A small flicker in the right corner of his vision caught his attention. He continued to examine the puncture-flecked orange in the palm of his hand for a moment longer before carelessly throwing a glance in that direction. A fraction of a second later he was back in his original position, evermore sifting through the crates of ripe oranges before him.
He replayed the image he had just memorised, and saw it: two missing apples, a couple of stalls down, which had been there a moment ago: a thief. He looked at the stocky, stern-looking man behind the apple stall, his gleaming eyes half-hidden behind his furrowed, bushy eyebrows; pudgy fingers set firmly on his large waist, and his impressive moustache jumping up down in excitement as he hollered his offers of the day. He did not appear to be the kind of man to let a thief off lightly.
There were other reasons he knew it was a thief. The movement had been too quick, too discrete to belong to the average shopper of this loud, bustling Spanish market. A movement too easily missed – a movement only his detail-trained eye could detect.
Throughout the next few minutes the man observed the gradual disappearance of a small loaf of bread and some dried peanuts. The man smiled inwardly.
Not only was it a thief, he concluded with some amusement, but a good thief. A very good thief indeed.
This conclusion led him to become curious. He had seen plenty of good pickpockets and thieves during his short stay at Nerja, a small town on the south coast of Spain, but none had managed to impress him so much, to be so invisible to the naked eye and yet stand out so boldly to him – and so he decided to observe this thief.
Another ten minutes passed without activity, during which the man observed that there were security guards scattered loosely around the market. Tall, hard men, with sun-beaten faces bearing lines so deep that they created their own shadows. Their small eagle eyes swept across every and any thing within their own wide radius, like swinging lighthouse beams designed specifically to bring ships to their destruction. Still as boulders, almost unnoticeable in the shadows.
A small hand darted out a few stalls away from him, at the oranges stall he had been at a little while earlier. An orange disappeared, but what caught the man by surprise this time was the thief itself. Herself. A small girl, so like every other girl at the market, she could have been anywhere between twelve and fifteen – it was impossible to tell. The man could see how well she blended into the crowd: a high, clipped ponytail; overly loose shorts to pocket her loot, a bright t-shirt, a broad smile to imitate that of those around her and an orange handkerchief knotted around her small neck. But what he couldn’t miss was the gleam and concentration in her eyes as she observed and analysed every fleeting opportunity that passed her by. Her saw her rotate towards a stall, and then turn away again, having apparently changed her mind. A moment later the man at the stall whose back had been turned wheeled around again to face his customers, two bright yellow melons in his outstretched hands.
A shout. Four of the security guards that had seemed like part of the stone walls had suddenly come to life. He caught sight of a small boy darting away, his legs pumping to get himself away as fast as possible, but he didn’t stand a chance. One man in front, one behind, two on either side, and the show was over as the men marched the small, sobbing creature away. Every pair of eyes were drawn to this commotion. Paths were parted, breaths were held, whisperes were shared, cries were stifled.
There was reigning silence as the flow of the throng was momentarily stopped. But then the event passed – first a few people continued on their way, then more, until the entire crowd was flowing again like nothing had just happened.
The man looked sideways at the girl thief. She, like the rest of the crowd, was watching the commotion, standing near a few girls her age. The man expected to see sympathy or pity in her eyes, but instead she shook her head and turned on her heels, shoving her hands in her pocket as she walked away. And then, as if a thief like her hadn’t just gotten caught, she continued stealing what he presumed to be her breakfast.
The man found her fascinating to watch. He felt like he was watching himself go through his own training as a young man.
But now, though, it seemed that the girl had finished her looting. Seeming satisfied with the day’s work, she smiled a small smile and started to slowly, unnoticeably cut her way across the thick crowd to get out of the market.
Watching the girl disappear from view, the man considered his options. He had a meeting in an hour, but until then … and something snagged at him when he observed the little girl at work.
Mind made up, he gave her a few moments and followed suit. Past the market, down a few roads – always in the shadows, always a dozen steps behind her. Curiosity pushed him on.
The girl made a sharp turn into some shadowy alleys, and the man followed a minute later. It was dim, and so he couldn’t see her, but his sharp ears picked up the faint scraping of her shoes against the uneven stone ground. He could hear her, catching the occasional crunch as she ate something, but he knew that she had no idea of his presence. He knew exactly where to put his feet, which stone was likely to skid or crunch under his weight, and so moved forward like a cat.
