He used to guess the endings.
Each night, Youssef would slide a foxed, dog-eared library book out from under his pillow and read by penlight beneath the covers. He would hold his breath, prepared to click the light off and lie flat and still at the slightest creak of his mother passing in front of the bedroom door or the squeak of his younger brother rolling over in his bed across the room.
While he lay there in the dark, waiting for the coast to clear, Youssef would lay out each clue, each scrap of information. He would turn them over and over again in his mind looking for flaws and imperfections and grooves where they slotted perfectly together. He would mark his place with his index finger, compulsively scrape his thumb over the peeling label on the spine of the book, and he would try to guess the Gentleman Thief’s trick before M. Leblanc could explain it to him.
He would wake up like that some mornings: his head beneath the blanket, his fingers a bookmark.
Youssef guesses this is the kind of thing that makes him difficult to work with. He likes games. He likes patterns and puzzles. The answers, the grim realities, are not so exciting.
Life is not a detective story, one of his instructors at the academy told him. It doesn’t all come together just so. People steal because they want money. They’re not all that clever about it.
That’s been true, up until now.
Even now, when everything is very clever all the time, Youssef has never been under the illusion that this is a detective story.
This is the story of a thief.
Youssef challenges himself to look only for the unfamiliar, the out-of-order.
The alternative is to scream.
He exhales between his teeth, a slow, pained hiss. He opens his eyes again.
The pain, of course, is foremost. Something’s wrong with his shoulder, a sharp pain that lances through him if he even thinks of moving and a mess of blood and bandages that he doesn’t dare look at a second time. It’s a distraction, he tells himself. It will be a problem, but for now it’s a distraction.
Youssef takes a small, hitching breath, quiet as he can. The trouble, he’s discovering, is how familiar.
For example: he’s at home. He knows it immediately. It’s dark and Youssef’s lying flat on his back, staring up at his own bedroom ceiling. He can see the imperfection in the ceiling where it leaked once, he can hear the particular sputtering noise his refrigerator makes, he can smell the crisp scent of his own laundry detergent as he turns his head, and he can see the familiar way the sluggish yellow glow of the streetlights pours in through his bedroom window. He is very much at home.
He’s got a persistent feeling like he’s not supposed to be here. He can’t remember coming home today. He can’t remember what happened today.
Youssef squeezes his eyes shut tight. When he’s ready to try again, he opens them.
There are pill bottles crowding his nightstand, white caps illuminated by the streetlight. Youssef can’t quite get his eyes to focus enough to read the label. There’s a dark stain, rusty and unfamiliar but dry, that spreads across the sheet, and now that smell hits him too, overpowering the scent of detergent. His blankets are drawn down by his ankles. A gray shirt he recognizes as his own is on the bed beside him, shredded and bloodstained.
Somewhere, he can hear water running. That’s only odd because Youssef lives alone.
His bedroom door hangs agape. The hall light’s been left on, like you would for a child afraid of the dark. Youssef wouldn’t have left the light on. Not for himself.
For just a moment, a shadow slides across the wall. Someone walking, moving, in the kitchen or maybe by the bathroom. Youssef can’t be sure. He doesn’t know what that would look like.
Youssef rolls onto his side to try to get a better look.
He’s not ready for it to hurt that badly.
He thinks he screams. He’s not sure. It seems impossible that he should make any noise at all. His throat is rusty, his tongue is swollen, his mouth is so dry that if he spoke even one word, it would all crack and crumble apart. What Youssef knows is that he sinks into himself, that he’s too shocked to breathe and too agonized to even look up when he hears footfalls in the hallway.
There’s someone close to him, kneeling by the bed. They put their warm hands on Youssef’s shoulders and roll him, guide him safely onto his back again.
He looks directly into the dark eyes of the gentleman thief.
They are not twinkling, not smiling. Somehow, Youssef thought they would be.
“You…” Youssef whispers, voice raw and cracked. You what, he wonders. You are here. Why are you here?
The gentleman thief peers down at him, calm and curious, as he fills a syringe from one of the bottles on the nightstand.
"It would be better, Detective Guedira,” the thief says as he presses the needle into Youssef’s arm, “if you didn't wake up just yet."
And Youssef finds that there isn’t much choice in that.
The sky is bright and beautiful that morning, and Youssef remembers everything.
