Sauntering, that was the best way, browsing at her leisure, body reflecting both harmless and relaxed, feet shuffling a little. The table of books lay there like a banquet, and her fingertips skimmed a few covers. She couldn’t help herself. This was not what she was meant to be finding in a good day’s work but the bookshop had caught her attention the day before. She’d stopped momentarily. A large cat had rubbed its silky fur against her bare ankles, guaranteed to annoy her and that caused her to sneeze loudly three times; the calico jumped straight up. Then came a slight movement behind the big display window, a warning for her to move on.
Today she’d fared well in the market six blocks away: two fat yellow apples; a fresh scone in a paper sleeve someone put down by someone when looking at something; a golden pen with ten fine sheets of handmade paper (the sign said); two pair of thick socks. The socks would go to Gerry but the rest she was keeping. It was useless surplus, not ready cash. That would have to come from the half dozen fancy knock off watches and a bunch of real silver bracelets from a corner shop in Harleton. The old lady–who had been easily engaged in random patter–had picked up her chiming phone–church bells?– and it was a deal done fast and she was out of there. Then there was a sweet short wave radio on a floor in an open garage she passed–where was the owner? Drinking beer at the back, too slow on his feet to catch her.
Thieving wasn’t hard but energy-consuming–being ever watchful, smart and fast about it. Sheila was all of those, even as a kid. How many times had she been punished by her dad, and how often had she and her young aunt sneaked off again to find and raid a make up display, a table piled with purses, a bakery with mini cakes and still-warm biscuits displayed on a shelf by a front door to lure customers. They were most certainly lured, then filled up with the high of stolen sweetness. Though her dad said time and again, “You got bit by the devil’s wiles, it’ll cost you more than you know, my girl.” He knew all that and more because he’d been to prison for four years–he’d only been nineteen– for crimes no one spoke of now he was all legitimate. But Sheila knew it was burglary, maybe a few; he might not have been caught for all of it. She shuddered to think of it, her caring dad.
She was eight years old when it started; Auntie Jean was way older, fourteen. They made a perfect pair of kleptomaniacs, Jean had said laughing. She had the hands that, like magic, swiped and grabbed; Shelia was the lookout and runner once Jean lifted the thing and handed it off. Because who would think a little girl with pigtails could steal and run so fast?
Now–seven years later– it was Gerry and Jean and a handful of their friends. Mostly Shelia did minor stuff, she did what they said if she wanted a small cut, but sometimes she went her own way. In fact, more often she was going her own way and lied to them when she got back: “I was sooo close, then it got risky, I’m not going to juvie for you guys!” she protested. Or: “Everything’s tied down tight out there, can barely find anything worth much lately.”
They had bigger fish to catch, anyway–TVs, computers, cars, stuff Shelia didn’t want to know about. There business was growing. But when she was empty handed Gerry gave her a medium punch on the arm and Jean gave her a scalding look then moved on to other matters. Jean kept telling her in private that she becoming a big disappointment and if she couldn’t bring it in why bother sticking around? She was on the verge of being a liability. She had to get with it or get out, Jean was sorry but family or no family…. Shelia’s face burned with humiliation so on she went, looking for more targets.
They were family, yes. So Shelia stuck in with them. Still, she was better at school and worked at that harder. One thing her mother said before she left them was that her daughter–Sheila–was way too smart to live the low life and if she had any say left in the matter, the girl would become a lawyer, not a miserable petty–or worse–criminal.
“What’s the difference?” her dad had said, laughing with that edge he still had back then.
Her mother reportedly said, “You know what I mean. She could amount to something good. She could be anything if she gets a chance, just like me! But no, you have to stand in everyone’s way. You and your crooked paths to big dreams. What a joke!”
“I’m not in her way, just yours. She’ll get a different life, she’s smarter and better than you,” he grumbled and waved her off, his long suffering girlfriend of ten years, and his daughter’s mother, for good or ill.
But she’d soon left in a flash after losing some fight with him. And though he loved Shelia more than he could say, he worked six to seven days a week at the marina so she was on her own when not in school or watched after by a co-worker’s wife. And they got by, more or less, on his wages. He wanted better for them both. Shelia was six then. Her mother–those words sounded foreign to her. It was so long ago it was all a fuzzy dream of a memory. All she knew was her dad–who stuck by her.
She wanted to give him some of her cash but knew he’s had a fit. She bought a few groceries or personal items with the little she kept from Jean, sometimes stashed it under her bed in the jewelry box from her childhood. Her dad half-knew what she did but denied it to everyone. And his own self even more. As long as she did okay in the school year and no cops came to his door…what could he really do about it? It had to be in the blood. He blamed Jean but his niece blamed him and then he blamed his brother, her father. It was a waste of time to think about. Sheila was going to be okay.
