I could feel sweat running down my lower back as I crouched in the shadows. The weather had turned warm in The City, and I thought it felt like rain. It was never very variable, but tonight was going to be wet.
Like I said, I was in the shadows. I’d always had a knack for hiding. Growing up in The City, whether on the streets or in an orphanage, you’d learn a few things. Good chance you’d learn them living with a family as well – but I wouldn’t know. You’d learn to steal – out of the necessity of food, or because you had to work. Not for money of course – for survival. The gangs and crime lords expected you to earn your flea-ridden potato sack before they let you sleep.
I learned my trade first as a pickpocket. It’s easy to lift a berk’s purse if there’s a distraction, and you’d be surprised how little of a distraction is needed. I was pretty good at picking my mark, and I’d bring in bigger hauls than most of the other kids. Some of them would keep part for themselves, but I never did. It wasn’t that I was smarter, or more scared of the criminals – it’s just that I never really thought of it. I got fed, and I got a place to sleep – I didn’t need to keep any for myself, and I couldn’t think far enough ahead to imagine a world where I’d need money for something.
Eventually I graduated to burglary. You might think it’s not a far jump from pickpocketing to breaking and entering, but it’s a completely different job. A burglar wants to be alone, but good pickpockets forge relationships.
One sided relationships, sure – the mark ideally doesn’t know they’re in a relationship – but it’s a personal act. You read the person, get to know them, maybe their habits. A mark that’s constantly checking their purse, or is haggling and buying in the marketplace, or one that asks for receipts – they’re not the ones you want to pick. Servants on errands for their masters can be of this sort, especially if their master is miserly.
A noble or businessman will usually be the other kind – the kind that doesn’t care how much is in their purse, because they know there’s always more where it came from. But they pose a different challenge; they’re surrounded by an entourage. Sometimes just a bodyguard, but sometimes there’s a whole constellation of moons in their orbit. That can be hard to work around.
Tonight’s mark was right down the middle. Alone – no entourage, no bodyguards. Inattentive, or at least not paying attention to his belongings. Walks with a confidence that what’s there will stay there – after all, he’s looking for people who shouldn’t be here – he’s not likely to miss one of those people bumping into him and taking something off his belt. This is the kind of relationship I was after.
I was crouched behind a tree. I’d gotten over the wall already – the street was poorly-lit so it was child’s play to make my way up. But the inside garden wall was lit by torchlight, and I had to pause at the top, hanging by my fingertips, sure I wouldn’t be seen before I pulled myself over and dropped silently to the well-tended grass. I swooped to the trees, tastefully positioned in-between two wrought iron benches facing a small pond water feature. It was nice, but I was here because it was the least well-lit part of the garden, and so I crouched in the shadows, listening for the crunch of footsteps on gravel getting closer.
The guard yawned. I didn’t blame him – I couldn’t think of anything duller than pacing the gardens alone, and he was only here for the coin. Nobles rarely bothered getting friendly with hired help, captains of the house guard being an exception. Even butlers were usually treated with disdain, something I’d taken advantage of more than once. Guards would kill for their masters – or for their bonus, more like – but servants and butlers wouldn’t do much more than call for help. Disgruntled butlers may pause and consider how a talented thief who’d already managed to get inside might be “leveraged” for their own bonus.
It might sound like I was distracted, what with all this exposition. But all this was going through my head as I willed my body to relax. I felt the nervous tension, the jeopardy, the fear of being caught as I crouched there – but the worst thing you can do when trying to hide is to be tense. Muscles fatigue, and when they do you can shift your weight without thinking, snap a twig, crunch that gravel – and then the game is up. So the best thing to do was to stay alert, but a little distracted.
I could hear him nearing my position, the steady bored rhythm of his footsteps. He was mumbling something to himself – maybe the lyrics of a pub song sung sotto-voce. He must have been just around the other side of the tree when he seemed to vanish. No more footsteps, no more mumbling.
I couldn’t help but tense. Had he seen me? Did I make some noise to put him on edge? And then I heard a stream of liquid, and a sigh. As he hitched up his trousers and adjusted his belt and scabbard, I heard him mumble something about coin and the word “cheap”, but I couldn’t quite make it out over the creaking leather and metal sliding on metal. Then there was a step, and another, and he was right in front of me.
It’s funny how quickly you can go from completely on edge to fluid, relaxed motion. As he passed my black-gloved hand came forward and followed his stride, and my fingers nimbly unhitched the keyring from the hoop on his belt. And then he was past, starting up his drinking song again.
I stretched the keyring, removed the key, and dropped the deformed ring in the bush near the tree. Eventually he’d get back around to the manor door, and then he’d realise the key was gone. This way he might think he’d snagged the keyring on something and the key had fallen somewhere else. And while he was making his way back here to the tree, I’d be unlocking that door and inside.
It can be lonely being a burglar, but sometimes you do get the chance to start up a new relationship.