The Soul Thief

My eyes had been locked on the briefcase the entire bus ride. I picked out an excellent position near the front to keep an eye on it. An old man had it, about four rows back, his fingers lightly drumming against the scuffed and battered leather. He leaned against the window, breathing heavily. Trying not to be too obvious, I forced myself to look around the rest of the bus.

The only other passenger was a guy in his early twenties who smelled like an old sock. He wore a heavy coat, probably to cover how skinny he was. The scraggly goatee that clung to his chin helped distract from the stubble on top of his head that somehow managed to look greasy. Our eyes locked and I quickly looked away. The last thing that I needed was some creeper hitting on me now. He smiled at me, and I glared back at him.

There were only two stops left on the route. Part of me was tempted to take the bag now, but I knew that I needed to be patient. I’d waited this long, I could wait a little while longer. I needed to see where the old man was taking the briefcase. If there was someone else that had hired him.

The skinny guy pulled the cord for the stop, and got to his feet. He winked at me, right before he turned and bolted down the aisle, grabbing the briefcase as he went. I started to run after him, but he was already gone. Instead, I turned my attention to the old man, who still sat with his head against the glass, smiling gently.

“Where were you taking the case?” I asked him.

It took him a second to recognize me. “The grand-daughter,” he whispered, with the voice of a much younger man. His hand fluttered up near his chest and he smiled again. “How did you find me?”

“Who was the man that just took the case?” I asked, trying to keep my voice calm. “You don’t have much time. Was he working with you?”

“Never saw him before in my life,” the old man wheezed. He closed his eyes and leaned his head up against the window again. He coughed into his hand, and I saw blood on his lip. I patted his shoulder and then turned and sprinted out the back door of the bus. The driver shouted something after me, but I didn’t stop to hear what it was. The important thing was getting the briefcase before anyone else died.

The bus had stopped far enough out from the city that I was able to focus a little on the briefcase. The more people I had around me, the harder it was to separate out the signature it left on the space around it. Feeling the pull of the briefcase, I followed it to an apartment building a few blocks away. There were too many people inside for me to narrow it down any further, but at this point, I knew who I was looking for.

I spent most of that night shivering in the parking lot and thinking about my grandfather. The last time I saw him, we were passing a bottle of whiskey back and forth.

“You were always my favorite, Val,” he’d said. “You remind me of me when I was your age.”

I took another pull from the bottle and tried to hand it back to him, but he waved it off. It wasn’t like him to refuse a drink, so clearly he had something important on his mind.

“I’m leaving you my collection,” he said. “It’ll be your responsibility when I’m gone.”

“Your collection of what, exactly?” I asked, ignoring the whiskey-flavored burp that told me I’d regret drinking with the old man in the morning.

“Souls,” he said, with a slightly manic smile.

He pulled out a battered black briefcase from under the table, and set it down in front of us. A slightly musical sound, like the chiming of tiny bells, came from inside when the contents shifted. He nodded towards the case, and I undid the latches. Inside were several glass spheres, maybe a half an inch in length. There were no markings on them or anything that might say what they were. Half of them were empty, just small clear globes that glittered in the moonlight. The others glowed with a faint inner light.

“Jesus, Grandpa,” I finally managed to say. “They’re beautiful.”

He grabbed my hand as I reached in to touch them. “You don’t want to do that,” he said. “Now listen, this is important. There’s a market for this sort of thing, people who would do anything to get this collection. There’s a curse on the bag, so that only the proper owner can hold it. Anyone else that tries to take it, the bag will drain their life. When they die, they’ll be trapped inside one of those globes forever.”

I closed the bag and nodded at him. It’s not that I didn’t believe him. It was more that Grandpa had always been prone to exaggeration, especially when drunk.

“I want you to take it,” he said. “It’s been in the family for a hundred years. It’s only right that it stay with you.” He grabbed the bottle from me and took a long drink, before sliding the bag across the table. That night I crashed on his couch, clutching the bag against my chest, and all I could dream about was the terrible beauty of the spheres. Each glowing with their own internal light.

