by Jameyanne Fuller
Maddie died that night fifty years ago. Car accident. Drunk driver. Fifty years and worlds ago, Maddie Collins died, and the Thief couldn’t think about her, not tonight, not ever again.
The Thief stopped in the shadows on the corner of Maple Street and Brookdale Road. He was tall and graceful, carrying himself with absolute certainty. This was the role he’d chosen for himself, after all, when he agreed to become Death’s assistant. The assistant before him was traditional, black cloak and hood, bloody scythe, shrieking as he swooped down on his victims and chased them towards Death itself. The Thief was quieter, modeling his actions on the books he liked to read as a kid. He liked that he’d added his own personal touch to the job.
He adjusted his backpack and pulled tonight’s list from his jeans pocket. He looked at the first target: Fabio Vinti, 4 Maple Street. His calves trembled with adrenaline. He crossed the street to number four and dug in his backpack for his lock picks.
The Thief inserted the first pick into the lock on the front door and probed the lock’s mechanisms. There was an art to it. The Thief felt his way through the lock’s ins and outs the way he would feel his way through a dark maze, heart pumping with excitement and nerves. The point was to concentrate, to forget the nerves and then the pride at a task well done. He caught the tumblers with his pick, twisted it, and the lock clicked open. Locks said a lot about people; no two locks were ever the same.
This lock, for instance–lock, deadbolt, probably a chain too. General Fabio Vinti was paranoid. He had a right to be. He was one hundred one years old. He’d fought in both world wars and in Korea, and he was proud of it. A little too proud of it. That would make the Thief’s job easy.
The Thief inserted another pick into the deadbolt and began to work the tumblers. Vinti was still healthy. He spent most of his days planting beets in his garden and chasing kids off his yard, brandishing his cane in one hand and his Beretta in another. The kids’ screams reminded him of the old days in the wars. He laughed when the parents came to ask him to stop threatening their children. The gun was never loaded. The police confirmed it, but warned him to keep the gun in his house or he would be arrested.
But old habits died hard. The Thief knew that well. It was too much to ask Vinti to give up his warm fuzzy memories of blasting little children in Korea. The neighborhood parents were even now petitioning the town to have Vinti taken to a nursing home. They needn’t bother, though. By morning, the general wouldn’t have his precious guns. He wouldn’t have anything else, either.
The deadbolt clicked too, and the Thief pushed the door ajar. It caught on the chain, but he reached in and used his pick to unhook it. He slipped inside, closed the door, and disabled the alarm–19455375.
The Thief began to take his trophies. This was the part of the job he lived for. There was always something new, and it was always in someplace different. People were like locks: No two were the same, and neither were their most prized possessions.
The Beretta would be upstairs beside his bed, but the Thief took Vinti’s precious beets from the counter, a container of cottage cheese from the fridge, and a spoon from the dish rack; nothing like a midnight snack.
He went out into the hall and climbed the stairs. There were only two rooms up there: a bathroom with a whirlpool tub and a large bedroom. Vinti never married, had no children. He opened the door to the master bedroom and stopped. General Fabio Vinti was standing in his night shirt, his prized Beretta pointing directly at the Thief’s face. It was loaded now; it always was at night.
“Stop right there, Boy!” Vinti thundered. He had quite a voice. It must be the Italian in him. The Italians always lived long and strong. Damn their garlic.
The Thief took another step.
“Didn’t you hear me, Boy? I said stop or I’ll blow your head off!”
The Thief shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“What’s that mean, eh?”
The Thief shrugged again. “Blowin’ my head off,” he said, imitating Vinti’s country accent. “It won’t do you no good.”
“Don’t you mock me! You think my gun can’t blow you from here to China?”
“I like China. Beautiful country.”
“Get the hell outta my house!”
“Gotta finish my job first.” The Thief plucked the Beretta from Vinti’s hand and tossed it up and down. “I’d rather avoid the fuss it would cause if you shot me.” he said. He looked around the room at all the military awards on the walls. “Your reactions are slowing down, aren’t they, General? All the medals, all the glory, and here you are, all alone when a thief comes to call at midnight.”
“I don’t need anybody to protect me.”
The Thief smiled and tucked the Beretta into his backpack. He took a bite of cottage cheese.
“Tell me, General. How many people did you kill?”
Vinti blanched slightly. “I did my duty by my country.”
“I see.” The Thief waved at the walls with his spoon. “But how many?”
“Threats to the safety of my country.”
“I’m sure.” The Thief ate another spoonful of cottage cheese. “But what about the children who ride their bikes across your lawn? Threats to the safety of your beets?”
The Thief shrugged again. “You do your duty by your grass admirably, General. But the battle is over. I’m here now.”
