PRW Runner-up Tour: Steal Her Heart by Felicia Anderson
“Dude, close your mouth. You’re drooling.”
“I am not.” I shoved my brother, Ata, with one arm.
I returned my eyes to Kesi, the most beautiful woman in all of Kair. Clothed in a crimson leather dress, I studied that neckline many times, as it dipped between her wondrous curves. Her bare collar bone and shoulders were marked with odd foreign symbols, a privilege of the wealthy and highly educated. She adjusted her silken face mask, attached snuggly around her neck with a leather strap and clasp. The only parts of her face visible were her dark eyes, rimmed with smokey black makeup. Even her black hair, a short bob of thick, wavy hair was tucked behind the silk.
She sat leg over leg, her tall boots revealed under the hemline, on the exposed back seat of whatever was left of a car. That’s what Abbun called them. Mostly, these cars were left unmoving in the streets, many crushed by fallen debris or rotting with rust and vandalism. Only those with money and the ability to hire the man-power could make use of such a thing. Two burly men in full gas masks carried the front axel. I always referred to them as muscle. Two more flanked the back end to protect Kesi. Kesi’s family always had muscle around them, which of course, is necessary when you’re the richest person for miles.
Most of the car’s exterior had been stripped away, save for the front windshield and much of the frame, including the back tires. Abbun taught me everything he knew about these cars. He used to have one before The Great Cataclysm.
“C’mon, Akil, Abbun sent me to find you. He wants to speak to both of us.”
“Oh? Why didn’t you say so? ”
I started off in the direction of home with Ata. I pulled the terrycloth scarf up over my mouth and nose as we went. The wind always blew in gales, and pulled with it the sand of crushed concrete, glass, and other debris.
“I did, but you’re too busy drooling over Kesi.”
“I can’t help it. She’s the epitome of every man’s fantasy. Especially mine.”
Aka laughed. “Not mine. And news flash, she’s Pharaoh’s daughter. Never gonna happen.”
“Ugh, don’t call him that,” I shoved him again, this time nearly making him lose his balance. “President Tor is an unworthy tyrant is what he is.”
“I know, but it’s funny, since he lives in The Pyramid.”
I shook my head and looked up to the horizon, pulling my hood forward to block the wind. Twenty-two years ago The Great Cataclysm shook the world. Aka and I were only toddlers, but I can still feel the ground shaking in my memory. I don’t remember what the city looked like before, but now crumbled buildings were the lay of the land. The only things not completely destroyed by The Great Cataclysm were four skyscrapers. They fell in such a way, toward each other, that they never hit the ground, but rather, formed the four edges of a giant pyramid. You could see this thing from any spot in the city. They were owned by President Tor Masud. The enormous MASUD INC letters that plummeted from the building’s facade (according to Abbun) covered the bones of crushed employees.
We reached the decrepit remnants of a house we called our home, and we slid under the dusty blanket covering the partially collapsed entryway. Most of the upper floor collapsed into the main floor, but Abbun managed to clear away enough space for us to use the kitchen and bathroom, and our sleeping and hanging out happened in the basement.
Eshe, Abbun’s doctor, arrived at the top of the stairs as we entered.
“I thought I heard you guys coming. You can hear a mile away in these barren streets.”
She tucked her dark hair behind her ears with her fingers and lowered a pair of orange goggles over her eyes.
“How is he?” I asked.
Her mouth bent into a small frown and she slung her backpack over one shoulder.
“I’m sorry, boys,” she said. “He doesn’t have much longer. I gave him some more morphine to get him through the night, and I replaced his oxygen tank. I’ll be back again in the morning. All we can do now is keep him comfortable.”
I swallowed a rock in my chest and held back the threat of tears. Men don’t cry in front of others, especially not a woman.
“Thanks, Eshe. We’ll take care of him.”
“I’m glad he has boys like you two to watch over him,” she said, as she pulled on a surgical mask over her nose and mouth.
She set a hand on each of our shoulders, then she pulled up her hood and disappeared behind us through the dusty blanket.