He didn’t accelerate when he heard low voices round the corner, but his curiosity immediately spiked. A large, inky shadow was cast around the corner of an alley as it joined another alley, and it was here that the man stood, invisible to everyone but himself. The girl was talking in a low voice to someone else – another girl, it seemed. After a moment the second girl turned, and the light caught on her face for a split second. As the image registered the man’s eyebrows rose in surprise, but this surprise quickly faded. So, the thief had a twin sister. That was unexpected. The thief twin unloaded the breakfast from her pockets: a small loaf of bread the length of her hand-span, two apples and an orange. The best thieves were always the richest. He assumed that everything else she had taken had been eaten on the way here. She divided the apples and tore the orange in half after having peeled it, but gave the entire bread loaf to her sister.
The man had already made up his mind to leave when a flickering shadow about a dozen yards away from the girls made him linger a little longer. A shadow advanced towards the girls, but neither of them had noticed. The man only did so out of habit. Judging from the size of the shadow he estimated the newcomer to be a fully grown man. As the man passed the girls he became clearer. Despite his size, he looked no older than twenty, with a dirty grey t-shirt and khaki shorts. He had a hungry, sunken face with dirt streaked across his face.
Then the unexpected happened. The thief’s twin bit into her loaf of bread, ripping a large chunk out with her teeth – and the passer-by’s eyes locked onto her. She hardly had time to realise what was happening before the man pushed her – hard – and tried to snatch the bread from her hands. But she was too quick for him; in a flash she had yelled out to her sister and threw the bread towards her. It sailed in the air and landed in the thief’s palms. The attacker seemed to grow angry and landed a clumsy but hard punch to the girl’s stomach.
The man in the shadows took a rapid step forward when it was obvious that the attacker was not going to stop, in the intention of helping the girls, but in the end he needn’t have bothered. The thief, bread still in hand, fixed her furiously concentrated eyes on the attacker’s back. She took a few steps forward and wrapped her bony arms around the man’s throat. His eyes grew wide in alarm and he released the thief’s sister, desperately groping at the girl’s arm, but her grip was iron. The thief yelled something at her sister, who gave a small nod and landed a kick to the attacker’s stomach.
The attacker doubled over, but they hadn’t finished yet. The thief twin released her strangle and kicked the man’s knees from behind, making him sag to the ground. But he got up, twisted, and landed a hit to the thief’s nose. Two streams of red immediately gushed from her nostrils, but she hardly acknowledged the pain before landing two punched on the man, both to the face.
Her twin joined in, bearing a hard expression. They worked as a brilliant team – so well, in fact, that the man told himself that he couldn’t have helped if he’d tried. With the reassurance that they didn’t need his help, he continued to observe them. They seemed to have thoughts that didn’t need to be communicated to be understood; flowing, practiced movements just like the thief twin’s stealing at the market. It didn’t seem to matter to them that the man might have been hungry, desperate – they fought in cold blood to defend themselves, putting aside all feelings.
A sketchy idea started to gradually materialise at the very back of the man’s mind, which grew and strengthened with every passing minute.
At last the fight was over, and the attacker lay slumped on the ground. The thief twin wiped blood from her nose with the back of her hand, looking at her attacker with disgust. She raised her foot and stepped over the man’s head, and picked up the apple, dusty orange and bread that had been dropped on the floor.
As the man saw them start to walk away, he quickly made his decision. He had taken half a dozen steps before they became aware of his presence, and when they did they both spun around and tensed, bring their brunched fists up. The man raised his hands to show that he meant no harm, but still they didn’t put their fists down.
“Buenos días,” he greeted them.
A flash of recognition passed through the girls’ eyes, and they shared a look.
“Un Inglés,” the thief told her twin, and her sister nodded in agreement.
The man hid his surprise. He had been speaking Spanish for over fifteen years now; few people had guessed he was English to this day. Did this mean they spoke English too? This only contributed to solidifying the idea that was gradually growing in his mind.
The thief twin stepped forward a little cautiously. “What do you want?” she asked.
This time the man was sure. Yes, he was persuaded that the Agency would approve of his choice. There was no harm done if he was wrong, in any case; the girls would simply be brought back. But it was definitively worth a shot.
There was a slight pause. “I have an offer for you,” he said.
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