Constance wasn’t drunk.
This wasn’t a good thing. When she was drunk, her fury became a distant drum, something she could dance to without wanting to scream or commit arson. It softened and drowned, slick and squishy and hard to hold. But tonight, what alcohol she’d had only became engine fuel in her bones.
Katy was drunk, though. It was a bad combination. It meant that when Katy came up with a stupid, selfish way to strike at the world as if the whole of it had hurt them, Constance was actually sober enough to act on it. Oh, they’d come up with plenty of those before—they’d like to burn down the city, rob the upper classes blind, truss up the arms dealers and leave them in the gutters as prey for feral orphans. All they had accomplished so far were two broken windows and a pitiful bonfire.
But Constance was sober, and she was furious. So when Katy pointed to an old woman in a spangly dress, she thought that Katy was right, it would be a brilliant idea to pick her pockets. She looked like just the very worst of privileged society, didn’t she? That Katy’s mom had been threatened with divorce, that these older women with their shiny dresses and desperate faces were so often the victims, didn’t cross Constance’s mind. Her insides were on fire, and everyone was a monster to her.
The woman had a purse on her arm. Eyes on the clasp, Constance followed her at a distance down the low twilit street. When the woman sidled into an alleyway, Constance thought, this is perfect. She had, after all, had some drink.
Flat against the wall, surely unseen, Constance reached for the purse. She had pushed open the clasp and laid hold upon some bit of jewelry within, when someone caught her wrist.
She looked up at another woman, just as old, but dressed in plain and forgettable clothes. Seeing the bruised-eye face of a teen girl, who cared so little that her expression did not even change with surprise, the woman laughed.
“Were you planning to rob me, darling?” the first woman said. She pulled her purse away from Constance. “You followed me for three blocks. I began to wonder if you were really going to do it.”
Constance stayed silent. Over years, she had sharpened her glare into a knife, and she held it against the woman holding her.
That woman’s expression changed. The laughter went away, replaced by curious familiarity.
“I know that face,” she said, letting Constance go. “That was my face at eighteen.”
“You don’t know anything about me.” Constance couldn’t help saying it. It slipped from her mouth like smoke, snapping and childish.
“Hm. I suppose I don’t. But I do know a good deal about theft.”
The first woman looked between them, and then smiled. It was a sharp, charming thing. Constance liked it. She wanted to smile like that, like a hidden blade.
“Don’t forget burglary, smuggling, arson, and sedition,” the first woman said. “We’ve done it all, darling.”
The second woman had not looked away from Constance’s unchanging, angry face. “Would you like a small lesson, before you go?”
Constance wasn’t really listening. She was thinking of Katy, waiting for her. She was thinking of getting to the graveyard before morning, of what drink she might be able to steal from Aunt Jackie to take with her. She was thinking of tomorrow night, of more shots, cigarettes, blurred faces and drowned anger. She drank it to death every night, but it always came back stronger.
Something tickled her shoulder. She brushed it off.
“It’s getting light,” the first woman said to the second. “We need to go soon.”
“I know. Listen,” to Constance, “following people and grabbing purses will take you nowhere in life. Do you want to know the best way to pick somebody’s pocket?”
Constance nodded absently and scratched her elbow.
“Tell them a story. Make them the hero. Make yourself what they expect to see. A proper thief is a storyteller first.”
The stolen jewelry in Constance’s fist tugged away. She opened her hand in surprise, and something small and furry jumped from her wrist onto the woman’s shoulder. It was a little mouse, blinking at her with wide, dark eyes. He held the bracelet in his paws.
The first woman was already at the mouth of the alleyway, looking around. Sunlight had started to paint the street. “A proper thief,” she said, without turning round, “is a lady.”
A sea bird flew over their heads and gave a loud cry. Constance jumped.
The first woman said, “We’re clear to go. It was a pleasure meeting you, darling.” She squeezed Constance’s hand quickly. “Get yourself into trouble.”
As they walked away, she heard the second woman say, “I do so envy the younger generation.”
Constance was left alone in the alley, holding the bit of money that the woman had pressed into her hand. It was just enough to buy her and Katy a ride home.
The women burned into the bottom of Constance’s mind. They fell away behind a haze of long late nights and loud parties and shitty alcohol. But they were always there. And who was this angry rebel girl, besides a story that she told herself?
So Constance knew what to do when that girl burned out. She told herself a new story. She would become what they expected to see. She would be a lady. A storyteller.
A proper thief.