Ata and I descended the stairs, two at a time. We removed our dusty outerwear at the foot of the stairs and rounded on Abbun lying in his cot in the corner of the large basement. The oil lamps burned low. Ata must have forgotten to refill them this morning.
“My boys,” Abbun coughed. “Come, come.”
We knelt at his bed-side, and Ata took his hand. I set a hand on his leg. He had the well-worn face of a man who worked hard his whole life. And now he wore breathing tubes up his nose, as a badge of honor for working hard in a city plagued by sand in the wind.
He coughed hard, and I could feel it shake through his whole body, like his own body erupted in a mini-cataclysm. His wheezing was definitely worse than this morning, and he took great care in taking breaths before he spoke. Emphysema’s a bitch.
“I need to tell you…a secret.”
Ata and I exchanged glances.
“I told you before that I… worked for Tor Masud…”
“Yes, Abbun,” Ata said. “You were an architect and builder for him after The Great Cataclysm. You helped him stabilize his fallen skyscrapers. And then he stabbed you in the back and never finished paying you.”
Abbun laughed with a tough wheeze, and it ended in a fit of coughing. I held my breath and Ata must have too, as he grabbed my knee under the bed. When he caught his breath (or what he could of it), I was able to breathe again, too.
“There’s no stabilizin’ those things… he’s lucky they stuck that way.”
“So what did you want to tell us?” I asked impatiently.
He gave me a stern look before continuing.
“After the cataclysm… Masud had me construct… a huge vault. For all his riches. I knew the bastard would stiff me… so I built a secret panel… into the vault… from the outside.”
Wide eyed, Ata and I exchanged excited looks back and forth.
“When times were rough… I snuck in an’ stole a few coins… The wealthy never miss a coupl’a coins.”
“The map,” he coughed and continued. “is under my mattress… bottom corner towar’ the wall.”
I leaned over and tipped up the corner, finding a yellowed piece of heavy paper and pulling it out. I unfolded it and laid it out on the bed.
“You boys are old enough… to take care of yourself now… you’re clever little snaps… and ace thiefs…”
“You’ve taught us well, Abbun,” Aka replied, giving his hand a squeeze.
“The entrance… is behin’ the third buildin’…” He took a long breath. “Steal only what you need… Don’t do anything stupit.”
“Of course, Abbun,” I said.
He coughed another hard cough and stilled, his breathing becoming more shallow.
“You need to rest now, Abbun.”
“Thank you, my sons…” He closed his eyes and dozed off.
The next morning, I woke to Aka’s screams. Abbun was gone. He stopped breathing at some point in the night. The man who raised us since he found us wandering the streets after the cataclysm was now just a memory. That evening, after we helped Eshe remove the body, Aka and I sat on the floor, the oil lamps burning lower than before. Now I know he forgot to put the oil in, but now I didn’t care.
Aka flopped over onto the floor and sighed.
“I think we need to get out of here and take advantage of that vault.” I said, breaking the miserable silence.
“Yeah, why not? Better than sitting here and sulking.”
He shrugged, and I dragged him off the floor.
Under the cover of nightfall, we made it to the back of the third building without so much as a sound, like the expert thieves we were. I found the lose panel, and unless someone was looking for it, it was nearly indiscernible from the surrounding façade. I felt for the edges and removed it slowly, sliding it into the nearby bush.
We slipped inside and found ourselves in a cool, dimly lit room piled with all sorts of treasures. Precious gems, gold bars, silver coins, copper and platinum scraps all sorted in large vats. Racks and tables were littered with precious jewelry and antiques from bygone eras under glass. There were numerous pieces of furniture, but we dare not touch those in case some alarm might trigger.
“Don’t open anything,” Aka hissed at me in the dark. As if I needed reminding.
After admiring the lot, we grabbed a handful of silver coins, enough to feed ourselves for a week, and slid back through the opening.
We did this every couple of days, and then one day, I had a crazy idea.
Kesi rode by in her armored chariot as we returned home with fresh vegetables from the market one day.
“Dude, give it up already. Now you’ll never have a chance with her.”
“Yeah,” he answered. “ How’s your first date gonna go, Akil?”
A goofy grin spread across my face as I thought of the notion.