It wasn’t long after that Grandpa died. For the next few days, I spent a long time staring at the globes and wondering if Grandpa was part of the collection. After a couple months, though, the briefcase just became part of the background noise of the apartment. It wound up shoved into the back of a closet, and I went on with my life. It wasn’t until someone broke into my house and wrecked half the place looking for it that I realized Grandpa’s warning had been serious.

Huddled on the hood of a car in the parking lot, I watched people leave the building all night and into the morning. By the time the thief slunk out the door, I was half-frozen and bored out of my mind. He didn’t have the case with him. Shuffling along towards the bus stop, his shoulders stooped and his stupid goatee was streaked with gray that I hadn’t noticed the day before.

He didn’t notice me getting on the bus with him. Watching him closely, I was able to weave my way through the people. The briefcase wasn’t the only thing I inherited from Grandpa. There’s a certain small amount of magic I’ve been given. As near as I can tell, it comes with being the protector of the briefcase.

Before the idiot could run, I stood next to him, my face inches from his. He smelled like sweat and mildew, with a hint of peppermint. The only thing that stopped me from puking on him was the fact that I hadn’t eaten in a day. He stared intently at his phone trying to ignore me.

“Where is my briefcase?” I whispered.

He practically dropped the phone, his hand was was shaking so hard. I grabbed his shirt, and pulled him closer to me.

“Last night,” I said. “You stole a briefcase. It’s mine. I want it back.”

Before he could say anything, I reached up an pulled the cord for the next stop. Every second on that bus was taking us further away from wherever he stashed the case. Still holding onto his shirt, I dragged him off through the back exit. Nobody seemed to notice us.

I tossed him on the ground and wiped my hand against my jeans. “You don’t have the slightest clue what you’ve done,” I said. “Fucking idiot. What did you do with it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, lady. I don’t have a briefcase.” He pulled himself up to his feet and tried to run down the sidewalk back towards the apartment. He couldn’t really move that fast anymore. It was more of an aggressive shuffle. I let him get a half a block ahead of me and then ran after him. It didn’t take much to catch him, and he was already rubbing his chest and wheezing when I got to him.

I slammed him up against the wall by the throat. His eyes darted back and forth, looking for help. “I know you stole it. I was there, I saw you take it.”

“Wasn’t yours,” he said, barely croaking out the words. “Some old guy’s.”

“He stole it from me! And I would have gotten it back if you hadn’t jumped in and grabbed it!”

His hands scrabbled against my arms, and then he sagged against the building. His goatee was starting to go white. There wasn’t much time left. I decided to try a different tactic. Letting him go, I stepped back. He sank to the ground, trying hard to breathe. His breath rattled in his chest.

“Look,” I said. “This thing is killing you, just like it was doing to him. And if you die before you tell me where it is, someone else will find it, and I’ll have to track it down all over again. So, tell me where you’re keeping it, that way I don’t have to repeat this shit with some other idiot.”

He pointed back towards the apartment. His mouth moved on its own for a few seconds before he was able to get words out. “Briar Creek Park,” he finally managed to say. “Under the pine tree marked with an X.”

Part of me was tempted to leave the case buried. If nobody knew where it was, then nobody would be able to steal it again. I’d be free of the damned thing. I wouldn’t have to worry about idiots like this.

But that’s not how this works. If I didn’t find it, someone else would. That’s not something I wanted on my conscience. The closer I got to the park, the stronger the pull of the briefcase got. The tree wasn’t hard to find. It was already half-dead from the curse when I found it. A small X was scratched above some freshly turned earth, and the grass around the tree was dry and brittle.

I dug it up carefully, making sure that nobody was watching. When I opened the bag, one of the globes slowly flickered to life. I thought back to the thief who died without a name. Clutching the briefcase close to my body, I made myself a promise to never lose it again.

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

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