He had long romanticized the slick tight feel of thin leather black gloves.
All he’d ever thought about was that silent smooth rise of the pane of glass from the sill. There was even a dark red velvety bag, filled to overflowing, one rogue strand of glittering diamonds of diminishing size trailing from its cinched top.
Sighing, he lifted the binoculars for the hundredth time that night. Parked on a parallel street he could still see the majority of the house through a thin patch of winter woods. It had taken a month through various channels to learn that the owners of the sprawling 2.3 million dollar tacky shrine to Grecian architecture were going to be leaving it unattended for approximately two weeks.
There were all sorts of ways to figure out that kind of thing. Unexpected visits from the private security company that made sure all their invisible fences and virtual attack dogs were all in the green. There was the random fishing telephone calls over the major international airlines to see if a few last names didn’t just happen to pop up. The suspension of the paper service. Appointments set like clockwork suddenly rearranged and cancelled all around the same set of mysterious dates. The rubber binoculars settled back in his lap.
The best method of course was by just going through the garbage they left out on the curb.
Making a face, he would have been happy spending the rest of his life not knowing what he did about the people he was forced to deal with. Medications for unpleasant disorders. Weird porn magazines where the models were made up to resemble corpses. Dead pets. Once he’d even found an artificial limb. The reality of his profession didn’t stand up for the classic black gloves, too stiff when beige latex worked like you weren’t wearing anything on your hands at all. The red velvet sack was also unreliable as the fabric was delicate and would most likely rip once you put anything in it of any value at all. He found that new flex hefty kitchen bag line to be really the most dependable and absolutely trustworthy. Not to mention almost completely water proof.
It didn’t look all that cool but it wasn’t as if he was stopping to pose for any pictures.
Checking his watch just as he predicted the timed lighting system to activate, he smiled to himself. All the lights were on but no one was home.
Slipping out of the car, he patted his back black jean pocket for the hefty bag he kept there. Besides his lock picks, Swiss army knife and a brilliant recollection of just about any and all household security systems in existence, he was traveling light and quiet through the trees.
It hadn’t always been like this. Being a freshman dropout from MIT gave him a lot of time to think about just exactly was the amount of effort a person really needed to expend just to make it comfortably in the world. It turned out a 9-5 job that lasted all week so he could give the wife a smile at his ten year with the company party wasn’t exactly it.
He wasn’t really that into girls anyway.
Pausing at the edge of the properties perimeter, he rolled down the thin knitted fabric down over his face. There were a few clichés of the trade that were more or less necessary these days. Anyone worth more than 6 digits usually kept a couple of cameras around. He just wore a plain black ski mask for all that kind of jazz. All they’d ever end up seeing was some unidentifiable someone who had walked in and out of their home with all their stuff. That was about as much good those cameras could do you unless your perpetrator was dumb enough to walk up to one and wave.
Walking right up under a motion detector, he wasn’t all that worried when it lit up his path like a foot ball field on game night. This was the first hub of the system he had to make sure was down first. This was the tricky part. It was to avoid any unfortunate dealings with the two-bit paid firm that sent their boys in those decommissioned cop cars painted plain brown. They were half hearted, but they were armed and he wasn’t going to die for some wealthy old man’s craptasic coin collection.
Working the circuit box with enough light to perform surgery by didn’t bother him either. People like these paid for their privacy. That meant exactly that. He always wondered what all the lights and whistles were for if there wasn’t anyone in a 3 square mile radius that would be able to see them.
Blinking down at the colorful board of the expensive network and the dull shine of soldering wire off the mother board, his hands stopped in wary hesitancy.
For all this hardware it was pretty strange that none of it was even on.
He checked the central power line that ran over to the household electrical meter. He was right. It was dead. It wasn’t the first time he’d come overtly prepared only to find the owners of all sorts of stuff had simply left their front door unlocked. The faith in the good will of man, he supposed, was quite admirable when he stopped to reflect long enough. But he didn’t have any time for that, all he knew was that the lady of the house really liked ‘Crate and Barrel’ and so did he.
