Tuesday morning had turned out cool with just a touch of northern wind and not too much sun. After such a long and rainy winter, it was a fantastic day for jogging and just being outside.
Bobby stopped on the sidewalk beside two brand new green plastic garbage cans to tie the laces down tighter on his running shoes. The cans were stuffed to the rim with empty moving boxes, white Styrofoam peanuts and tan wads of used masking tape. They were parked in front of an expansive split-level red brick house. Judging from the boxes, the new owners had used a moving company.
"Must be nice," he mumbled to himself. There was a Toyota Pathfinder parked in the garage. It wasn't last year's model, but the year before. No toys were strewn out on the front lawn or the porch. The screen door was propped open with one of the moving boxes. He could hear soft voices coming from inside, two females talking. The meaty smell of frying bacon drifted through a pair of stained glass open kitchen windows. The design on the window was modern, circles and arrows, and it reminded him of the universal signs for men and women.
He looked at the number on the mailbox, then filed it away upstairs. A row of sycamore trees hid the house from its neighbor on the left, but the view was wide open on the right. No basement windows, no wires in view, no cameras, and the front windows were set low to the ground. No screens either.
He had noticed that the Pathfinder was parked all the way over on the right and there was plenty of room for another car in the garage. There were some gardening tools in the back, a shovel, couple of rakes, weed eater, some new cans of paint, but no tools. He didn't miss much.
Bobby stood up and started his run again, thinking to himself, "Probably out of work lesbians."
Stopping at a red light, he jogged in place and checked the time on his wristwatch: 9:12 am. All the working males were gone, leaving the remaining housewives who were probably on their third cup of coffee by now, kids at school, TV on, just starting to plan their day. But in this neighborhood he had noticed that most of the carports, driveways and garages were all empty. It looked like mom and dad both worked. With the economy being so crappy, this made perfect sense.
He tucked away a mental note that there were very few late model or second hand vehicles. He'd seen his share of them parked along the curb in other neighborhoods, in other counties throughout the state, some of them peppered with clusters of telling music stickers and messy piles of CD cases on the seats or in the floorboards. Teenagers’ cars were easy to spot.
As he made his way across an intersection, he paused to admire a few of the azaleas in one yard that were just starting to come up. Mississippi springs were usually mild, the perfect time for yard work and landscaping before the sweltering humidity hit. Vast green kudzu vines had already taken over the ditches, weaving a seamless canopy of leaves and shadow. Pretty soon it would be up in the trees, hanging from power lines. Sometimes it kept growing through the fall and on into winter. He'd bushogged his share of it back when he used to drive a tractor for the country, sweating his ass off every day on that hard vinyl seat, chiggers crawling up his legs, running from red wasps and yellow jackets. He was glad he wasn't doing that now. It seemed wrong somehow, stomping down the forces of nature. Nature just came right back, stronger than before.
Up ahead on the right he spotted a bright red realtor's sign beside a mailbox. He jogged over to look at the place. White, wood panel, probably three bedroom, small carport with a side door, no landscaping, definitely from the late 1940's. He walked around the open concrete carport and pretended to study the many weathered cracks in the slab, which provided him with an excellent view of the backyard next door. There sat a fairly new two story tan brick house with a covered wooden deck, a fairly large Jacuzzi, a Webber stainless gas grill, and a beat up looking golf bag with beat up looking clubs leaning against a white Adirondack chair. A mounted deer head with what looked like at least a 12 point rack was hung beside the back door. A bright gold NRA sticker was stuck to one of the lower glass panes.
"Hello, Mister Gun Owner," he said to himself, grinning.
Back out on the road, he paced himself slowly around the two story, taking in the placement of the neighboring house, the view into each back yard. There were no cars in either driveway or across the street, no fence to climb, no signs of life for blocks.
He crept out to the deck. The Jacuzzi motor was on, but the tub itself was covered with a brown leather pad. The golf clubs were a joke, Ben Hogans all of them, the start of each metal shaft freckled in thick red rust. The deck beneath him was oak, stained dark, and built by someone who had put up more than a few decks in their day. He had misjudged the deer head. It was an 8 point buck. Its black marble false eyes followed him to the door. No wires, no cameras, no dead bolts. The neighborhood was typical middle class. He didn't take from the poor or the rich. Both were dangerous in their own way. But the middle class, now there was opportunity. They had just enough and they didn't like to spend money to protect it.