He’d had one of his ideas, one of those funny little hunches that itches at the back of his skull. Since Youssef was taken off the necklace case, he spends most of his time at work performing one task while thinking hard about another. He eavesdrops when Captain Laugier and Lieutenant Belkacem review the case. He sneaks casual glances at Belkacem’s desk and absorbs what he can from the paperwork she leaves out during her lunch break. He adds, surreptitiously, to his board. He turns the latest clues over and over in the back of his head while his body diligently works on cases of petty theft.
The scenario that day was an exciting one, so absorbing that Youssef’s front-end operations collapsed completely and he was reduced to tapping out nonsense on his keyboard as he strained to hear every word Laugier said.
The gentleman thief had been spotted in the luxury apartment building where Madame Pellegrini is installed. A security force - put in place by M. Pellegrini to protect his wife in light of all these attacks on his property and reputation - had spotted him and given chase. One claimed to have fired on the gentleman thief, clipped him on the arm. But then he turned the corner, and now could not be found. The police had been called, security footage was being scoured, officers were placed at every entrance and exit, and any container large enough to secure the gentleman thief was being searched as a matter of course.
His colleagues were troubled. They wondered how the gentleman thief had escaped and scoured the local hospitals for men with mysterious gunshot wounds.
Youssef, pretending to be busy at his desk, thought of The Hollow Needle. Lupin gets shot in that one, in the very first chapter, only to disappear without a trace. The detectives waste time trying to figure out where he went, how he slipped away, and fail to notice that he never left in the first place.
So, Youssef took a lunch break.
This is becoming a bad habit. Pursuing his own theories. Gathering his own evidence. Keeping secrets.
Taking the train to Étretat without telling his superiors felt harmless; just following up on a hunch, on his own time. Seeing the thief - calling out Lupin! in a crowd and seeing him turn - felt like a victory. Not telling anyone about it...well, Youssef’s made his excuses. He wasn’t supposed to be there. He wasn’t supposed to be on the case. The gentleman thief slipped away only seconds later, leaving no trace other than a series of bizarre incident reports in his wake.
They’re not compelling, these excuses. They’re just bolstering a choice he already wanted to make.
And here I am, Youssef thought to himself as he flashed his badge to the uniformed officers guarding the main entrance of the apartment building, making it again .
Off the top of his head, Youssef could imagine a few ways the gentleman thief might hide himself in the building. There are places to hide away in a building like this: storage rooms and maintenance halls and boiler rooms. But this would be a rat’s existence, hiding in the shadows and living on scraps and waiting, waiting, waiting. Not suitable for Lupin at all.
An alternative would be to take up residence in an apartment. If he had access to the right systems - and the gentleman thief is a gifted hacker - he could know which apartments were unoccupied. He could determine, by many means, if the tenants of an apartment would be out of town for the week. He could take a tenant hostage, and force their hospitality. He could have a compatriot in the building, for surely the gentleman thief has friends in high places. He could even rent an apartment himself, if he’d had time to prepare in advance. An unlikely possibility, but one Youssef can’t confidently rule out.
It’s a viable train of thought, the apartment theory. But if Youssef wanted to investigate it, he’d have to speak with the manager of the building, procure the assistance of building security, question tenants, and conduct searches. Which would be fine if Youssef were still on the case, but it’s not really feasible to do all that in an unofficial capacity while on a lunch break.
Instead, Youssef pursued the only avenue of research available to him in such a short frame of time. He wandered the halls of the apartment building, searching for invisible men.
It’s the sort of thing that the gentleman thief does often. That is, both Lupin and his imitator. If they need to go unnoticed, they become servants and janitors and waiters and cab drivers and deliverymen. The sort of people that no one’s curious about. They use that. They do it on purpose.
It's the sort of thing the thief might do to make himself invisible.
Just an idea. Nothing he could depend on.
Youssef found a spot where he could lean against the wall in the lobby. A good spot, not in anybody’s way, but not so out-of-the-way as to make it seem like he was trying to hide. He glanced regularly from his phone to the elevators and did his best to project the feeling of waiting for a friend and being very bored and just the slightest bit annoyed. He kept this up for around ten minutes without any disturbance or any sightings of the gentleman thief.
He thought to himself: So, your idea wasn’t very good after all.
And then he thought: My idea’s fine. All I’ve proven is that he’s not in the lobby. If I was part of the investigation, I could look at the security footage, or at least search the rest of the building.
And he thought: Now that might be a bridge too far. That thing at Etretat was in public. This would be unlawful entry, or at least very suspect entry. Are you so eager to prove your theory that you’d even break the law?
Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, he thought to himself. It’s only my lunch break.
He showed his badge to the building manager and excused himself, saying, “I remember the way, madame,” when she tried to accompany him to the site of the incident. And that was how Youssef found himself roaming the halls of the building, unsupervised and uninterrupted.
Thrilling, a little.
Or, it was at first. Wandering around a very fancy apartment building lost its charm quickly. The halls were not terribly busy and most of the people he encountered were, at a glance, very clearly not the man he sought. Youssef supposed he should be grateful that the gentleman thief cut such a distinct, imposing, easily-identifiable figure, but in a case like this, it was rather disappointing to not even have the hope it could be him.
It also occurred to Youssef, as he searched, that he must be the one who looks out of place. A stranger, clearly at a loss of where to go. It would be prudent to act as though he’s being observed with suspicion from some security room somewhere. His behavior would have to be unimpeachable.
An easy enough promise to make, but it fell apart the second he spotted the thief.
It was such a casual glimpse. At first, it was just the back of someone in a cap and a jumpsuit, turning around a bend in the hallway ahead of him, and Youssef thought to himself, almost absently, That’s about the right height . And then he heard a rumble and a soft clang - the doors of the freight elevator opening, but he didn’t know it yet - and thought to himself, If it’s him and you didn’t even bother to look, maybe you deserved to get taken off the case . Youssef forgot all about looking respectable for the security cameras and sprinted around the corner just in time to the gentleman thief vanish behind the doors of the freight elevator. Youssef could see his face - his face - between the doors just before they closed.
The thief had the temerity to look amused.
Youssef glanced up at the floor designator. Going down. No hope of catching it, but why not try? Youssef backtracked down the hall, shoved open the door to the emergency stairwell, heard an alarm start to blare behind him as he sprinted down the stairs. He could explain himself later, Youssef thought as he swung himself around the bend. It would all be worth it if I caught him.
A few floors down, it occurred to Youssef that the thief might’ve stepped out of the elevator and left him running blindly in the wrong direction. He slipped out into the hallway, ran to find the freight elevator’s designator still pointing downward, and returned to the stairwell cursing his luck. No more of that, Youssef thought to himself, panting. I’ll take this as far down as it goes, and if he slips away before then, it’s somebody else’s problem.
But there were a great many stairs.
The door at the very bottom of the stairwell was, irritatingly, locked. It would be wisest to go now, he knew. He’d already made two unlawful entries today. A third would be pushing his luck. But the thought of the thief on the other side of the door, being amused , was too much to bear.
Youssef apologized to no one in particular. And then he kicked the door down.
He emerged in a dank basement. The illumination was thin: the glow of the exit sign over his head, a dim bulb flickering in the gray, concrete hall, and the sickly, fluorescent glow that poured from the open elevator doors.
Empty, of course. It couldn’t be that easy. Youssef peered in, just to confirm the thief hadn’t squeezed himself against the wall or vanished through a vent in the ceiling or perhaps left a cryptic clue pointing to the truth of his identity. Youssef would love that. His lungs were ragged and his heart was thudding. He’d love to solve a puzzle right about now.
The only clue was a faint smudge of blood on the button for the lowest level.
The thief was here in the basement somewhere. And he was hurt.
Youssef needed to find him soon.
This basement wasn’t completely deserted, Youssef found. Quite the opposite. The building’s on-site laundry service was down there, and the places where the maintenance workers and janitorial staff kept their equipment. The dingy corridor Youssef stood in was like an artery, and a thin, steady trickle of the people who did the difficult little jobs that keep this building running were moving through it.
He could appreciate the strategic decision to hide here. Even as it frustrated him.
Youssef picked his way past break rooms and storage rooms and locker rooms into the quieter parts of the basement, where boilers grumbled and generators hummed. Where the lights were dimmer and sadder. Where one might go if one were afraid of being seen and, for some reason, unwilling to flee.
Youssef paused next to a rack of electrical supplies and he listened. Listened hard to the thrumming of the generators and the distant murmur of human footsteps and the grumble of the building above them.
“I know you’re here,” Youssef said. “You don’t have to run any longer.”
Youssef continued. “I also know you’ve been shot. That you’re badly hurt. This doesn’t have to be the end of you. If you come out, I can get you help.”
A water heater made an odd, sputtering sound. That was all.
