in my chest. That’s very weird. I need a warm bath. And a cognac.
“Any last requests?” He murmurs.
“My death request? Yes. Could you pass me my bag?”
Death hovers for a moment, and then snatches up a bag and holds it out toward me.
“Thanks, old chap,” I grunt, and reach for it with one hand.
And that’s when the magic happens.
Harry Houdini once wrote that a hat full of molasses makes a great distraction. Let’s swap out the molasses for blood, and we’re in the same boat.
Second, he always said to rob a train in winter; that’s when folk travel with their valuables. In summer they always feel free and expansive, and travel light.
So I’m in luck there; Death is in a winter of discontent. He’s not only rushed, but desperate for that quota. He’s not actually paying attention to me.
Or the bag he grabbed.
And that’s when I’m able to fumble, drop the bag, and palm one of the gleaming souls inside.
It vibrates in my hand with a hot intensity. Life explodes up through my muscles and nerves, and I can suddenly breathe again. I take a deep breath.
Death growls in anger as the bag hits the ground, and a cluster of little souls bounce out and across the floor, floating into the air.
“Sorry, Mr. Reaper. Your harvest is getting away from you,” I manage.
He gathers them all up with the ease and grace of a pro, even though it’s like watching an old, athletic farmer try to grab bubbles like greased pigs.
Then he’s counting them. And counting them again. And looking around desperately.
I hold up one of his precious-won souls.
“Looking for this?”
He gasps, and reaches for it, but his pale fingers clutch at the air around mine and stop short. He can’t actually touch me.
He can’t actually do anything.
I sigh. I have leverage.
“I’ll hand this back to you,” I start, and his eyes bulge in anger, anxiety and more anger. “But you’ll need to do something for me.”
He draws up stiffly.
His fobwatch pulses and jitters in his waistcoat pocket.
He nods curtly.
“Could you take that chair and throw it out the window?”
The old Reaper stares at me blankly.
“I want to go to jail, see. I can get out of there easily. I just need to be found so that I can be patched up. This mark will do anything to get his diamonds back.”
Death pauses for a minute, looking around at the Louis XIV chairs, and debating if I’m worth the shattered brocade.
“Hurry please, I need to pass out soon.” I hold up the winking soul bauble. “And I think you need this back.”
Without another twitch, Death grabs chair by an arm and heaves it out the window.
There’s a space of silence. Then a loud crunch. A passing carriage hauls out of the way, and the horses scream in shock. People are gathering and talking loudly, shouting.
I release the soul, wondering if it was the soul of the man who shot me.
It floats into the air, and then the maw of the bag snaps closed over it.
Death stares down at me.
I tap my crooked finger to my forehead. “I’ll be seeing you, but not yet.”
Death shakes his head slowly. And then a faint smile deepen his crows feet.
“You’re a steal,” he said. And disappeared.