To Sheila, the stealing was a habit, and she sometimes felt it was a pretty bad habit. One she might break someday. Or not. It bore little thought; it was not the major thing in her life. She was really trying to grow up.
It was the third time in a month the teenager came by and appeared to be casing the place, try to maybe steal one of the books. It always perplexed her that anyone would steal a book–there were libraries, for Pete’s sake. So Meredith circled in and out of her bookshop, very casually, and looked down the street, nodded at her.
“Nice day, hey? See anything you like?”
Just like that, the youth was gone. A very fast mover, like a ninja kid, she chuckled as she told her assistant. And never spoke a word. The girl tended to linger at the bargain mystery books on the table outdoors– but at other times she checked out a few memoirs and science books baking in August’s sizzling heat. Couldn’t be that she didn’t have the money–they were cheap in her opinion, deeply discounted after being long idle on shelves. Who knew? Might be a street kid. Maybe her ripped jeans were not due to fashion but because those were all she had. The large navy windbreaker hung on her narrow frame; her hair was worn swept into a short choppy ponytail, and she always wore sunglasses despite the weather. Once it rained suddenly; she’d left on the sunglasses but pulled a baseball cap from her jacket pocket, pressed it on firmly and slinked down the sidewalk.
Meredith thought of putting up a Free Library sort of box in the back alley for those who had no money; lots of people used it as shortcut so it might take off. So she set to it a few evenings later after closing time. As she rummaged through cast-offs by the back door Mr. Mercedes–so named because the calico sure thought he was all that— sniffed each book from the pile, then chose a couple of stacked ones to sit on. The cat had been wild and still disappeared a couple days at a time, yet always returned. Customers liked–or perhaps admired– him more than he liked them but he was tolerant enough after three years, even conversed to a few in his surly native cat tongue.
She worked a few minutes, feeling good about her effort, when Mr. Mercedes shot past her piles and raced around the corner. Meredith checked around it with caution. A mouse or-ugh-rat? A passing cyclist? What had he heard that she had not? She had closed up and locked the front door twenty minutes ago; her assistant was working on invoices in the back office. She went in search of the cat and came to the entrance.
The door, to her surprise, was slightly ajar. How had that been overlooked? Or was it jimmied? Mr. Mercedes had snaked inside; Meredith peered in the windows. There was a shadowy figure at the back aisles. She saw a hand skim then lift a few books off a shelf, drop them in a backpack. Art history section? The thief grabbed a few more in the next section, hunched down, crept between book stacks, perusing the bounty.
Should she call out to Annie, her assistant or call 911?
Before she could decide what to do, the culprit headed to the back door that was still open to the alley. As he passed the office Annie stuck her head out and shrieked as Meredith ran inside, then after the culprit. But a muffled crash stopped her at the doorway. She peered into the passageway beyond, Annie imploring her to stop right there,, and she narrowed her eyes at the the gathering dusk.
There: that teenaged girl, a booted foot on its heel in the now-impeded trajectory of the running, then falling thief–or was it really her partner in crime? The person sprawled onto pavement with a thud, books falling from the still-open backpack, each hitting ground hard, a few skidding away and coming to a pathetically scratchy, dirty full stop.
“What on earth is going on here?” she called out to both of the youths. “Leave all my books this instant or I’ll call police!”
The scruffy guy scrambled to his knees but the girl gave him another push so that he stumbled forward. Another two books fell from inside his hoodie but he was rendered useless at picking up any of them as she kicked at his ankles. He yelled an obscenity at her and took off down the darkening alley, long gone before Meredith could call out another warning.
The girl with her usual sunglasses and hat pulled low stood opposite her, hands on hips, mouth opened a little as she huffed some. Mr. Mercedes sat at her feet looking up, tail twitching. She glanced down a split second when Meredith entered the alley and walked towards her. But this was not welcomed by the book rescuer. She stepped way back. Mr. Mercedes stepped back as well, hissing at them both.
“Who are you? Why are you hanging out here so much, and how did you know he was going to steal something? Where did you come from?”
The wiry, sharp-featured girl with immobile face balled her hands up and jammed them into jacket pockets, well balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to take off.
“Well, thanks for the help–I think!” the anxious bookseller said, exasperated, as Annie circled up behind her.
Meredith picked up a couple books and then the two women tended to others scattered about. They were heavy, expensive coffee table books about art and photography, of all things.
“Stolen gifts for someone? Why these?” Annie said.