“To be honest,” Youssef sighed, “It's been a difficult day and just knowing that I was on the right track would put me in a better mood."
To his left: a polite cough. Youssef jumped.
Such a large man shouldn't be so utterly silent, so graceful, so invisible, but he coalesced out of the shadows like a ghost. He didn't look amused anymore. He didn't look angry, either. When he took a step forward, it was nearly a stagger. He held his left arm in an odd way, close to his body. Clearly, he was in pain.
Suddenly, Youssef's mouth went dry. "Will you let me help you?" he asked.
The thief shook his head and spoke, low and soft. "We don't have time," he said. "You have to leave. You're drawing too much attention to yourself."
"Thank you for your concern, but I think hotel security will understand."
"Not them," the thief insisted. "There is more going on here than you understand. And I don't have time to explain it to you."
"If you let me take you to a hospital, you can tell me all about it there." But the thief wasn't looking at him anymore. The thief looked past him with an expression of alarm and suddenly seized Youssef by one arm and wrenched him to the side.
There was the sharp report of a gun, a sudden explosion of pain in his shoulder.
Youssef can't remember much else.
Now, lying in bed, he feels the way he did on those mornings after falling asleep reading: aching and strange, as though he had left something unfinished. A peculiar wobbling of the perceptions, as though the world were less solid than it was when he went to sleep.
Youssef gingerly eases himself into a sitting position and downs the glass of water that waits for him on the nightstand. The world looks a little clearer now. His shoulder still hurts badly, but not so badly that it consumes his thoughts. He's drugged, certainly, but not so heavily that he can't think. He holds his breath, calms his heartbeat, listens well.
He needn't have bothered: somewhere in the apartment, the gentleman thief is whistling.
Youssef swings his legs over the side of the bed and puts his feet on the floor, careful to avoid the board that creaks. His legs are weak and bloodless and trembling so badly that he has to hold tight to the empty chair at his bedside to stand. He leans there for a few long moments, wiggling his toes and waiting for the discomfort to subside.
When he feels strong enough, Youssef kneels on the floor and unplugs his bedside lamp. It's heavy, brass. He holds the lamp with his good arm, allows the other arm to hang limp. It's not a perfect solution.
When he puts his eye to the crack in the bedroom door, he sees that the hallway is clear. He nudges the door open with his toe, softly so the hinges don't creak.
He's very fortunate, he finds. The gentleman thief has his back to Youssef. He's on one knee in front of the bookshelf, running a thumb across the worn, cracked spines of the paperbacks.
The Lupin s. Naturally, the Lupin s. Youssef finds himself suddenly aglow with the satisfaction of being right.
Perhaps satisfaction makes a sound. Perhaps Youssef wanted to be right more than he wanted to catch the thief, and now he's being punished for it. All he knows is that he did not make a sound, that he did not throw a shadow on the bookshelf, and yet the gentleman thief is turning, casually, to face him.
"Good morning," the gentleman thief says, rising to his feet. "I like your library."
Youssef throws the lamp at his head.
The thief plucks it out of the air and hefts it easily in one hand.
He must be very strong, Youssef thinks to himself.
"A little drastic," the thief remarks, setting the lamp on the floor beside his feet. "Are you in pain?"
Youssef stands there, frozen and panting. Sheepishly, he nods.
The thief gestures to Youssef’s couch. “Sit down.” And then, very confidently, he strides past Youssef and back down the hallway to the bedroom.
So, not very threatened.
The lamp remains on the floor, a few paces away. It could be in Youssef’s hands in seconds, and perhaps the thief would not dodge a second volley so gracefully. Beyond that, there’s the kitchen, where Youssef could avail himself of the bread knife lying on the counter, or perhaps the paring knife in the drawer. Beyond the kitchen is the hallway. He could simply walk away now. He might not get very far, but a neighbor might open their door if he cried out.
He supposes this is professional curiosity. Very well: un professional curiosity. He’s not afraid of being killed - if the thief wanted him dead, he would be dead - and he’s certain that if he fled now, the question of what comes next would eat him alive.
“I’m sorry to intrude,” says the thief as he returns, baring a handful of pill bottles. “I don’t plan to be here long. But I’ve had a rough couple of days.” He shakes two white pills into his broad palm. His hand is warm as he presses the pills into Youssef’s. “Take these.”
Youssef squints at them dubiously. “What are they?”