“So the battle’s over, is it? But you didn’t count on something, Boy. I’ll fight you.”
“You can’t win. I have your gun. You are old. You are defenseless. You are useless.”
The Thief had just been a terrified kid himself when he went off to Vietnam. Now, he hated taking children, and he couldn’t help loving taking those who hurt children. So he spat the word again, enjoying the way Vinti’s face paled: “Useless.”
Vinti backed up until his legs hit the bed, but he did not sink onto it. Ever since Vinti came back from Korea in ’53, ever since the army relegated him to desk work, he’d felt useless. The Thief knew this. He also knew that, deprived of the power he’d always held in the field, Vinti began to fear the day the Thief would come to rob him of his most precious possessions. And he feared that he deserved it. The Thief knew everything.
So the Thief was not surprised when he said, “Take what you want, but don’t hurt me.”
So the Thief took what he’d come for, then slipped out into the night. He walked away up Maple Street, eating Vinti’s cottage cheese.
The second house on the Thief’s list was 2 Mulberry Street. Jim Loeb had turned thirty-five just a week ago. His wife Teresa was thirty years old and seven months pregnant. A prosperous couple in the prime of their lives, they lived in a large house paid for with a larger bank account.
The Thief tucked his list back into his pocket as he began to open the lock. It took him longer than usual, even though the lock wasn’t nearly as complex as Vinti’s. He kept stopping, removing his picks, and starting again, positive that he was doing it wrong.
But that wasn’t the problem, and the Thief knew it. He was thinking of Maddie again, her hand in his, her lips on his, their bare feet moving in unison as they danced together on the beach the night before he left for Nam. Fifty years ago. One moment there, the next gone. It was fifty years ago, but it could have been yesterday.
He survived his work by convincing himself that every person, for whatever reason, deserved their fate. But did they? Did Maddie? Did he? Tonight, especially, he had to be sure.
When the lock opened, he went straight upstairs, pausing only to throw out the empty cottage cheese container in the kitchen. He walked down the hall, past the bathroom and the pink nursery and the playroom for the coming baby. He opened the Loebs’ bedroom door. Teresa Loeb’s belly was a mound under the blankets. Jim Loeb was on his side, his head on his arms. They were both sound asleep.
The Thief walked across to the night stand and took Loeb’s lucky quarter, the first quarter Loeb had won on the stock exchange. The Thief glowered. All this wealth, all this luxury, all from luck and cheating.
He pocketed the quarter and touched Loeb’s shoulder. Loeb jerked awake. He sat up and stared at the Thief.
“Who are you?”
“I’m the Thief in the Night,” he said.
“Oh my God.”
The Thief gestured at Teresa. “Where can we talk without disturbing her?” He always preferred to avoid witnesses.
Loeb stood up and gestured towards the hall. The Thief nodded, and they stepped outside. Loeb closed the door.
“Look,” Loeb said, wringing his hands, “look, whatever you want, I– I can give it to you.”
This was his personal touch: stony-faced demands while he took the blustering man’s measure. “I want what’s mine.”
“Money? I can give you money. How much. Just–“
“I want what’s mine.”
“The TV? The stereo? The computer?”
The Thief just stared.
“Christ! I could get you the crown jewels!” Loeb threw up his hands. “Please! Just tell me what you want! I don’t want a fuss.”
“Neither do I.”
“Then– then help me help you. I’ll give you what you want, and you can leave, and no one will get hurt. What do you want?”
The Thief just stared at him.
“Okay, this is creepy. What is yours?”
“Me? What– what do you want with– with me?” Loeb went white and balled his hands into fists. “The Thief in the Night.” He stared at the Thief, then stepped back and put up his hands. “But– No! I’m thirty-five! I– I can’t– I’m thirty-five!”
They had something in common, the Thief and this man. But the Thief suddenly found that he didn’t like stealing, not the way Loeb did it with his sawmill and his stocks, for his own gain. Loeb’s lucky quarter and Vinti’s Beretta weighed on the Thief. He shook his head. It wasn’t the same. “You’ll wake your wife if you yell much louder,” he said.
Loeb lowered his voice. “You can’t do this. I’m perfectly healthy!”
“Tomorrow morning, your wife will find you here in the hall, and the doctors will tell her that you had a brain aneurism.”
The same way the city officials come to escort Vinti to the Cypress Grove Nursing Home would find him dead in his bed. Old age. Went in his sleep.
“No, this can’t happen!”
“Do you believe in karma, Mr. Loeb?”
“But hasn’t all that stealing paid off?”
“I earned all of this!”
“You sat back and stole it off the backs of your hardworking mill workers. Then you got lucky on the stock market. You gambled, and you won all the time, and you kept it all for yourself. I’m here to steal you, Mr. Loeb. Everything comes at a price, even me.” His master got the dead; the Thief got the trophies and the small, honestly unjust satisfaction that came with inflicting his immortal pain on someone else. “I must ensure the cycle continues.”
