The Art of Theft: Part 1 by Phoebe Harris
The salty sea wind tangled in my hair as I watched the hustle and bustle of the harbour. I was sitting on the railing of the ramp that leads down to the thick passageway from the harbour to the docks where the boats moored. Seagulls cawed at passers-by as boats bobbed, tethered to docks, with the swell of the sea. The crisp air blew in my face as I dropped from the railing to duck through the crowd. I passed vendors selling battered fish, stalls with paper bags of candied almonds and apples, kiosks with waffle cones full of colourful frozen cream, tents offering fortunes and stands with shell necklaces jingling in the wind. Excited children bounced off each other, goodies grasped in grubby hands. Street urchins lurked behind stalls, their rags hanging loosely off their bones, stealthily ducking in to make a reach for a loaf of bread. I wove my way through the crowd, stopping to watch for distracted individuals. I slipped my hand into a passing mother’s pocket while she was flustered by her many children and chittering squirrels. I pulled my hand out, and I was rewarded with a small pocket filled with silver coins. I made another dip, then another, then another. I took a goblin-skin wallet from a burly man who was busy feeding pigeons, an expensive-looking pocket watch from a woman in combat boots, a handful of gold coins from an extremely zoned-out pirate. I made my last dip to a checked-out elf and came out with only one coin. At first, I was disappointed, but on closer inspection, the coin was divided in two: half was polished gold, the other was solid, sparkling diamond. On the golden side, an ancient rune, and on the diamond side, a delicately etched dragon. I slipped it into my pocket with content- I’d have to sell it later.
The bell above the door to the shop jingled as I stepped inside. I was awash in the yellow light as I moved from shelf to shelf on the creaky floorboards. I was a regular at Jonas and Sons. Jonas himself had passed away long ago, but the sons, Jack, Jared and John, were always around somewhere, and sometimes slipped a little something into my bag. Jack and John tended to slip it in before, though, to trick me into buying something I didn’t need, like fennel seeds or ‘magic’ throat medicine or nutmeg. Today, I noticed Jack hide a bottle of four-week-no-chip garish red nail polish into my canvas backpack. I got it out while unpacking at the register, but I seemed to miss John slipping a small (yet very expensive- three gold coins and six silver) shimmering jar of unicorn tears in below the canned beans. I took them out again once I saw the outrageous total displayed on the cash register, which was struggling on its last legs.
I wandered the streets of Ahoy, passing out cans of beans, rolled oats, baby carrots, rice and pasta to the street urchins on the corners. With my canvas bag empty of non-perishable goods, I meandered through the twisting roads. Through cobbled alleyways to lively main strips, from dark side-streets littered with shady businesses that gave way to crowded open-air markets with jewelled fruits piled high. Glancing up at the Hourglass with an unwavering curiosity at the ever-falling sand, I sat down in Hourglass Square, letting the sounds of the legendary annual music festival wash over me. Makeshift tents with bouncers checking for tickets dotted the square, but you could still hear the music well enough from outside. I could never afford tickets, despite my yearning to see Rickshaw Hues, possibly the best singer-songwriter Ahoy has ever churned out. The giant Hourglass overhead continued to let sand trickle down, grain by tiny grain. I pushed myself off the wooden bench I had been sitting cross-legged on to immerse myself in the crowd, making a few dips here and there.
“Hey!” A voice called behind me. A man in a starched suit with a badge on his lapel was moving through the crush towards me. Detective Crowl Booker. We’d tangled before, and it hadn’t been pretty. Booker pushed a goblin out of his way as he clumsily wove his way through the crowd. I darted away, moving through the people with grace that only years of running can accomplish. A young street urchin suddenly took a handful of my tunic and altered my course towards a back alley. Swallow Road. Most people tended to avoid Swallow Road, due to its crippling urchin population. I was no different, and stepping back into Swallow was like returning to my childhood self. I was young and malnourished yet again, with colourless scraps of clothing hanging off my thin body, my ribs and elbows pushing through my dirt-coated skin. It’s fine, it’s fine. I’ll be out of here in a second. I turned back towards Hourglass Square, the urchin still gripping my tunic in bony fingers. I watched as Booker rushed past, following another dipper through the crowd. Turning back to the small alley, I saw a young girl with sharp cheekbones and shoulders cuddling in her father’s lap. A stab of nostalgia made me turn my head away, only to see a street urchin scurrying away with a scrap of food, and another urchin yelling after him; “Hey! Stop!” but the owner of the food was too tired to chase after him. In my head, I relived that fatal moment, that moment when my hand gripped the hunk of bread and ripped it from my father’s hands. “Please, Rye. Give it back.” He had said. I had ignored him, the darting pains in my stomach doubling me over as I scoffed the bread. It was stale, but I didn’t care. My father’s hollow eyes stared into mine, and I watched as he slowly withered away. We didn’t get food for another three days. I had eaten his lifeline.