He usually didn't hit a house cold. He'd watch it for a few days and nights, usually out running. Houses were just like anything else. You had to get to know them, study their habits, their faults, then make your move. But he just couldn't pass this one up. It made his mouth water just thinking about what he would find inside.
His car was parked in a nearby supermarket parking lot. It looked just like every other car parked there, except for the northern county sticker on his license plate. He liked to keep a little distance, just in case someone recognized him, but he didn't know a soul in Yazoo County.
He got in, started it up and drove to the house. Nothing had changed. He parked near the rear deck and shut the motor off. He opened the trunk, pulled out two black suit protectors, his "bags", and threw them over his shoulder, his fingers curling around the metal hanger curves. The canvas material had been reinforced with 100 lb. test fishing line where it met the frame of the hanger. Both contained a few tools, his gloves, and a mini Mag Lite that he'd customized by fitting a piece of rubber on the end so he could use it between his teeth if he needed both hands free. He thought about these simple few tools he always used for every job and realized the profession hadn't changed that much in probably the last 300 years.
They say that prostitution is the oldest profession, but his money was on theft. He'd been doing it for a few years now and there was a great deal of satisfaction and pride he felt for the simple fact that he had never been caught. He'd come close a few times, gotten his ass chewed off by a Rottweiler he'd accidentally woken up, chased through several open backyards by a man dressed only in his tightly whities and swinging a kitchen knife at him, but he was still in the game. The secret was not to get greedy; get in and get out. But there was something else, too. He tried to incorporate an unspoken sense of style and flair into each job. He was neat, quick, efficient and careful, almost like he was never there. He took the small goods first, then the big stuff; then if he had time he gave himself a little parting gift: Well-aged whiskey, pot, cocaine, Oxycontin, Vicodin, Valium, or even some of last night's dinner, scooped out of a casserole dish in the fridge and into a Tupperware container he always carried with him. Hell, he'd even shanked a plate of uncooked sirloins smothered in Worcestershire sauce once from a house in Tunica. Cooked them on his grill that same night with a baked potato, some boiled butter beans, and some garlic bread. He loved his work.
Even Hollywood loved a good thief. From James Cann to Robert De Niro, Cary Grant to Edward Norton, movie fans plunked good money down to see somebody get robbed, nailed, fucked over, then skate away clean in a brand new ride with the cops nowhere in sight. Maybe we were all true sadists at heart.
There was a confident bounce in his step as he made his way into the back yard just like he owned the place. And he was about to. He used suit protectors because they looked less threatening and less obvious than duffel or any other large bag. And they held many things without bulging or looking too full, especially rifles and shotguns.
Up the wooden steps he went, hanging his bags on the deer head antlers. It was a simple enough lock and he was in and had the door closed and re-locked within the space of two minutes. He got his leather gloves out and wriggled into them. No beeping, no clicks, no footsteps, no inside pets. He looked at his watch and gave himself fifteen minutes.
He draped his bags over a brown recliner in the living room and went to work on the DVD/CD/video game collection that was nestled neatly against a modestly sized plasma screen. From there, he took one of the bags and made his way upstairs, into the master bedroom, switching on a lamp that was perched atop an antique dresser. From the 1930's, he figured, eyeing the smooth lines and weathered maple shellac finish.
He went through each drawer thoroughly, sliding his hands beneath the layers of meaningless clothing to find what goodies lay underneath. We are all such pitiful creatures of habit, especially when we try to hide anything. It all depended on who you were trying to hide it from.
It took him under 40 seconds to find a locked, red velvet jewelry box. He didn't even take the time to pick the lock; just put it outside the door beside his bag for the eventual walk down. Under the bed he found a Mossberg pump .12 gauge. He checked the chamber. It was loaded, of course. Delicately, he thumbed the safety catch on, then out it went into the hall, along with the jewelry box.
The upstairs held a computer room, a storage room, and a guest bedroom, all populated with mounted deer heads. He didn't stop to admire any of them or count the points on the antlers. No time for that. He slipped into the computer room, disconnected a new mp3 player, an external DVD burner, a ZIP drive, then put them all out in the hall.
On he roamed, taking inventory, mentally adding up what he could squeeze in the bags and what he couldn't. The gun case was in the computer room, a custom made mahogany beast with internal lights and etched western swirls in the glass. It was locked, so he got out his picks and went to work. Rifles and shotguns were easy to cash out. He had a buddy who could change the serial numbers and a buyer who never asked any questions.