"I don't exactly know,” the thief confesses. "Only that those are painkillers and this…" He produces another pill, pale gray this time. "...Is an antibiotic. I don't know exactly what they are, but the doctor gave me dosages and a schedule."
"When was there a doctor?"
"Yesterday. You slept.” He smiles, bright and nearly shy. “I know I’m talented, Detective, but did you think I was a surgeon too?”
“I try not to put limits on what I think you can do. It’s less surprising that way.”
The thief beams at him, so earnest it nearly makes Youssef uncomfortable. More uncomfortable. Tapping Youssef’s palm, the thief asks, “Are you going to take those?”
“I’d like to know more first.”
The thief makes a little face and nods as if to say, That’s fair. “You remember getting shot, then?”
“I do, a little.”
“Enough to know it wasn’t me?”
“I don’t know that. You might've had me shot.”
“It wasn’t me. I don’t want anyone to be shot.”
That Youssef does know. The thief hasn't shot anyone thus far. It would be strange to depart from tradition now. “And you know who did?”
The thief shrugs. “I didn’t catch his name. But Pellegrini has been hiring men to kill me lately, so I think he’s one of those.”
The thief lifts one eyebrow.
Youssef shrugs, promptly winces at the new strain on his shoulder. “You seem like someone who would have a lot of enemies.”
“Just one,” says the thief. “Most people find me charming.”
Not me, Youssef lies. “What happens now?”
“I’ve been shot. You’ve been shot. I need a place to hide and recuperate. You need a place to hide and recuperate. I thought we might be able to help each other.”
“It’s a bad plan.”
Youssef dashes off reasons on his fingers. “I already knew your face. I know a little bit about your methods. I’m learning more about you every second we sit here talking. If I go back to work and tell them what happened, if I even leave this apartment and tell anyone what I’ve seen, it could be very bad for you. I don’t know why you’d take that risk.”
The thief frowns at him. “So I should kill you. Get rid of the witness. Is that what you’re suggesting?”
“I’m not...suggesting it.”
“No, you’re not. It’s not very stylish, is it? I think that you and I can come to an arrangement, Detective Guedira. We’re both reasonable people.” Nodding towards the pills, the thief asks, “Will you take those?”
Youssef knocks them back, swallows dry. He waits patiently for the room to start spinning or the poison to start coursing through his veins. In those first couple of seconds, at least, it does not happen. “Youssef is fine,” he says at last. “You don’t have to be so formal.”
The thief studies him with a kind of fond curiosity. “Could you keep a little food down, Youssef?”
Youssef admits, “I could try.”
Seemingly pleased, the thief rises abruptly to his feet and heads off to Youssef’s kitchen where, Youssef now notices, there is already a pot of water bubbling on the stove.
“What should I call you?” Youssef asks him.
“Mm?” answers the thief, clattering around the kitchen.
Youssef clears his throat, wonders if he should ask for a glass of water, is mildly surprised when the thief goes to the sink and pours him one. “I’ve told you my name,” Youssef says as he accepts the glass. “What’s yours?”
The thief just laughs.
The thief is a good cook, which is irritating. Youssef’s watching him carefully, waiting for him to be unskilled or clumsy in some way. It hasn’t happened yet.
For example, he’s proven to be good at pairing flavors when he manages to turn the leftovers in Youssef’s fridge into a very enticing meal of lamb and vegetables over couscous.
He’s good at dressing himself, Youssef notices when he realizes that the clothes the thief is wearing are his shirt and his sweatpants; the thief just paired them in a way that Youssef never would have dared and they fit his body in a way that renders him unrecognizable.
He’s good at looking after Youssef, attentive to his needs and willing to lend him a supporting hand where necessary.
He’s good at hiding the way his arm hurts. There’s a thick patch under his shirt, bandages bulging. He very carefully uses the other arm for almost everything and manages to make it look casual.
He’s very good at answering questions in ways that are superficially satisfying but say nothing about himself.
For example, over dinner, Youssef asks, “How long have we been here?”
“A day and a half,” the thief tells him with no hesitation.
“Who was the doctor you took me to?”
“A professional,” the thief assures him. “You have nothing to worry about.”
“Why hide at my apartment rather than anywhere else?”
“I wanted you to be comfortable,” he says. “And, having spent so much time here, I like your apartment.”
“Why not drop me off at a hospital, if you were so concerned for my health?”
“Youssef.” He says the name like he’s testing it out. “As long as you’re interrogating me, may I ask you a question? Just one.”