The famous Hourglass Square Music Festival was in full swing, and I had to block my ears against the roar of the crowd as Billiards, a very famous goblin rock and roll group, took to the stage. Goblins were shrieking as the lead singer, Wally X, cried ‘Hello Ahoy!’ into the microphone. I slunk through the crowd to the side of the Square, where Warrington Avenue was. It was one of the few streets with businesses that came straight off Hourglass Square. Warrington Avenue was a wide cobbled street lined with taverns and convenience stores, and each building was about four stories high. Small apartments sat above the taverns and stores, rusted fire escapes winding up the red brick facades like snakes. Strings of dripping clothes were strung overhead from window to window like bunting. I reached the ever-boisterous tavern I called home- The Sunken Barnacle was a hotspot for the locals, and was only quiet around three am, when it shut for the night. It reopened at eight, though, to aid the numerous alcoholics of Warrington Ave. It was so close to Hourglass Square that any hours the tavern was silent, I could hear the endless hustle and bustle leaking down the street. I pulled the ladder down and climbed up to the fire escape. I hiked to the fourth floor, and I unlocked the door and stepped into the comfortable chaos of home.
J and Taylor were on the threadbare couch that appeared to be sinking, deep in an argument, presumably about something stupid. They had been at each other’s throats since Taylor quit his job to ‘pursue his passion’ and busk his absolutely awful songs in taverns up and down Warrington Avenue and in Hourglass Square. At least he wasn’t ambitious enough to attempt singing in The Sunken Barnacle. Only the best play in the Barnacle. I tipped my canvas bag onto the kitchen counter and started packing away the food into the cupboards. I cursed myself as I placed a carton of off goat milk in the bin, obviously something Jack or Jared had switched with my normal carton. J huffed into the kitchen and picked up one of the many dirty dishes in the sink. Despite J being a neat freak, the filthiness of Taylor and I combined, for a whole year, has quite overrun J’s abilities. They scrubbed at a spot of pasta sauce while they sighed through their nose. They cut a sideways glance at me and sighed again, louder, and pointedly. I turned to them in a huff.
“Look, J. I’m not going to be the moderator in all your stupid fights with Taylor. I think it’s stupid too, and I know money’s gonna be tight for a while. But all we gotta worry about is rent. We both know that. Unless I get caught and end up in prison, which is actually pretty likely, we’ll be just fine. And, also, Taylor might figure out how to sing in time with his guitar. Then we might be able to buy some stuff.”
J snorted. “As if Taylor’s ever going to be able to play and sing right. He’s a lost cause.”
I lay on the stained mattress in my room, staring up at the water-logged ceiling, twisted in threadbare blankets. I heard drunks leaving the tavern below, bartenders shooing them away. Three am. With silence below, the only sounds were the dripping of the ceiling and the faint music flowing down the street from Hourglass Square. The music festival had been running for the past few days, keeping me awake at night more than usual. I kept seeing my hand reaching for the bread, the emptiness of my father’s body, the overwhelming feeling of being fully alone. Slowly, slowly, I drifted off to sleep, but was not comforted by the inky blackness of dreams. I just kept seeing the bread, and my hand, and the body of my father hoisted among the other corpses.
J woke me delicately by banging a pot and wooden spoon together.
“Rise and shine, Rye!” They announced, before moving on to Taylor.
“Why?” I groaned, as J came back to throw the curtains open wide. Light streamed onto my face, and I hid my head under my pillow.
“Come on, wake up. You know what today is.” J said, opening the window wide and letting the sounds of Warrington Avenue tumble in. Drunks sang off-key while music floated around, the Hourglass Square Music Festival in full swing. I pulled myself out of bed. J started pulling in the string of clothes that hung over the streets, dry and clean clothing coming in through my window.
“No, I don’t,” I mumbled. “Only you know that stuff.”
“Well then.” J said, unclipping the clothes and throwing them into a basket. “I suppose you’re not interested in watching Rickshaw Hues at the Hourglass Square Music Festival, are you?”
“Rickshaw Hues? Oh, my gods, J, you got tickets?” I jerked up; my spine perfectly straight.
“I actually didn’t. Tay did.” As if J had summoned him, Taylor entered my room, leaning against the decaying bookshelf in his favourite Rickshaw Hues tour shirt- white with a printing of the legendary Rickshaw with his guitar strap around his neck, tour dates and destinations written in baby blue down the back.
