The light of a single candle flickered against the smoke-tinted glass of the window, casting hazy light across his reaching hands. For the briefest moment that light caught his eye, and he paused. The window jack wrapped in itchy fingers, he felt the chill of it seeping through his gloves.
He’d thrown himself back into work, relying on the shadows and the satisfaction that came from filling his collection with other people’s treasures to keep his mind off Erin. It barely worked.
But sometimes certain actions triggered the memory, a glimpse at his own forward stretched hand and he could see her falling again, the look in her eyes, release born from betrayal, freedom from the harsh reality that had been her life.
In their final confrontation, she said he never cared about her. That he used her just like all the rest.
He hadn’t thought all that much about it at the time they were thrust upon each other, strung together by Basso in some attempt to give the girl a much-needed sense of guidance. Reluctantly, he took her under his wing, taught her everything he knew, but there were some lessons that just couldn’t be learned, no matter the teacher.
Erin was broken long before he met her.
It wasn’t his fault.
And yet… he felt guilty.
Guilt was a new emotion for Garrett. Usually he shifted those useless thoughts to some back corner of his mind, let them gather dust until they faded almost entirely from memory, but Erin… Erin wasn’t going to fade anytime soon. In fact, he couldn’t imagine she was ever going to fade at all.
He failed her. But hadn’t he also set her free? Wasn’t that what she wanted in the end? Freedom from herself? From the torment that gripped her in ways some people just couldn’t ignore. He got it; the kid had seen some horrific things, but surely none of that was worth dying over. Was it?
In the apartment above him two voices bickered, the cadence of their mutual disrespect and suffering cracking through the mist-damp night and echoing into the alleyway below. Tilting his head toward the sound, he could just make out the nature of their quarrel. It certainly wasn’t anything worth raising voices over as far as he was concerned.
See, he thought. That’s what happens when you put people together. They spend the hours of every day trying to tear one another apart.
It was always better to be alone.
Garrett felt the barest twitch of a smile tugging beneath the scars that marred the right side of his face, and then he drew the black scarf upward until it hid the mutilation from a world that would never understand how its darkness amused him.
Wedging his jack between the outer sill and the window, he worked it up and down until he was able to drop his fingers beneath the edge and wrench it upward. The window wooshed open, and with the nimbleness of a cat, he poured himself into the room.
Sweeping right, the barest ripple of fabric rustled with his movement, the cloak settling in against his back as he reached forward and pinched out the flame of a single candle. Darkness spread, and before he’d given his eyes a chance to adjust, he was already sliding open the desk drawer in front of him, fingering the cold metal of an antique, silver letter opener that quickly found its way into one of his pouches.
Basso said the place held something of value, an old pocket watch the client was willing to pay several pretty pennies to possess. He didn’t ask for many details. Sometimes it was better not knowing. The less he knew, the less likely he was to get attached to things he’d just have to turn over when all was said and done.
Funny, how that worked. How much more he tended to want to keep things other people coveted.
Sliding the drawer back into place, he nearly missed the sound of bare legs stretching across crisp sheets. Hair whispered across the pillow and he scanned the room, finding the unexpected lump curled in the bed on the other side of the room. Stilling himself completely, the tightening excitement made his gut tingle as he rose to the challenge of cleaning a room in which a sleeping body lay.
Served them right, leaving the window unlocked… not that there weren’t ways around that too. He took a tentative step forward, marking the layout of the room as he moved and committing every piece of furniture to memory.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
The voice startled him, breath catching in his throat as that tight tingle in his stomach dropped lower, feeling like a clenched fist twisting inside him.
He didn’t move. Found himself holding his breath and waiting for the voice to explain itself. A sleep-talker, perhaps. He’d encountered plenty of those in his time, had learned a fair few secrets as well.
“It is you,” she went on, “isn’t it?”
Maybe she was expecting someone else. A lover crawling through the window? Certainly, she hadn’t been waiting for him. No one waited for him, and anyone who thought to do so was a fool.