Aka put on his best feminine voice. “Oh, Akil. You’re so charming. What is it you say you do for a living? Oh? You steal from my abbun’s stores at night?”
A smugness fell over me, and I scowled at him. Then we both burst out into laughter.
“That would be hilarious,” I said finally. “But seriously, I have an idea to get her attention.”
“And that would be?”
“I’ll tell you when we go back into the vault tonight.”
“But we don’t need to go back tonight.”
“Oh, come on. It’ll be great.”
He sighed. “Alright. Fine. Whatever you have planned, if it’s stupid, it’s all your fault, and you’ll take full blame. Got it?”
We slid back in that night, and I immediately went for a ruby broach and pearl necklace.
“What are you doing?” Aka hissed at me.
“Getting some attention.”
“You mean getting yourself caught? I’ve seen the guy shoot people in broad daylight. Surely he’s not gonna take this lightly.”
“Relax. He’d have to catch me first.”
I inspected the glass and ran my hands carefully along the base searching for wires. Nothing. I popped it up carefully and slid out the broach and necklace. Aka and I ran for it.
We did this three nights in a row. Each night, I’d take the stolen goods and stash them in a sewer drain a street over.
The fourth we snuck in, and I eyed a diamond ring on a far table.
“No, no!” Aka hissed at me. “No more jewelry. I think you need to slow down on the big stuff. If you make it a habit every night, you’re sure to get caught.”
I waved him off and made for the diamond ring. Aka sprinted by me to block me off, and tripped over something.
“OW! SHIT!” He hissed, biting his knuckle. “Not good. Not good.”
“What happened?” I asked, moving into the light for a better view.
Aka tripped a wire and his ankle was caught in a bear trap. Try as we might, we could pry the thing off him.
“If he comes back in the morning and finds me, we’re both dead. He’ll definitely come for you.”
I thought for a moment.
“I’ll be right back. Stay low.”
I ripped off part of my shirt and wrapped it around his ankle, then I sprinted out of the entrance and straight toward Eshe’s.
“Eshe!” I called, slipping under the dusty curtain of her home. “It’s an emergency!”
She appeared in her pajamas, holding an oil lantern up to illuminate my face.
“Akil, what is it? Who’s hurt.”
“I need you to come with me.”
Eshe and I returned to Aka with a bone saw and tourniquet. She pumped a syringe of morphine into Aka while I wrapped the tourniquet nice and tight.
Aka lay still and Eshe sawed through his leg. I held put my hand over his mouth to keep him from screaming out too loud. Once free, she pressed the hot oil lantern to the open wound to try cauterizing it as much as she could. We wrapped his leg in bandage, just enough so he couldn’t drip blood out through the door.
I carried him on my back all the way home, listening to Eshe nagging Aka and I for doing something stupid. She was right, but we avoided capture. So far.
“Eshe, thanks,” I said, laying Aka down in the bed. “But I think we’re going to need one more thing.”
She looked at me curiously.
“Masud’s gonna know someone’s missing a foot. Do you have a prosthetic we can borrow? And can you hang out here tomorrow? I have a plan.”
She sighed and shook her head at me in disbelief.
I was right. The next day, Masud made his round with two of his muscle, going door to door looking for their jewels and the footless thief. Their footsteps gave them away as they approached the house. We had dad’s medical stuff still strewn about the basement, and we collected it all on a table beside Aka’s bed. Eshe strapped the breathing tube around Aka’s head and turned the oxygen on for him. He already had an IV drip going since last night. Under the blanket, I strapped the prosthetic to his stub.
“Inspection from the President,” one of the grunts called as they descended the stairs. The other stayed upstairs, searching around for the hidden jewels. None of which he would find.
“I hope you won’t stay long,” Eshe said, taking Aka’s blood pressure. “I’m in the middle of tending to a patient. This emphysema is becoming an epidemic.”
Aka faked a good wheeze and deep cough. We listened to our father do it so much, we could both probably mimic it in our sleep.
“Such a young one, too.” Masud said with a tinge of pity, glancing down at Aka’s covered feet.
“And they’re getting younger. Reckless. This air is no good. Make sure you keep wearing your masks.” She addressed Masud and his muscle.