“Criminal opportunist! Why not just buy a used couple of tomes somewhere? How dare he!” Meredith whimpered and stood with hands on cheeks, studying the glossy volumes.
The books were all damaged to some degree. She might never be able to sell them for what they were worth–beautiful, informative, inspiring books. But it was her fault, apparently, since the door had been easily opened. Meredith tried to tune out the nervously chattering Annie and they wiped off the books with their shirttails, murmuring about the scare and torn covers and grime and what to do. Then Meredith recalled the young woman. still just a girl, really, and yet she was readied to fight or flee, and she spun around to find her.
Too late. She had flown.
“That was stupid! How much can it matter if Leo’s great-grandfather or uncle or whoever got those books for his seventy-fifth birthday? Was it worth all that trouble? Now what does he have? Nothing. Not one damn thing! And now no one can enjoy them either!”
She saw her Uncle Brad across the floor–“Blue” they called him due to the blue-black tear tattooed on his cheek–and he studied her with a quizzical look, then went into a back room and shut the door. Thankfully. She was always wary of him, even when he was nice to her-But he was often gone and Jeanie was second in command.
Sheila was pacing and yelling at Gerry and Jean. Leo had left in a funk, humiliated about having been foiled, ready to start a brawl with Shelia, his senior by two years but smaller, when Jean stepped in.
“Well, it isn’t only the grandpa, Sheil, it was a dumb, simple test! Jerry needs his nephew to get better at the simplest tasks and if he can’t even pick off a few stupid books…! Useless crew.” She shook her head in disgust. “But for you to interfere–that’s what’s idiotic, you know better, and it’s almost enough for me to–to–” She came toward Shelia with raised hand, face red as a radish, curly hair shaking as she advanced.
Sheila felt her insides quiver but stood her ground. “Aw, Jeanie, chill out. I didn’t know it was him at first. I was just hanging out, that’s all, and when I saw him break in–“
“You should have let him be,” Jerry pronounced with that rumbling voice. “What a couple of amateurs. Might be time to just prematurely cut both short, baby. But it’s not like it’s some major loss. Books, ya know? No harm done.” He put an arm around Jean’s shoulders, tugged her back. “Let’s not get her so riled up she shoots off her mouth at Speed.”
“Yeah, okay, never mind, I’m okay, my Sheil’s okay…well, aren’t ya?,” Jean cast her another look, then stomped over to the desk, where she fingered a big new batch of superior gemstone jewelry.
Speed, Sheila repeated to herself. Her father’s old name–his old identity. Shelia felt alarm shoot through her. If he even knew the extent of things going on with her. And here.
She surveyed the storage building, All the covered cars, stacks of boxes with TVs and computers and video equipment with hot new games and more–the giant desk where jewelry awaited assessment, at the dark corners where others of the group lounged like sly lazy dogs or talked on their phones making clandestine deals.
What was she doing there? Why did she persist in thinking this was really her family–and her fate?
“I’m so completely sick of this, of you all, I’m outta here!” she yelled and left.
No one said a thing. She was a kid, kids were impulsive and she was blood family.. Jean just had to wait and see. But she watched her niece go and sighed heavily. It was awhile coming to this, yet she always thought it. It wouldn’t be at all easy for little Sheil, the smart one, her protégé, slowly going sour. She had good instincts but too often she didn’t show enough common sense or lack of guilt for this line of work. It took guts and stamina and no looking back, only to the next job that might be the big payoff. Jean lived for that day so she, too, could walk away– but to her own private Shangri-La.
At Meredith’s Book Madness all was in order. They’d sorted out the inventory and found new ways to donate some books, started a couple new sales that were going well. The book library at back was being well used, too. In fact, they thought it brought more foot traffic and cyclists–and then to the front door.
The nine art and photography books that had been harmed by thievery were repaired and put on a discount table indoors; four had sold so far. They ordered a few more interesting volumes.
Annie unlocked the front door. It had rained the night before. The world smelled sweet and bright, warming up as sunlight streamed onto the quiet street and their ceramic flower pots along the outer wall. Then her eyes glimpsed a form at the far end of the building.
“Yes?” The answering voice wafted from back of the shop.
“Can you come here?”
Meredith came and gazed to the spot where Annie looked. Smiled.
Shelia roused, blinked in the honeyed light. She grabbed her hat which had fallen off a couple hours earlier; she’d been too tired to wait for the shop to open and dozed off. She had had little sleep all night. After she’d left Jean and Gerry, she’d gone home. She later–without thinking further– told her dad she wanted a change in her life but she wasn’t sure how to do it.