The thief scrapes the tines of his fork against the plate. “Why do I keep meeting you alone?”
Youssef freezes. “Hmm?”
“In Étretat. When you confronted me, I thought, ‘He must have back-up.’ But there was no one. When you confronted me the other day, I thought, ‘He must have learned by now,’ but you hadn’t.” The thief fusses with his plate, building the perfect forkful. “Speaking as a reckless person, you strike me as quite careful. Why pursue me on your own?”
He could deflect now, certainly. Two can provide unhelpful answers. But he finds he wants to give an honest answer. He’s curious what the thief will say. “I’m not assigned to your case anymore,” he admits. Even under these circumstances, it’s embarrassing. “I used to be, but Dumont had me removed.”
The thief raises his eyebrows. “Why?”
“He didn’t like my theories,” Youssef says. He’s trying very hard not to sulk, but the pills are making him soft and sleepy, and prone to earnestness. He adds, “No one does.”
“Are they so wild?” the thief asks him.
“You tell me,” Youssef says. “I believe you were inspired by Lupin.”
The thief’s grin is wide and startled. “Who could believe such a thing?” he marvels, half-sly. And then, “So, you’re trying to win the respect of your superiors by arresting me yourself.”
Youssef considers. It’s an imperfect description - it misses the fine details, very unlike the gentleman thief - but broadly, it’s true. He nods.
The thief frowns at him very slightly, as if he’s being stubborn. “May I tell you what I believe?” He doesn’t wait for Youssef’s answer. “I believe that if that were true, you would not have kept our meeting at Étretat a secret. You would have shouted it to the world.”
Youssef feels himself grow defensive. “I had called in sick that day. It was complicated.”
“Oh,” the thief says, wide and mock-serious. “I see.”
“Had I succeeded in catching you,” Youssef says, dabbing at the corner of his mouth with a napkin, “I would have been much louder.”
The gentleman thief tells him to squeeze a pillow in his arms if the pain should become too overwhelming.
It’s a humiliating prospect, but as the thief begins to disinfect Youssef’s wounds, he holds tightly, presses his face into the pillow.
“If it’s any consolation,” the thief tells him, “it looked much worse yesterday.”
Youssef doesn’t care how it looks. It feels awful.
“So,” the thief says with a false-casual air, “what was my mistake?”
Youssef sucks in a shuddering breath and holds, holds until he believes his voice can be steady. “What mistake?”
“At Étretat. To tell you the truth,” the thief says as he blots the cotton pad against Youssef’s wound, “it’s really been bothering me. From a professional standpoint, you understand. How did you know to look for me there?”
It’s a curious position to be in, Youssef reflects. The thief’s curiosity has, up until now, seemed idle. Now, his voice has the faint sting of wounded pride to it. He genuinely wants to know. “Trade me,” Youssef says at last.
Youssef clutches the pillow tighter to his chest and holds fast. “I’ll answer your question if you answer one of mine.”
The thief is behind Youssef, and turning his head to look is an excruciating process, but Youssef suspects the thief is smiling when he asks, “What do you want to know?”
So many things. But of his questions, Youssef selects what he believes to be the most relevant to the investigation. “Why Pellegrini?” he asks. “There are many wealthy men in Paris. Why is he your target?”
“That’s two questions, Youssef.”
Youssef shrugs, regrets it. “Pick one, then,” he says between his teeth.
The thief sighs very deeply. The silence is very long, so long Youssef is momentarily tempted to demand an answer. “M. Pellegrini,” the thief begins at last, “is the sort of man who treats people like things. He thinks only of his own profit and he does not care about who he hurts. And you’re right. There are many men in Paris who behave this way, and many women too. You may even think it of me, just because I am a thief. But I don’t steal from people who can’t afford to be stolen from.” In the silence that follows, he swallows hard. “And I don’t steal lives.”
This, of course, ushers in Youssef’s next question: “What did Pellegrini steal from you?”
“You got your answer.” The friendly manner has vanished from the thief’s voice. His hands on Youssef’s wound have become more businesslike and abrupt in their touches. “I’d like mine now. How did you know that I would be at Étretat?”
Unsatisfying - but interesting - as the thief’s answer is, Youssef supposes his terms have been met. “I’m afraid it’s not very clever,” Youssef admits. “I just...knew. Lupin is in everything you do. He’s at the root of all your crimes. You pay homage to him even when it might get you caught. I just...where else would someone you be on Maurice Leblanc’s birthday?” Youssef can feel himself smiling, at odds with every other circumstance. “I had to check.”