The cabinet held two nice Remington's, a Blazer R-93, a Hesse AR-15…Jesus, was this guy planning to take out the neighborhood, or what?...one Marlin .22, and one Smith and Wesson .357 revolver. Into the pile they went. He checked his watch. Five minutes left. No time to shop for a parting gift. He'd have to make two trips down to get all the guns.
Gathering together about half of what was in the hall, he loaded the suit protector and adjusted its contents so that nothing seemed out of place or awkward looking. But now it weighed a ton.
He picked it up and carried it out in front of him. He'd need the extra leverage and balance getting the heavy thing down the stairs. He made a mental note to bring rope next time he hit a two story.
He could tie the rope to a door downstairs, loop it around the upstairs banister and just slide the bag down.
Still, the stairs weren't too steep and he was making it down just fine. But before he got halfway, he spotted movement over to the right, where the stairs curved into the living room. He froze, his heart shooting into the back of his throat. He hadn't heard any doors. There were no signs of a pet. What the hell could it be? he wondered. Maybe a neighbor with a key coming over to check on the place or use the washer and dryer? Shit.
A bobbing shadow fell over the carpet as it moved toward the base of the stairs. And that's when he saw her: A tiny girl, no more than four or five, dressed in black and white polka dot pajamas, wiping sleep from her eyes with little balled up fists. She didn't appear to be afraid of him, even though he was an obvious stranger standing there with an armful of her father's arsenal and her mother's jewels.
"Ha-lo," she waved.
"Ha-lo," he rested the bag on his knee and tried to wave back.
"Who are you?" she asked, resting one of her feet on the bottom step.
She was cute: Thin blonde hair that hung down to her shoulders, big blue eyes, a tiny nose and apple red lips. What the hell was she doing here all by herself? he thought. She might be one of the neighbor's kids. That would be bad, but he could still try to get away. His heart was thumping, growing inside his chest like some angry blood filled balloon. He played at least three tricky escape scenarios in his head. They could all work. If he got lucky. It all depended on the kid and if she had company.
"Is this your house?" he asked, trying to keep his voice from trembling.
The little girl nodded, yawning. Where had she been sleeping? he wondered. He was so careful, but here he was busted cold by a pre-schooler.
"Where did you come from, little one?" he tried to smile, tried to appear non-threatening. She pointed to a tiny room behind her. He could just barely make out the foot of a child's bed and the head of a Raggedy Ann doll on the floor. The door had been pulled to when he went upstairs. There had been no reason to check it, no visual or audible flags.
"Where is your mommy and daddy?" he asked.
"I do-no," she shook her head slowly and almost fell down, but caught herself on the banister.
"I'm the new maid," he smiled, making his way down, "I'm here to clean the place up."
Calm down, he told himself. It's only a kid, and from the looks of it, she's alone.
"I'm hungry," she said.
Bobby descended the remaining stairs and put what was in his arms on the nearest chair. It was too full and the guns were making an obvious bulge. He'd have to shift one or two to the other bag. The back door was still locked. He could see the front door and it was locked and chained. No other sounds in the house, no movement. His heart was still hammering away in his chest and he could feel trails of fresh sweat snake down his back.
Calm down, he told himself again. He looked at his watch. He was out of time. The mom had evidently left the kid here alone while she ran some errands. But why would she leave a child of four or five alone in a big house? That made him mad. He turned back to her and she was right there behind him, looking up at him with those clear blue eyes. She was such a little doll. How could a mother leave something that precious and tiny and vulnerable alone? It didn't make sense.
"You want some cereal?" he asked, kneeling down to her height.
She nodded her head quickly. "Fruit Loops!" she squealed.
It made no sense to try and beat the clock now. This was overtime and he would just have to play it as best he could. He'd have to load the car first, then think things through after that. She hadn't seen his car. She wouldn't see his car.
He hung the bag with the DVDs on a banister pole and re-located two of the rifles from the full bag into it. His movements were slow and gentle and he tried to hide as much of the rifles as he could from the kid. He'd have to forget about what was left upstairs. No time. The mom was probably running late or stuck in traffic. Either that or she had gotten into an accident. But why had she deliberately left this poor child alone? She could turn on the stove or fall or hit her head or…
"Are you cleaning daddy's shotguns?" she asked, tugging at his pant's leg.