“Of course,” his eyes lowered to my feet, both bare, as my legs dangled off my cot.
“It’s an honor to meet you sir,” I bowed my head. “Please say a prayer for my brother?”
“May the light of Ra’s favor bring healing to your brother,” he said with a slight bow.
She turned her head to me, and angry scowl on her face. “I hope you’re learning from your brother’s mistake.”
“Yes ma’am,” I replied.
The muscle appeared at the top of the stairs.
“All’s clear, sir!” he shouted down.
“Very well. I will leave you to your mending.”
He tipped the brim of his wide hat and reaffixed his gas mask before climbing back up the stairs and through the door. I listened for three pairs of feet to be long gone before I exhaled a huge sigh of relief.
“Eshe, you’re the best.”
“You owe me big time,” she replied, sitting down in a chair by Aka’s bedside.
“Name your price, and I’ll give you what ever money you want.”
She shook her head and sighed.
“Just stay out of trouble.”
I’m glad she didn’t make me promise that.
Two days later, a decree went out on the front page of the daily newsletter.
I ran into the house damn near screaming in happiness.
“President Tor is throwing a party at The Pyramid this weekend! And Kesi is granting any asker a favor in exchange for a story of the cleverest thing he or she has done!”
I sighed and dropped myself in a chair.
“I mean, this is amazing! I can ask Kesi for a kiss. I… This is the chance I’ve been waiting for this forever!”
“Yeah, but it’s clearly a trap,” Aka chimed in.
“Yeah.” The excitement in my voice deflated. “Any guilty person could see that. Marud’s tired of being out-witted.”
“What are you going to do?” Eshe asked, changing the bandages on Aka’s leg.
I read the article in the daily newsletter one more time and tossed it on the table.
“Obviously. He didn’t find the mysterious foot’s owner, so now he needs a hand from his daughter.” Eshe smiled at her own joke.
Aka got her pun and laughed, and she laughed with him. For me, a lightbulb went off.
“Eshe, I’m gonna need a hand,” I said, turning in my chair.
“No way, Akil. I’m not helping with any more of your crazy schemes. You’re just lucky they worked so far.”
“No, I mean, I literally need a hand. Got a cadaver that doesn’t need… oh… up to his elbow?”
“Akil, you’re crazy,” Aka said.
“I’m a man who knows what he wants. And I want Kesi.”
I leaned over the over the table, resting my head on my outstretched arms.
“I want her so bad…”
I pulled on my best trench coat over my hoodie and slid the gloved cadaver arm into the inside pocket. I wrapped Abbun’s nice neck scarf around, covering my nose and mouth, and headed out for the party.
There were no shortage of men in line to see Kesi, young and old. A few women stood in line, too. I wondered how many of them were there for something physical, like me. A bit of jealousy built up in me, and I pushed it back down. I spent my time productive, taking note of the entrances and exits.
A half hour nearly passed when it was my turn to see Kesi. I slid the cadaver arm into place, unbuttoned the front of the trench, and sat on a lush couch across from Kesi. She looked more radiant without the face mask, now that I could see her full lips and short dark hair framing her face with stern bangs. I spared just a second on her cleavage and focused on her dark-rimmed eyes.
“What is your wish?” she asked kindly.
“I wish for a kiss from your fair lips. I’ve seen you from a far, and there is no more beautiful woman in all of this barren land. Ra himself must have given birth to such a creation full of life.”
“You are quite a man of words, aren’t you?”
“And so much more…” I replied.
“Please tell me, flattering stranger, what is your greatest act of cleverness?”
I slipped my right arm out of the sleeve.
“Once, I lived near a very wealthy man. He caught my brother in a trap, and I cut his foot off. When the wealthy man came around to see if he could find the man missing his foot, I used a prosthetic to hide my brother’s missing foot.”
Her eyes lit with surprise at the mention of my brother losing his foot, and she calmly listened to the rest of the story.
“That’s definitely the most clever story I’ve heard tonight. So yes, I will grant you your kiss.”
I stood with her, and she came close. I angled my left side toward her, and she rested a hand on the cadaver arm.