Skirting the white stucco sided home, he stopped at the first window he found that happened to be the first around a corner. It was locked of course, but it was nothing to give the flimsy thing a good knock sideways off the track and then use the smooth flat jimmy a few adjustments under the seal. A person could make their front door three feet thick and band it with steel. Put in a moat with sharks and things that ate sharks in it if you wanted. But none of that mattered if even one window in the place was as easy to open as your very first Christmas present.
Crouching on the white tiled floor of what looked to be a laundry room, he slipped out his flashlight and tested its sharp small beam on the opposite wall.
The lines of reality quite frequently strayed from the hopeless sexy glamour of what everyone desperately wished it was all actually like.
He knew that if you watched enough movies you started to figure that anyone that had anything to hide knew how to hide it well. A safe behind a painting. Floor boards that came out to reveal a lock box. Fine gems zipped up in air tight bags and sunk to the bottom of the toilet tank. Sometimes, every now and then, someone would surprise him with doing just that. Imitating art. Or creating it. He was never quite sure which way that road went.
But most homes were just like any others. A half attempt at keeping your personal collection of your life at a presentable sprawl. Some were better at it than others. This house for example looked like the living room had just been taken out of a hermetically sealed box which had been stored in a clean room in a government lab. No white pillow was out of place. No bronze fireplace accessory was blemished by anything as messy as an actual fire.
The light coating of dust that covered a room that was supposed to be well used gave him the creeps. The small floor lamp that sat on because of its timer hung with thick strand of a dust choked cobweb that drifted in a graceful arch over to the stiff curtains. There were no personal photographs on the hearth. There were no magazines carelessly left on a table.
Frowning, he turned his attention back to the business at hand.
He eyed the spiral sweep of the broad staircase. Checking the front door system panel he was little confused that this one seemed to have been deactivated as well. Listening closely, all he heard was his own steady breathing and the silence of a house patiently waiting to be picked through for enough to make him more than comfy for the next four months. And a trip down to Palm Springs. There was no way in hell he was missing the white party this year.
What he was really looking for was the personal mess that was kept far away and locked from prying eyes. If it wasn’t anywhere down here it would most likely be up in the bedroom. The mess was always somewhere. You just had to turn enough corners until you found it—
He froze half way up the steps, looking down towards and past the living room he’d just been standing in. There had been a sound. It had almost sounded like something being torn. Like old rotted cloth being methodically rendered into strips.
The residents had no pets. He had made damn sure of that. Of all the thousands of dollars these people wanted to spend to keep their fortress closed off from the world, all they really had to do was lay down forty bucks for a noisy mutt from the pound.
Getting down low, he knew his clothing would make him practically invisible amongst the stairway railings. Looking hard down at the foyer landing, he strained to pick up any trace from what his mind was insisting he’d heard.
A woman’s voice. A stuttering broken whisper right in his ear.
It shifted quickly to sharp and jarring like a jagged metal tip against a chalk board. It set the hairs on the back of his neck on end and his teeth on edge. The elaborate but undoubtedly faux crystal chandelier that hung above the rise of the stairs began to tingle, swaying slightly where there was no breeze at all.
He stared up at it.
Being a practical man, and a man that spent inordinate amounts of time in uninhabited dark quiet places, he liked to think of himself as a person that didn’t scare quite so easily. But something about this was all wrong, there was something not quite so empty about this empty house. What exactly made it not so empty, he wasn’t sure—
A shadow moved past the arch of the living room entrance, silence and swift, missed completely if he had happened to blink right at the same moment. Slipping back down to the first floor he followed the passage the shadow had taken.
He wasn’t just seeing and hearing things.
He was smelling things.
And it smelled pretty good.
Rounding the corner into the well lit kitchen he almost fell backwards in his shock at finding a real live breathing person standing right there.
“How ya doin’?” Some guy in a leather jacket asked.