“You can’t do this,” Loeb said. “My stocks– My wife– our baby–“
“Will all survive.”
“I’ll change my ways. I’ll–“
“You can change nothing, Mr. Loeb. It is already far too late. You have given me no reason to let you go for now.” The Thief pulled out the quarter and spun it on his pointer finger. “But tell you what: You’re a gambling man, aren’t you?”
“My lucky quarter. You stole my lucky quarter.”
“Heads, you come with me.” The Thief tossed the quarter up and down in his palm.
The Thief grinned, still tossing the quarter up and down. “Trying to make sure I’m not rigging the game? It’s what you’d have done.”
“What happens if it’s tails?”
The Thief shrugged. “Tails, you win, and I walk out of here alone. Satisfied?” He’d given people extra time before. His master wouldn’t be happy, but extra time was not forever.
The Thief tossed the coin to him. “It’s your lucky quarter. Do the honors.”
Loeb took a deep breath. He weighed the quarter in each hand, then licked his lips and threw it up into the air. Both men watched it turn over and over before it landed with a flat ping. It bounced twice, then fell on its edge with a little clink. It spun for a few seconds, then settled with a muffled ringing.
“Heads,” whispered the Thief. He retrieved the quarter and pocketed it again, then smiled at Loeb. “You won’t go back on a bet now, will you?”
The third lock was simple, but the thief struggled with it. What was wrong with him? Every time he thought he had it right, he suddenly knew it was wrong, pulled the pick from the lock and started again.
“Calm down,” he told himself. He’d never talked to himself before. Some people said it was the first sign of madness. Well, who said the Thief in the Night couldn’t go mad? “Take a deep breath. It’s the last name on the list for tonight. You have to do this.” He inserted the pick again, and this time, the lock clicked open.
The Tornincasa’s upstairs hall was clean. A family portrait hung at the end, and the Thief moved over to look: A mother; a father; a smiling, healthy, little girl. He turned away, fingering Loeb’s lucky quarter in his pocket. Despite everything, he almost wished it had landed on tails. Vinti was one thing, with no family and no truly good deeds to his name. But Jim Loeb, even with his dirty money, was married, about to be a father. Yes, it was Loeb’s time, but the Thief had not just taken Loeb’s life. He had damaged, if not destroyed, the lives of his wife and his unborn child. And now this–this little girl.
May Tornincasa was eight years old, and she had Morquio Syndrome. The doctors said she was lucky to have lived this long, but still, the Thief shuddered as he looked at May’s closed door. Her father had painted it white with pink flowers and blue butterflies when she was three. The Thief gripped Loeb’s lucky quarter more firmly. It had to happen. It was the way life worked. People were born, they lived, and then they died. That was it. And it was the Thief’s job to steal them from this world and point them to the next, to where his master waited.
And that was normal. He’d stolen children before, plenty of times, but only with the certainty that he had to. How could one more year hurt the cycle? He’d given people a little extra time before. The memory of the night’s conversations stirred within him. Some emotion that tasted like bile filled his throat. Extra time was not forever.
It had to be done. There was nothing else to it. The Thief pushed open May’s door and stepped into the room. The hospice nurse in the corner had nodded off over a copy of Peter and Wendy. Next to the bed, the oxygen tank hummed as it fed air into the tubes attached to May’s nose, helping her breathe. Her eyes were closed, her chest slowly rising and falling. She clutched a stuffed black puppy named Oreo.
The Thief walked across the room and stood beside the bed. He reached out to touch the cover of the book on the nurse’s lap. It would be a nice addition to his collection of trophies. But then he drew his hand back.
Not for the first time, he wondered what happened after death. He wondered if Maddie knew what he had become. What would she think? He wasn’t the man who got down on one knee in the middle of a highway to slide a ring onto her finger as she bled out on the asphalt. He wasn’t the man she said yes to with her dying breath. Now he was a coward, a vicious coward hiding behind cheap magic tricks and trophies and the idea that he was doing some good for the world. And after Vinti’s hopelessness and Loeb’s panic, the Thief didn’t want to know if May Tornincasa deserved this.
May’s eyelids fluttered, and she turned her head slightly and focused on him. “Are you Peter?” she whispered.
“Peter?” She lifted a hand connected to an IV and pointed to the book on the nurse’s lap. “Are you looking for your shadow?”
The Thief looked over his shoulder. Where was his shadow? He’d never noticed its absence before. He always moved in the dark, from shadow to shadow, almost one himself. Did that make him as fictional as Peter Pan?