“Why all this?” he’d asked, elbows on the table, eyes piercing the short distance between them. “What do you mean, a ‘change’? Are you in trouble? I mean, more than I think? Tell me what happened.”
“No, not really. I mean, that depends on what you think…”
“I know you and Jeanie are thick as…you need to come clean with me, honey, and now.”
“You know I can’t say what I want to say, not really, and I know you know what you know. So what is there to say–except, what should I do now?”
“How deep, Sheila girl?”
“Not that deep in, I can swim to the surface.”
He rubbed his bristly chin and didn’t take his eyes off her, and it startled her, his intense stare, as if he was cutting through all her smokescreen of thoughts and seeing everything all through the years. Maybe he did, but then it was as if he looked far beyond her. And then he came back to her.
“I’m sorry, this is fully on me. So leave it to me.”
“No, Dad.” She shook her head vigorously.
“Don’t worry yourself, I know a couple of things, helpful things. And from now on, every time you get that itch…just tell me. We’ll fend it off. I’ve got your back, don’t you know that?”
He half grinned at her, the goofy one that revealed his bottom gold tooth so it winked in the light and at her. He was a nice enough looking guy, she realized, a man who’d aged too fast, but he still had energy and attitude enough for at least two younger guys. He could have gotten married a couple of times–she’d not have gotten in the way.
But he’d kept his nose clean, he told everybody, was about working hard and taking care of Shelia. Though he clearly had failed in some basic ways, he knew that already. Did he think he could’ve kept ignoring the worsening signs, though? No. Where did he think she got to when he was gone so long every day and even night? He had hoped for better times for her but suspected so long. The family, right, leave it to crazy Jean to screw it up worse.
Things just had to be made much better, he knew right then.
“Yeah, Dad, I know you’ve got me. I didn’t want to freak you out, make you sad– or worse…”
“Well, it’s lucky for me you have the sense to know when to speak up a little. And figure out you need a new direction.”
“You mean, lucky for me! I’ve sorta been on my own awhile, you know?”
“Yes–you’re right. We both are fortunate now that we put a few things on the table. And I’m stepping in this time, blood or no blood, no matter, we are not them.”
He rose to put his arms around her and squeezed three times for “I love you”, and she about cried, it had been so long since he’d done that. She squeezed back.
And that was it, for the time being. They’d figure things out. Or maybe he’d just do his bit and they would go on in a more normal way, their odd but more real way. She could only hope he didn’t step too hard on the dragon’s tail. Jean the Dragon Lady they called her–she was tougher than anybody she knew in their city. Except her uncle… and her dad, though he was not like much his brother, anymore
But for now here she was with a book lady who was looking her over as if seeing her for the first time, a creature who didn’t, in fact, have horns. An ordinary girl with some strange aspects.
Sheila didn’t remove her sunglasses to stare back harder. The woman didn’t take any offense at whatever she did, it seemed.. It was like she got it, though how was anyone’s guess.
“I’m Meredith; this is Annie. Want to give us some help? We have a bunch of books that need sorting,” she said, gesturing with a sharp motion of her head toward the store.
“Uh, maybe, I guess so.”
“If you catch on and come on time twice a week, and ask before you take anything, you can stay on. If not, you’re out. But I have to tell you right off I can’t pay you. You can, however, choose a cheaper book each week to take home. But we shall see how things go, alright? Name?”
Shelia stood up, smoothed her damp jeans and jacket, put her cap back on. The way this woman talked floored her. “Sheila. Wait a sec–did i even say I wanted an actual job?”
Meredith rubbed her forehead thoughtfully. “Oh, didn’t you? I thought you might have. And you were sitting out here waiting for us to open, right? Anyway, no worries–no pay, no real job…” and she went inside.
Sheila shook her head hard to clear it. Hesitated. Looked up at the fat clouds scudding by, heard cars honking and a cyclist’s bell ringing as he whizzed by, and those crows squabbling from the roof as if they owned the block. Smelled a bit of gasoline and a whiff of scraggly red roses growing by the sidewalk. Ordinary stuff. She wondered if the lady knew what she was really all about–and if she did, would she have offered her a gig, even for nothing? She was sure taking a chance. With a thief.
An about-to-be-reformed one, she corrected herself, and the idea excited and worried her.
Mr. Mercedes jumped out at her so she bent down to briefly stroke him; he followed her into the store. “Well, she let you stay, that’s kinda weirdly nice,” she told him. She tore off her jacket and stuffed her cap in a back pocket. Looked around the homey, dusty, beautiful bookstore. She took off her sunglasses and set them aside.