Not thinking about peeling back his ski mask, he decided that whoever it was that was standing around in the kitchen like he owned the place, didn’t actually own the place. His stunned gaze fell on the shotgun that sat on the kitchen table and the pistol that the man had shoved down in plain sight in the front of his jeans.
Frozen in place he felt his mouth moving but nothing was coming out.
“Yeah, hope you weren’t plannin’ on going up those stairs again tonight.” He suggested as he flipped the salt and pepper shakers to opposite hands. “There’s uh, something around here that likes to push anyone available right to their… well, I don’t like to use the term doom unless I really have to but—shit!“
Running his hand under the faucet, the searing hot grease continued to splatter messily over the clean stove top.
He tore his eyes off the weapons and tried to focus on the guy’s face. Despite his own unmitigated terror, he found it to be not a bad face. A little too military up top than he usually liked but the guy had a jaw line right out of a 1950’s double feature. If this had been a different time and place entirely, this guy would be the kind of man he’d be too scared to go up to and pray that he'd be allowed to buy him a drink. Something about the bizarre situation that was this room almost made him say it out loud but he bit down on his lip. Looking the guy over again, he decided that in his dream world he would have also tried to get him on one of those make over shows while he was at it. Treated and distressed denim was all well and good but not if you went ahead and did it the hard way all by yourself. There was nothing on this man that owned a label.
The eggs and bacon really started spitting and smoking now that they were left on the burner. He thought about walking up to it and taking the heavy handle in his grip. Lifting it at the man's turned back.
He couldn't seem to move.
“All 49 steps of stair.” The man reiterated as he noticed the fancy spice rack by the sink.
He really didn’t know what to say so he didn’t say anything at all.
“You hungry?” The guy was hefting the pan that looked like it had about an entire carton of eggs in it. Also about a slab of crackling bacon. “I kinda went overboard, but I’m freakin’ starving so—“
“The 49 has some spectacularly boring significance that I won’t torture you with by explaining but ya know, just do me a favor, and stay clear of it.” He used two hands to flip the mass of eggs to the other side of the pan. “Oh, and I’d keep away from the basement steps too. Just in case.”
“Who the hell is this?”
Another voice from directly behind him startled him so badly he almost tripped over himself trying to get his body between the source and a nearby kitchen chair. There was another man that had about a foot on him looking down like he was about to rip him in half and toss away the pieces. Maybe. The clenched fists and alarming size juxtaposed onto the profound distress in his admittedly kind looking eyes did nothing but confuse the situation further than it already was.
“Dunno.” The guy cooking shrugged. “But my money is definitely not on ‘plant watering dude’.”
“Well,” The taller arrival asked angrily. “Is he armed?”
“Doesn’t look like it.” The man shoved a cooled piece of bacon into his mouth. “But if you’d like to give ‘em a pat down be my guest.”
He wasn’t sure why they were discussing him as if he wasn’t even there but when his face met the wall, he surrendered to the sudden and thorough search without a word. As the huge guy soon found out, he wasn’t even close to armed. He never armed himself with anything outside of his little pocket knife that he wouldn’t know how to kill with even if he had to. The knife was taken anyway and tossed on the counter.
Clearing his throat, he found his voice again.
“I’m... I’m here to...” All his well thought and rehearsed excuses were gone. The fact that he still had his black ski mask in place seemed to do nothing to disturb the guy with the spatula. “I was just leaving—“
Something strange happened.
The floor underneath his feet heaved. Steadying himself with a hand against the wall, he watched round eyed as the room lurched again.
A sudden and disquieting wailing sounded above them, seeming to vibrate the ceiling itself and every dish in the cupboards. The kitchen chairs rattled across the floors, the over head light flickered on and off sporadically.
Breath hitching in fear, he didn’t realize he had wrapped both of his arms over his head.
“At least stick around and have some eggs.” The man suggested. “Got plenty.”
Tossing down three plates filled with the stuff onto the table with the shotgun on it, the man comfortably took a seat. Taking a few bites, he realized that his guest was still staring up at the ceiling like it was going to open up and swallow him whole.
