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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

The Thief
by Jesse Clifford

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The last thing he heard, before dropping the gun and then running out the back door and down a muddied, rain soaked trail that led to the tree line was a shot. A shot that sounded weak, like that of a cap gun. A child's toy, he thought. But it wasn't anything so. For a toy cap gun doesn't leave a hole in a man's chest while a trail of smoke invades your nostrils. It was that stench that clung to him even as he ran against the wind and breathed in the clammy air. He could even taste the smoke of gunpowder on his tongue, clinging thick and heavy.

His was the face of a once handsome man, hidden under a long filthy beard. He remembered in the beginning how he decided it would be wise to grow a beard. If a man's going to steal for a living, then he needs to hide his face. A thief is ugly and grotesque, he once said, but a gentleman is urbane and handsome. It is no big thing to go from thief to gentleman. He knew he would shave his beard later.

The thief swore to himself at the thought of the jeweller. 'Stupid merchant! Because he raised the stick he is now dead and I have to run through the mud and my legs and lungs ache. Why did he reach for the stick he kept behind the counter? Why did he have scream for the gendarme?' He made a promise to quit tobacco to make his flight more palatable.

The thief reached down to brush his hand against his pocket. He felt for the diamond necklace, but panicked when he felt only muscle. He cursed again thinking he may have dropped it in the mire, until he realized it was still clutched in his other hand. Relieved, he secured it by weaving the diamonds between his fingers. The stench of gunpowder was now deep in his pores, in his hair, and burned his eyes.

He was a kind man at first, the thief thought of the jeweller. A perfect gentleman, offering me a cup of tea, imported from China. A family man probably, judging by the lunch sack on the desk, behind the counter. Most men won't take the time to make a lunch. But a woman... a woman who is in love... The thief's pace grew slower from the mud that caked to his soles. He remembered another life, when once a beautiful, long-suffering woman became his wife and used to make his lunch for him to take to the slaughterhouse where he worked, butchering cows and pigs that would be used to feed the troops in France. After work she bathed him and soaked his open wounds and lacerations in salt and lovingly berated him for working too fast and being too careless. He would laugh at her and say that maybe he would come home one day without a thumb, and would she then soak it in salt?

He would never lose his thumb or cut himself again at the factory, for he volunteered for the British Army soon after and was sent to fight the Huns in the trenches of France. While dreaming of her in a lice and rat infested trench as flares lit up the sky and machine guns raked the ground only inches above his head, his wife would write that she was dying of loneliness. But the official letter he read while bombs shook the ground around him said she died of influenza. But he knew it was loneliness that killed her and he despised and blamed himself.

Delirious with grief, he took off his gas mask to breathe in the sweet, poisonous vapor that licked at his lungs, then choked and vomited and slithered and coiled like a wounded snake at the feet of horrified men who were busy worrying about the gas that the rained death upon them and burned them like a thousand blow torches upon their hands and necks.

Waking up in a field hospital with nurses moving to the sound of tortured cries and doctors with severed limbs in their hands and pieces of bloody entrails stuck to their aprons, it was he who was now dying of loneliness and not from the gas that took a part of his lung.

Later, taken to a Parisian hospital, he was given a bill of good health by a surgeon he had never seen, and then released to make room for others. Not wanting to return to England, for his wife was all he had, he took to begging on Paris's street corners because nobody would hire invalids who might drop dead and impute upon themselves the charge of a burial.

He now ran through the tree line and was disheartened to see a large stretch of flat field ahead. If I was any kind of thief, he thought, I would have prepared better. The field was deserted except for a bread cart and an old man at its' helm in the distance, also struggling to navigate through the muck. The thief thought about resting before making the long run. He struggled to open his lungs, wanting more than ever to breathe deep and fill his whole body with strength, but only a portion of air could be contained and held for any length of time. He continued to plod through the mud, now feeling like he was shod with cement, as it clung tenaciously to his boot soles. He collapsed below a lone, lifeless and leafless tree, coughing up blood and things unrecognizable.

Maybe I should go back to begging, he thought, at least I didn't have to run. But begging is undignified, and nobody likes a beggar. They are unseen, invisible, contemptuous creatures.

He remembered the lady and the gentleman at the promenade in Paris; her with her parasol and supercilious strut and he with his pasty face and pompous nose held high as if to avoid the stench of his beggary. He, a beggar, loathingly deferred to their high and lofty station as is necessary for a few coins when one is hungry and desperate, but he spoke in soft tones, not as the other beggars who are rough and coarse and have no patience for docility. But in the lady's best-refined speech, she told him to go to hell with the dogs and to eat the crumbs that fall from the tables of the other beggars. The gentleman then prodded him in the chest backward with his cane, while sniffing at the air as if searching for something decent to inhale.

The beggar cried out as one might when protecting his last ounce of dignity, "I am not a dog. I had a wife and a home and a job and I fought the Huns and I was gassed in the trenches and I killed and killed and killed. And I will kill again!" The beggar grabbed the gentleman's cane and beat him to death as the lady screamed like a skewered pig. The beggar then tore her purse from her hand and ran. That is when he went from beggar - to thief.

A gendarme's whistle jarred the thief from his thoughts and he pulled himself up with the aid of the ugly tree. His coughing increased, and he spit up more blood, not as red as before, but an ominous black hue.

Fleeing again from his hunters, his mind went back to the jeweller. The jeweller never got to drink his tea, he thought. Perhaps I'll never sell these diamonds. He said they were Marquis - a half diamond. Surely the jeweller must have felt some apprehension about taking them out of the case. Could one not smell a thief and see that he hides behind a beard? Perhaps he sees all men as gentlemen and only the good and proper in them. If I was still a beggar, would he have given me food from his lunch sack, or tell me to eat crumbs that fell from a beggar's table? Perhaps so, for beggars are despised. He seemed like a kind man, until he fought to keep his diamonds.

The thief felt a stabbing in his lung and fell hard upon his knees. Again he thought about the years of tobacco smoke and swore he would quit soon. He never admitted to himself that it was the poison gas that ate away at him and shortened his breath and made him so dizzy at times that he thought he would pass out and never see the light again. Now with each gasp for air a pointed dagger struck at his insides. A cold and relentless blade that went deeper and deeper with every breath until there was nothing left to breathe. Falling face down into the mud with his diamond bracelet still laced between his fingers, his final thoughts were not of the murdered jeweller and the gentleman, nor his dead wife, nor of the horror of the trenches. In a vision he saw a hammer and a chisel within the rough hands of an engraver. Upon the gravestone planted near his head where he lay, the hands carved the ignominious epitaph:

John Wesley Barrington
Born 1895
Died 1927
Husband, Soldier,
Beggar, Thief

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