The thief’s fingertips relax on Youssef’s back, warm and calloused. “It’s a little embarrassing,” the thief admits, “to be so predictable. When did you first notice Lupin in my work?”
Youssef counters, “What did M. Pellegrini steal from you?”
He can’t tell if the thief is impressed or irritated as he pushes a compress hard against Youssef’s wound. “As much as I find you fascinating, Youssef, I can’t hand you my identity on a silver platter.”
Youssef considers. “I don’t need details,” he confesses. “I’m hardly going to arrest you now. I just want to understand you better.”
The thief falls very, very quiet for a very long time. It’s a breathless kind of silence. Not the busy, thoughtful kind, but one of icy, horrible certainty.
“Someone I loved,” he says at last.
Youssef lets the pillow fall from his grip. With his good hand, he reaches over his shoulder to touch the thief’s wrist. “I’m sorry.”
The thief begins taping the compress down over the wound. “Now you answer,” he says, intentionally light. “What was your first clue?”
After that, honesty is shamefully easy. “Paul Sernine.”
The thief makes an odd noise, almost a sputter. After he recovers, he remarks, “That was very early on.”
“Yes.” Youssef can’t resist the faint glow of pride.
“Didn’t you tell anyone?”
“Immediately,” Youssef says. “But they thought it was ridiculous.”
The thief tsks to himself. “None of them have come as close as you.”
“Are you trying to make me feel better?” Youssef asks.
The thief considers. “Yeah. I guess so.”
“Can you?” the thief asks him.
“This arm still works,” Youssef says, repositioning himself on the bed. “If you can help me, I can help you.”
“Thank you,” the thief sighs as he pulls the shirt off over his head. “It’s difficult to do with one arm.”
Busily, Youssef peels away the bindings and tries not to think about the way the muscles in the thief’s shoulders and arm twitch with nervous anticipation. He supposes that now it is his duty to provide the conversation. “Why did you stay in the building so long?” he asks as cotton, dark with blood, falls away from the deep wound. “If you could smuggle me out of there, you weren’t exactly trapped. Why not retreat? Take an ‘I got shot’ rain check?”
The wound is a deep gash across his upper arm, a dark, angry rut in the skin. Not as bad as Youssef’s, but bad enough that the idea of the thief gritting his teeth and carrying on in spite of the pain for so long makes Youssef suddenly, subtly sad.
“I had business in the building. It could not wait. I’ll have to...” The gentleman thief hisses between his teeth as Youssef begins to disinfect the wound. “Well, I’ll come up with something. It’ll just be more difficult now.”
“Your plans changed?”
The thief chuckles, tense and dark. “A police detective was bleeding on me. Which would not ordinarily be my concern, but it was drawing the wrong sort of attention. And…” The thief closes his eyes for a moment, tenses. “...You seem like a decent person, in spite of being a police detective. And I didn’t like your chances.”
This angle hadn’t occurred to Youssef before. “You think Pellegrini’s security forces would kill a police officer?”
“It wouldn’t be their first choice. Bad PR. There might be an investigation. But if they thought you’d seen too much, they might decide that it would be better if you died. In any case, they’d check your ID. Even if you recovered, they’d watch you closely.” The thief turns to him, grinning. “I did you a favor.”
Youssef surprises himself with his sincerity. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he answers, sweetly.
“So, what should I do now?” Youssef asks as he applies fresh bandages. “The next time someone asks me who shot me in the shoulder, what do I say?”
“Not the truth.” An unhelpful recommendation.
“Then what? I’m new to deception.”
The thief peers at him curiously. “Are you?”
“I’m not a good liar,” Youssef confesses. “And this is a very big lie. I’ll have to go to work, I’ll have to go to a doctor...”
“Thank you for making an exception for me,” the thief says, patting him on the upper arm. “I’ll think about it. Doesn’t seem fair to make you come up with your own story when I could spin a better one in my sleep.”
“Very charitable,” Youssef murmurs as he finishes the job. He runs a finger across the fresh bandage. “Who took care of this while you were undercover? You bandaged yourself?”
The thief’s warm manner becomes softer, lightly wistful. “I did. I often do. This is nice, though,” he says. “Better conversation.”
He expects the thief to leave him, after that. Raid the medicine cabinet and the refrigerator and the spare cash Youssef keeps in the back of his freezer and vanish into the night. Not very stylish, the thief might say - especially since they’ve been getting along so well - but neither of them are at their best just now.