“A buddy in the music scene”- something else about Taylor: he thinks he’s ‘in the music scene’ and is as good as everyone actually in the scene- “hooked me up. He does Ricky’s sound design or something. I told him you two were the biggest Hue-Heads ever, and he just gave me- drumroll please- VIP backstage front-row tickets to the legendary Rickshaw Hues gig at the Hourglass Square Music Festival!”
J and I applauded Tay while he took a bow.
I’d never been to any shows at the Festival. It was known far and wide, and the harbour was at bursting point for the full three-and-a-half weeks the Festival was running. Taylor, J and I made our way to the biggest tent in the centre of the square, where Rickshaw Hues would be performing any minute now. J and I were also wearing Rickshaw tour shirts, mine from his debut album, Far Away from Far Away, and J was sporting his newest album’s tour shirt, Right Angles. We had bought them for a gold coin apiece from Niima’s Lost ‘n’ Found whilst his reputation was taking a hit. None of us had ever seen him in the flesh, only heard his songs on our sputtering radio. The bouncer at the tent inspected our tickets and let us in, and we made our way to the standing area right in front of the stage. The lights dimmed in the tent, and the speakers crackled for a moment before letting out a burst of music- Rickshaw Hue’s number one song, Don’t Forget. Its upbeat bass reverberated through the tent, and the crowd screamed in response. Spotlights swooped all over the huge crowd, and the stage that dwarfed the crowd of maybe a thousand lit up with blue light.
“Ahoy,” an announcer’s voice was deep and melodic through the speakers. The stage was still empty. “you know him. With seventeen songs reaching number one this year alone, and sixteen hit albums, one man has won over fifty awards for his music. Ahoy, make some noise…” here the announcer’s voice dropped to a dramatic whisper. “for the one and only RICKSHAW HUES!” The crowd swallowed the announcer’s words in a wave of noise, and a chant started up: ‘Rick! Shaw! Hues! Rick! Shaw! Hues!’. J, Taylor and I cried along, my throat burning. In the centre of the stage, a small circle opened, and the legendary Rickshaw Hues rose up on a platform. I screamed along with every other person in the tent, and even the bouncers all the way in the back seemed starstruck. Rickshaw Hues had a dazzling smile, and his perfectly straight white teeth glimmered. A stagehand passed him a guitar, and a microphone rose out of the same place he did. He hooked the guitar over his thin shoulders, careful not to muss up his intricately styled light-brown bed hair and swept over the crowd with his crystal-blue eyes. The light spattering of freckles over his nose crinkled as he smiled again.
“Ahoy, Ahoy.” He said, lips brushing the microphone. The crowd (J, Taylor and I no exception) went crazy. He moved into his set, starting with Don’t Forget, and some of his other upbeat songs, before dropping to his few sad songs, Faith, Riverside Hollow and Loveless. He finished strong with my personal favourite: Fireworks.
“Oh, you make me explode inside,” his flawless voice reached even the corners of the tent. “like fireworks, giving me light. The night ignites but then time stops. And my heart beats in time with yours as you light another…” I sung in time, hand on my heart. Rickshaw crouched down in front of us as he sung the bridge. To my favourite lyrics in the world, he reached out to me, offering his hand. I clasped it, and I didn’t want to let go, but he moved on. J and Taylor high-fived him, and I gave a happy scream as he left to go back to the centre of the stage. Over the boom of the bass drop, I turned to shout to Taylor and J.
“Oh. My. Gods. Did you see that?” I screamed, jumping up and down in what I can say as my first proper fangirl moment.
“Yes!” J chirped, their faintly red hair messy and their cheeks red from the heat of the crowd.
“You guys are going to totally freak out when we go backstage to meet him,” Taylor said, bopping his head in time with the music.
Rickshaw strummed his final chord. “Thank you and goodnight, Ahoy.” He said in that rock star way of his that made the other girls scream. He was lowered back under the stage.
It was hazy behind the stage, and workers were rushing to and fro to get ready for the next gig. A little room in the back of the tent had a piece of paper pinned to it with ‘Rickshaw Hues’ scrawled in hurried writing. How dare one disrespect Rickshaw Hues with such messy handwriting. The escort bouncer knocked on the door before opening it for us. She shut the door once we stepped inside. The air in the room was clear, and on the plush couch, Rickshaw Hues was sitting over a bottle of sparkling water. When he looked up at us, he smiled. He smiled. Just for us, he gave us a dazzling smile, all white teeth and crinkly freckles. My heart fluttered.