"Yes, I have to take them to a special shotgun cleaning place to have them cleaned," he told her, trying to hurry, looking out each window for any sign of movement, listening for any approaching cars. Everything seemed quiet, just the way it was when he went in. But that could change any second. He remembered the sleeping Rottweiler.
"My daddy likes shotguns," she said.
"I've got to go put what I'm cleaning in my car, ok?" he told her, then turned to go. He unlocked the back door, walked quickly to his car, popped the trunk, dumped one of the full bags in, then slammed the lid. The street was still, nothing moving, no cars, no one walking. He might make it.
As he was walking back up to the deck, he saw her waiting for him outside in front of the door. At that moment an odd image floated up from the murky depths of memory and smacked him in the face: Little Cindy Lou Who. And he was the Grinch. He felt like shit then.
"Come back inside," he bent down to take her hand and led her back in, but left the door open.
"Can I have some Fruit Loops?" she asked, looking up at him.
"Yes, I'll fix you some Fruit Loops in just a second," he led her into the kitchen and seated her at the table. "I'll be right back," he told her, then turned to get the other bag. It was right where he had left it. He grabbed the handle and started for the door, but she was right there in the hall, waiting on him. Those huge beautiful blue eyes stopped him in his tracks. He melted.
"I can't reach the milk," she told him, pouting, putting a finger in her ear.
He glanced into the kitchen. She had gotten out a bowl, a spoon and poured her own damn Fruit Loops. The refrigerator door was standing wide open and he could see the gallon of milk there on the top shelf, way out of her reach. She could have climbed the shelves trying to get it, slipped and fell on the floor, cracked her head open. He almost broke down and started to bawl. Where the hell
was this child's mother? How sorry did you have to be?
Hanging his loot on one of the kitchen cabinet door handles, he made his way over, grabbed the milk, popped off the top and poured it in the bowl. She came running up, all smiles and hugged his leg.
"Thank you!" she squealed, then seated herself and started to gulp her breakfast down.
He made one quick walk through, just to make sure he didn't leave anything behind. His usual style and grace had gone right down the toilet. Now he was just trying to cover his ass as best he could.
As he was walking through the living room, something strange occurred to him: There were no pictures of the little girl anywhere. In fact, there were no photos of any kind hanging on the wall or propped up in a frame on the coffee table. There were no drawings on the refrigerator, no torn pieces of paper with the baby sitter's number scratched on it, no pediatrician's business cards, no dentist, no toys lying around, except in her room, and he couldn’t remember seeing any upstairs, either.
He didn't have any kids. He wasn't even married, but many of his friends had taken the plunge and had toddlers running around. He knew the usual signs to look for. He didn't miss much.
Making his way back into the kitchen, he let his eyes find the stuffed suit protector again: Money, freedom, all the things that made his life easier and kept him away from shitty jobs with shitty bosses and shitty co-workers. He had to get it in the car now. There was no way he could stay a minute longer.
"Ok, kiddo," he walked over and patted her head. "Gotta go."
"Aww," she looked up from her bowl, streams of milk dripping down her chin.
"Is your mother coming home soon?"
She shrugged and went back to her cereal. How many times had she been left alone? he wondered. Every day? All day long? The more he thought about it, the madder he got. Then the anger cooled into sadness. He could feel his eyes welling up, growing hotter and hotter the more he thought about it.
"You be careful, now," he whispered to her. "Stay away from the stove."
And that was it. He grabbed his bag and headed out the back door, slamming it shut behind him. But he didn't lock it. He popped the trunk, made room for the bag, slammed the trunk, then got in and started it up.
He wasn't aware that he was gripping the steering wheel so tight until he had stopped crying. He hadn't cried in a long time and he wasn't prepared when it engulfed him, making his entire body convulse and heave. How had he let that little girl get under his skin so quick? He didn't even know her name.
He wiped his eyes and looked back at the house. Fifteen minutes had passed. It was exactly how he had left it: No mom, no dad, no neighbor next door coming over to check. Nothing. Nobody. How was this little girl going to grow up with parents like that? It was none of his business. It probably happened more than he cared to think about it. She didn't look like she had been abused, but then what would you call leaving her alone like that?
"Goddamnit!" he pounded the steering wheel. He dropped the shifter down into drive, pressed down hard on the brake and just waited, trying to get his courage up. The mean old Grinch trying to get his courage up. He started laughing then, thinking about how the story should have ended.
It was perfect. He had never stolen a tiny human before.