Or perhaps the thief is always at his best, because he’s kind enough to change Youssef’s sheets before bullying him into bed again and making him lie flat. He leaves, only to return with two glasses of water and a book.
“I made it about halfway through while you were asleep,” the thief says as he sets the glasses on the nightstand, within easy reach of Youssef’s good arm. “Do you mind if I finish?”
“No. No, I don’t mind at all.”
The thief produces a small pill from his pocket and washes it down with half of one of the water glasses. He then flips the book open, pages through until he reaches the place where he has very politely left a receipt as a bookmark rather than dog-ear the page. Youssef rarely extends that same courtesy to his own books, and it gives him a feeling like a fist clenching inside him to see the thief treat the volume with such care.
The thief taps the page with his index finger and says, “My copy is the same.” He turns the book to show Youssef what he means: the highlighted passages, the notes scrawled in the margins. “You studied this book very closely. Hoping to learn something about me?”
The thief blinks down at him.
“I’ve had those for a very long time. When I was a kid, I used to guess the endings. Try to figure out how the trick was done as it was happening.” The thief has fixed him with a curious stare now and Youssef swallows hard. “For fun.”
The thief wordlessly sinks down to sit beside him on the bed. He pulls his feet up, settles in. Almost an afterthought, he asks, “Do you mind?” Referring, it seems, to their current situation, the oddball intimacy of it all, of their legs pressing together though the blanket.
Youssef shakes his head, inches over a little to give him more room.
“Would you like me to read to you?” the thief asks. “Seeing as you’re a fan.”
“That’d be nice.”
The thief settles even closer to him, warm and solid through the blanket. “Do you need me to start at the beginning?”
“Go from wherever you are,” Youssef tells him as he lies down flat, his head on the pillow. “I’ll figure it out.”
The thief lays the book open across his thigh, ruffles the pages compulsively with the flat of his thumb. He opens his mouth, begins to speak, and then stops abruptly. His head slips back to rest against the headboard and he fixes Youssef with a curious, twinkling stare. “I have to ask.”
“You read these books. All of them. You loved them from when you were a boy. Studied Lupin’s methods. All true?”
His dark gaze is warm and ironic. “And you became a policeman ?”
Youssef shrugs at him, weakly. “You forget. Arsene Lupin wasn’t just a thief. He was a detective too.”
The thief rests his head against the headboard and ruminates on that. “I suppose I’m becoming more of a detective, day by day,” he allows.
It’s a curious idea. “Do you enjoy it?” Youssef asks him.
“Sometimes,” the thief admits. “It can be very satisfying.”
“And other times?”
“Frustrating,” he groans. “And painful. I’m seeking difficult truths and they hurt to look at. But,” he adds, “they have to be dragged into the light.”
Youssef claps his hand onto the man’s forearm and is momentarily surprised at the way the sinews and muscles bunch beneath the skin. “I think we learned the same lessons but did different things with them.”
Like a thief in the night, they say. It’s like that, when the thief kisses him: one fluid motion, the delicate press of warm, chapped lips on Youssef’s, and the pulling back, so graceful it’s as if he was never there.
“Sorry about that,” the thief says.
Youssef blinks up at him, dazed. “Don’t be.”
“It’s the medication,” he says. “I’m usually more polite.”
Youssef wonders to himself if politeness and courtesy would make this any less confusing. He can’t imagine.
“That and...I think I’ve felt alone.” The thief swallows hard. “I’m sorry we won’t have more time to talk after this.”
“I’ll keep looking for you,” Youssef sighs. “It would be very surprising if we never had another opportunity.”
“Will you?” he asks. “I flattered myself that we were becoming friends.”
“We are,” Youssef assures him. “But I’ll keep looking all the same.”
“Can you not simply appreciate my work for what it is? Do you have to try to catch me?”
“I just want to guess what you’re doing before you do it. I want to understand you better.”
“What do you predict I’ll do now, then?”
Youssef thinks about that very, very hard. Often, his theories are not given proper weight and he thinks the thief is genuinely interested. “I think you’ll pretend that none of this happened,” Youssef says. “I think you’ll read a little, just until I fall asleep. And I predict that you’ll be gone by the time I wake up.”
The gentleman thief picks up the book, tightens his arm around Youssef. “We shall see, then,” he says. “We shall see.”