When he didn’t respond, she continued, “The one everyone’s afraid of? The shadow in the shadows who prowls the rooftops in the night? What does it say on all those wanted posters tacked up all over The City? Public Enemy Number One? 50,000 gold reward for his capture?”
The urge to make a quick getaway was instinct, and he was already moving backward toward the window to do just that. It was always better to slip out and back into the shadows, to live to steal another night, but then she said, “He told me you could help. The man in The Crippled Burdick.”
Son of a bitch set him up. Again.
“Look, lady,” he began, already posed to lift the window and slip back into the night.
“Jessamine.” And then she struck a match, the golden blue flare of the flame sputtering to life and nibbling away at the darkness as it leapt from matchstick to catch the wick of the bedside table candle. “Lady Jessamine.”
“I don’t care what your name is,” he began, “or who told you I could help you, but…”
Over his shoulder he watched that light spread to her face, the honey-gold spill of hair falling over her shoulders and into her face. She puffed out the match, dropped it onto the wax mote of the candleholder and tossed the hair away to reveal a set of enticing, jade-green eyes rimmed in long lashes.
Damn, Basso. He sure knew how to pick them.
“He said it goes against the way of things,” she told him. “That it’s unusual for someone like you to meet with someone like me to discuss a job, but this…”
“He was right. It’s not just unusual, it’s something I won’t do.” Those eyes, so round and green they reminded him of emeralds, held him enthralled. He had a thing for eyes, especially eyes reminiscent of jewels. Shaking off the allure, he took another step backward. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“You’re so very polite, for a thief.” She laughed, a soft chuckle of sound that barely echoed through the room. “Answer me this, in that polite repartee of yours: What is it thieves covet?” she asked. “Above all other things, what is it they want?”
Things… Shiny, beautiful things that belonged to other people who probably didn’t deserve them to begin with. What’s yours is mine.
“Money?” she went on, her voice rising with the question. “Prestige? Power? I’ve not known many in my days, but those I have come in contact with certainly don’t live like kings, even as the potential for such a lifestyle exists.”
It was a lot harder to steal a castle than it was to slip a monarch’s ring from his finger while shaking his hand, but Garrett avoided monarchs whenever possible. He had no desire to be a king.
“Or is it the thrill of taking that drives you?”
“I suppose that’s part of the appeal. Look, where is this going?”
“Your friend wasn’t going to arrange this little meeting, but I…”
“Let me guess, you paid him a nice finder’s fee for bringing the two us together?”
Again, the words son of a bitch weren’t far from his lips, but even he knew there was a fine line between money and friendship, a line he himself wouldn’t hesitate to cross if the price was right. He wondered how much she’d paid him and how much of his payday Basso already drank.
“I don’t know what Basso promised you, but this isn’t how I work.” Further into the shadows, he could feel the night-cold glass at his back, the barest leak of air seeping in around the thin cracks. “I doubt he’ll give your money back, but…”
“I don’t want my money back,” she insisted. “Because if you do this thing for me, I’ll have more than my share and so will you.”
“Then it looks like you’re out of luck and coin.” He turned into the window, brought out the jack and swiftly wedged it between the sill and pane.
“Don’t you even want to hear what I have to offer? What I’d be asking you to do?”
“No,” he replied, “I don’t. You’ll have to find someone else…”
“I don’t think there is anyone else who could help me.”
“Not my problem, lady.”
Window in mid-lift, he was already prepared to pass through it when she called out
“The promise of a small fortune, would that change your mind? Enough money to retire…”
“Not a chance.” Never again.
He ducked through the window, slipped into the night, but left it agape behind him. She could close it herself.
He didn’t want to retire. Stealing was the only thing he was good at. And Basso… well, Basso would probably never forgive him for walking away, but he’d already gotten paid. He’d get over it.
A swift, elegant leap carried him across the Thieves Highway and he landed gracefully atop the next roof over. He didn’t glance back at the woman with the emerald eyes, but he could feel her staring at him.
She’d been beautiful, a hint of tragedy in her bejeweled gaze that should have tugged at his heartstrings, but Garrett wasn’t like most other men. There was no room in his heart for other people’s misfortune.
He’d learned that lesson from Erin.