She leaned in for a kiss, and met her lips with mine. I pushed against her in fierce passion, and she returned it. Whether she faked it or not, it was magical. I hesitated to let go, but I had to be the first one to do so for this to work. I dropped the coat and her lips at the same time, bolting for the door.
“I GOT HIM! I GOT…!” she shouted and fell silent.
I walked casually out into the partying crowd, taking my hood down and wrapping the scarf around my waist. Three muscle emerged from the room with Kesi and they combed the party floor. I slid past them and out the front door.
“How old do you think he was?” Masud paced his study with Kesi sitting on the chaise lounge.
“About my age. It was hard to tell with his hood up, but he didn’t have any lines around his mouth.”
“So some hooligan is out-witting me?” His pacing picked up. “I still don’t even know how he got into the vault!”
“Abbun, if you really want to stop him, perhaps a catch to kill isn’t the answer.”
He stopped and looked at his daughter with wild curiosity.
“What do you mean? How else am I supposed to keep him from stealing from me? I need to put an end to-“
“Abbun. He’s obviously the cleverest man in all of Kair. Wouldn’t it be better to have him as an ally, rather than an enemy?”
“An ally?” Masud laughed.
“I’m serious! Which of your guards could steal from your vault without getting caught? Which of them could think of such an elaborate scheme to cover a crime in less than a day?”
She blushed at the thought of the next question before it rolled off her lips.
“Which of them could steal a woman’s kiss and disappear into the night?”
Masud massaged his bearded chin, staring off into space.
“Make him your security advisor,” she stated plainly.
His brows raised, and he turned to face her.
“That’s not a bad idea.”
He thought for a moment more, his mouth slightly hung open and splitting into a grin.
“It’s settled. I will send out a decree to the papers for the morning. If the young man turns in the jewelry pieces he stole as proof, I will consider his hijinx up to this point as an elaborate job interview. I will hire him as my trusted advisor.”
I walked into the foyer of The Pyramid, my backpack slung over my shoulder, and my gray hood pulled up over my head. It took me a day to think about this, whether or not it could be a trap, but eventually I decided to take the opportunity.
“Can I help you?” a muscle addressed me.
“Yeah,” I said, dropping the backpack from my shoulder and holding it straight out in my hand. “I’ve got a present for Masud.”
I jingled the bag and the coins and jewelry clanked around inside.
The muscle’s eyes went wide, and he summoned Masud on the walkie-talkie. It took only minutes before Masud appeared in the foyer, Kesi by his side.
“You… are you the cleverest man in Kair?” Masud asked.
Well, he didn’t call me a thief, so that’s a good sign. Kesi’s hopeful eyes looked me up and down, trying to remember me from the other night.
I threw the bag across the room, and it clattered on the floor at Masud’s feet with the weight of the jewelry inside. The drawstring broke open, and glinting gold, pearls, and precious gemstones glimmered from within. Masud looked down and back up at me with excitement.
“You’re hired!” He clapped and scooped up his treasure, counting it and making sure it was the stolen pieces. Satisfied, he looked up from the bag.
“Who are you, young man? What is your name?”
I pulled the terrycloth rags down to my neck and flipped down the hood.
“Akil,” I said. “Akil Bakari.”
“Bakari? As in old Bakari?” Masud’s eyes widened. “The architect?”
“I hired him awhile back to help stabilize this building. He was a great architect. He built that vault that you snuck into. I assume he told you a way in?”
I ran an invisible zipper across my lips with my fingers.
“No information until I sign some employment contract.”
Masud dropped his shoulders and sighed.
“Very well then. I’ll have wine brought out and we can discuss over a drink.”
Masud turned on his heel and disappeared through the door.
“You’re one of twins, huh?” Kesi asked, walking toward me.
I nodded. “I’m surprised you know who I am.”
“I’ve seen you out and about with your brother.”
I smiled and tried to think of something witty and flirty to say.
“Did you mean it?” she continued. “What you said at the party the other night.”
My cool composure gave way to embarrassment, my confident face sunk into warm redness.
“Ehhh… I might have…” I winked at her.
She smiled, grabbed my hand, and pulled me through the door after her father.
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