“No,” he said. He took her hand. “I’m just a thief.”
“What’s your name?”
“I don’t remember anymore. I’m just the Thief now.”
“Should I be scared of you?”
May closed her eyes. “I dreamed I was going to Neverland.”
“Would you like to go to Neverland?”
“Can you take me, even though you aren’t Peter? I want to learn to fly and never grow up.“
He stood up. “Not tonight.” He walked over to the door. His heart was pumping far too fast. He’d done this before. Why was this any different?
She didn’t deserve to be stolen. She didn’t deserve him, some thief in the night who made promises he wasn’t sure he could keep. He didn’t know what happened when you died, after all: Him being too scared of what happened to Maddie and Death needing another assistant had landed him in this job that he used to enjoy. May deserved another chance.
“You’re not a real thief,” May said. “You didn’t take anything.”
The Thief turned back. “I don’t want to.”
“But thieves take things.”
“Yes, but–“ What could he say?
Vinti was one hundred and one years old, a crotchety old man who chased kids off his yard with a Beretta. He was old. He’d had a good, long life. He didn’t deserve an extension. And while Loeb wasn’t old or crotchety, he’d gambled and cheated and won while so many others lost. He didn’t deserve one either.
No matter what, May Tornincasa and her family would lose. Even if the Thief walked away right now, he would still have to come back. Eventually, May’s heart would become too big for her body. But wasn’t one more year better than nothing?
“See, May,” the Thief said, returning to the bed and pulling up a chair, “I don’t really steal things. I steal people.”
“People who did something wrong?”
“No, just people. People who die. But you aren’t going to die tonight.” He stood up and walked to the door again.
“Don’t leave,” May said. “Please.”
He paused, but did not turn.
“Why won’t you take me?” Her voice cracked. “You take everyone else, don’t you?”
“I want you to keep living,” the Thief whispered. He’d taken children before, yes, but he always hated it, and he never spoke to them. After everything that had happened tonight, he simply couldn’t bear to kill this little girl.
“If you leave, it will keep hurting.”
“Be not afraid,” the Thief whispered to himself, the same words Death whispered to him that night so long ago when he lay gasping on the side of a road in Vietnam with a bullet in his stomach. He was shaking, but he already knew what he had to do, what he had always had to do.
“Please, Peter, I want to go to Neverland,” May whispered from the bed.
He took her hand.
The sun blazed over the green cemetery. The man watched from the trees as the group around the new grave moved towards their cars. When they’d all gone, he walked out into the sunlight, glancing only once at his shadow as it passed over the grass and the gravestones. He knelt at the head of the grave and laid the Peter and Wendy book amidst the red and pink roses. People were born, they lived, and they died, all when they were supposed to. It was not his job to unlock the mysteries of the world. He looked up at the sky, watched the white clouds speeding across the blue, felt the early October air ruffle his hair. In the trees, the fallen leaves rustled. The branches swayed, casting spindly shadows across the grass, almost barren now as they settled down to sleep, waiting for life to burst forth again and grow into something new.
He pulled that night’s list from his pocket and looked it over. He hesitated, then tore it into shreds. Death would have to find a new assistant. He wasn’t right for the job anymore.
A shadow fell across him, but he didn’t look up. Fifty years was a long time, but it could have been no time at all.
“See you in Neverland,” Peter whispered to the girl.
About the Author
Jameyanne Fuller is a law student by day, writer by night. Sometimes she sleeps. She writes young adult fantasy and science fiction stories, and her short fiction has appeared in the 2018 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide anthology, Andromeda Spaceways, Abyss and Apex, and of course Cast of Wonders.
When she isn’t studying or writing, Jameyanne can be found reading, playing the clarinet, or plotting world domination with her team of black labradors, retired Seeing Eye dog Mopsy and new Seeing Eye dog Neutron Star.
About the Narrator
Alasdair Stuart is a professional enthusiast, pop culture analyst, and writer. He is a Hugo Finalist in multiple categories including Best Fan Writer, and a British Fantasy Society Best Non-fiction finalist for his weekly pop culture newsletter The Full Lid.
His nonfiction can be found at numerous genre and pop culture venues, including regular columns at the Hugo Award-winning Ditch Diggers and Fox Spirit Books. His game writing includes ENie-nominated work on the Doctor Who RPG and After The War from Genesis of Legend.
He co-owns Escape Artists and hosts their horror podcast, PseudoPod, along with the Hugo Award nominated science fiction podcast, Escape Pod. He is a frequent guest and presenter on podcasts, with voice acting credits including winning the 2020 Audioverse Award for his work on the The Magnus Archives.
His second collection of expanded essays from PseudoPod, The PseudoPod Tapes Volume 2: Approach with Caution, is available from Fox Spirit Books.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.