“Oh, don’t worry about that.” Another fork full of eggs disappeared. “She only kills things on stairs... Did I mention not to use the stairs?”
He sat down numbly when the nearest chair was kicked out for him.
The big guy didn’t join them but he did snag a piece of bacon on his way out the opposite door. “Look, I’m gonna check the cellar and then we’re trying that old coach house in the woods.”
“Sure thing. Whatever. Don’t fall to your doom.” The man mumbled as he pulled the extra and now free plate of eggs closer. Between bites, the guy causally tugged out his pistol and laid it beside the shotgun on the table.
Watching the man eat, he very slowly pulled up his ski mask and forced his trembling fingers to steady the fork. The plates were nice. William Sonoma.
“A-Are you going to kill me?” He asked in the calmest voice he could manage.
Looking up, the guy did a double take now that his face was visible. “Hey, yer a lot younger than I thought.” The man used his fork to point and grin at him. “You workin’ this gig alone? I always thought guys like you had a back up, or a driver or somethin’.”
Young. Everyone always said that. Barely looking twenty served him well in the clubs even if his ID allowed him all the access to the various incarnations of Stoli he could handle.
“Just a sec.” The man paused with is fork half way to his mouth. “Did-did you say something about killing you?”
He nodded miserably.
“Huh wait what? Wait— no? I’m not gonna kill ya. Why would I do something like that?” The grin was gone as the man genuinely seemed put off that that had been the assumption.
Trying very hard not to cry, he didn’t answer as he put a warm fork full of scrambled eggs in his mouth. If he walked out of this house alive he would never pull another job again. He’d pick up some shitty night shift selling the masses their lattes. He’d work a deep fryer. He’d mow lawns and work a leaf blower with some illegal immigrants, hell he’d even go back to MIT like his Dad wanted—
“There’s nothing down there. “ The big guy had returned with a sigh. His scowl was almost completely gone until he saw his partner at the table shoveling back eggs and bacon. “It’s time to go Dean.”
“Uh oh.” The guy named Dean looked him square in the eye. “Now you know my name, now I’ll have to kill ya.”
Trying not to wet himself, he didn’t think the broad cracking smile and accompanying knee slapping laugh was really very funny at all.
The big guy lifted him out of his chair by the back of his black hoodie. “We’ll just show you out on our way…”
He dropped his fork nosily as he stumbled to his feet. Heart pounding frantically, he tried not to think how his weight was lifted as if he weighed nothing at all.
“Aw, come on!” The Dean guy said, for some reason ready to plead his case. “Let ‘em take something. Breaking into this place is a lot of work! He came all this way and all he got were some eggs for cryin’ out loud...”
“Fine.” His friend responded more tired than annoyed. “Why don’t we call in all his friends and hold a raffle?”
“Here.” The guy looked around and grabbed the first thing he saw on the counter. “Let ‘em take this. They’ll never even miss it.”
It was shoved ungently into his latex gloved hands, the very tall and heavy cappuccino machine fitting awkwardly in his arms. The cord trailed down to the floor, sitting limply between his dark track shoes.
He wasn’t sure what he was expecting next but the friendly wink wasn’t it.
Before he could think about it for too much longer, the bigger guy who had a hold of his jacket was already steering him out the front door and depositing him into the cold night air.
Standing alone on the front step, he watched the fog of his breath as he apprehensively exhaled. His mind tumbled between the sounds of the woman on the stairs, the floor moving like the east coast suddenly had acquired frequent earthquakes, and a pair of cat burglars who didn’t appear to be taking anything but a huge boost in their cholesterol… if his hands weren’t filled with jutting parts of a coffee maker he’d have rubbed at the headache forming bright and hot.
Turning, he got one last glimpse of the tall man with the strangely kind eyes. Now that he could really get a good look at him, he thought he wasn’t that bad to look at either. Or at least he would be if he wasn’t so utterly terrifying.
He couldn’t really think of anything else to say.
“Don’t mention it.” The huge guy murmured softly down to him.
The door slammed shut.