“Sit down, sit down.” He said. “You must be the Hue-Heads Freddy told me about.” Oh, my gods. His voice was beautiful even when he was croaking from singing too much. He sort of grimaced on the term Hue-Heads, though. Was fame not what it was cracked up to be? “J, Rye, and Taylor?” Oh, my gods. He said our names. He said my name. He was making my head go loopy.
“Yes, sir.” J said.
He snorted. “Sir.” He grinned. “Call me Shawn.”
“Um, Shawn,” I mumbled, totally starstruck. I always thought his name was Richard or something. “I, well, we all capital-L Love your music. But, um, most of all, we like the charity work.” Rickshaw Hues was known for his work with my two personal favourite charities: The Mythical Creatures Acceptance Organization and the Ahoy Homing Foundation. The MCAO works to stop crasism (creature racism) and to help victims of crasism to find jobs and housing. The AHF has huge shelters for urchins all over Ahoy, and they’re always bursting to capacity. They also have soup kitchens and things like that. Afterwards, he created his own charity: The Rickshaw Hues Help Fund, which was pretty much a bank that gave loans to urchins if they fit certain requirements. Rickshaw Hues- I mean Shawn- had donated bucketloads to both charities last summer and worked in the soup kitchens and handed out flyers. Shawn sighed.
“I hate making people think I’m someone I’m not.” He began. “Let alone you three, who worked so hard to meet me.”
“You can tell us anything,” I urged.
“All that charity work was fake. I hate people talking about it like it was incredible. It wasn’t. I didn’t give money to either charity; I gave money to two friends in each, who donated it. And I didn’t work in soup kitchens or hand out flyers or aid the sick or something- an impersonator did that to boost my popularity. Sure, I created the Help Fund, but that was just to back up all the other stuff. I got so much publicity over it.”
Righteous anger bubbled inside of me. All this time, I had a role model who helped the people I cared about. Who had helped me. But he was faking. Someone was always faking.
“No. That isn’t okay, Shawn.” I spat out his name. It tasted bad in my mouth. “You were meant to be this awesome person who helped all the little people. But you’re just another one of the big shots, throwing money around to get more. You could have saved lives if you had actually gotten involved.” You could’ve saved my dad. “You could have gotten children into homes.” You could’ve gotten me into a home. “You could’ve gotten food to the starving.” You could’ve gotten food to me and my dad. “But you lied, and you cheated, and it isn’t okay. You’re a monster, Hues. A self-interested monster!” I was crying now, tears streaming down my cheeks, blue mascara running all over the place.
Rickshaw Hues, my idol since I first heard one of his songs, got up, left, and slammed the door.
I immediately started rummaging around his dressing room, trying to find anything valuable. Taylor and J were seething.
“What the hell?” J burst out, as Tay leapt to the ground in a burst of anger. “That was completely unnecessary.”
“I know, right? That lying bastard.” I said through my teeth.
“No, Rye. What were you doing? This was our dream, to meet Rickshaw Hues, and we didn’t even get to say a word to him. J said yes, sir, and then he told us some useless information and you blew your top. What the hell is wrong with you?” Taylor went to the door, but the handle wouldn’t budge. Shawn had locked it. I sped up my searching. I pocketed a golden watch, a pouch of golden coins, a diamond earring, and a coin split in two: half in gold, half in diamond. Another one? Just then, the door opened, and a muscular bouncer filled the doorframe.
“Get them out,” Shawn’s voice said from behind the bouncer.
J and Taylor were silent all through dinner and didn’t even say goodnight before disappearing into their respective bedrooms. I cleaned the dishes and stacked them back into the cupboard. As I went down the hallway to my room, I passed J’s closed door. I thought about knocking, but then I heard sobbing. I left her alone, and walking past Taylor’s door, I almost opened it to explain myself, but stopped when I heard thumping. He was at his punching bag. That was some serious anger, then. I stepped over the threshold into my room and collapsed onto the mattress that was pushed into the corner. I kicked my feet up against the bookshelf and stared at the waterlogged ceiling, tears silently pooling in the corners of my eyes. I blinked them away furiously and dug around in my pocket for the coin. On the middle shelf in my dresser was the other coin. They were the same, with only tiny differences: the angle of the dragon’s wing, the flick of the rune. Hand-carved. Something was wrong, though. Why would Shawn just tell me such valuable information? It’s like he needed me to blow my top. And who would leave someone alone in their dressing room? I had to find that elf.
Read part 2 here: https://www.mywritersstudio.com.au/the-art-of-theft-part-2/