Story-time Saturday: The Thief and the Guard

     “Whoa,” was all that Jim Stefánson could articulate. He knew the resort lounge well enough, but something, someone, was new. He just knew saying the words in his head would jinx things. That the action would somehow guarantee that he would never be able speak to her, but he had to admit it to himself. That is probably the most beautiful woman I will ever see.
     She was being chatted up by one of the trust-fund brats that frequented the resort. The kid was decked out in the latest cold-weather fashion, some kind of camouflage pattern based on feathers, which only managed to stand out garishly against his bright red hair. Jim tried to pay attention to the kid, but his eyes drifted back to the woman as she smiled faintly at some joke the kid rattled off, sipping her drink. Her outfit looked like it was hand-crafted from one of those fabrics that only the rich could afford to know the name of. It was a modest cut, but randomly sheer in places, giving tantalizing hints of the skin beneath.
     Then her eyes lifted ever so slightly, looking past the kid talking to her and locking eyes with Jim. His heart started to pound in a way he hadn’t felt since high-school. Are they blue? Green? I can’t tell, but I could lose my soul in those eyes if I’m not careful, he thought. Best to drop it, she’s out of my league and I’ve got work to do. He broke eye contact first, making his way to the bar, pointedly not looking back at the mysterious woman. Despite the internal voice telling him to forget her and get his focus back, he swore he could feel those heavenly yet unsettling eyes on him as he crossed the room.
     “The usual Kormak, still on the company dime today,” he called to the bartender as he settled onto a stool.
     “Lucky you,” Kormak replied with an answering, if mocking smile.
     “So, you’re here for business, not...pleasure?” asked a soft voice behind him. The question sounded so close to a contented purr he half expected to see fur when he turned around.
     Jim felt his eyes grow wide and his heart start to pound audibly. Can she hear it? Can everyone? There She was. Somehow she snuck up next to him, barely an arm’s length away and eyes locked tight with his own. Her eyes are blue, he decided, but with flecks of green… Forget being on the job, he thought vehemently. I would follow those eyes, this woman, anywhere. All she has to do is ask…I don’t want her to have to ask, I’ll just go. Jim shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut briefly. Where did that come from?
    His confusion didn’t stop his eyes from drinking her in as he tried to come up with some witty reply. She had platinum blonde hair that fell down well past her shoulders, the kind that came from pure Swedish swim-team stock, not a bottle. Her creamy-soft skin caught the light in all the right ways, forcing Jim to fight the urge to reach out and caress her cheek, the gentle arc of her jaw line, down to… Jim kicked himself mentally, clearing his throat self-consciously, “Afraid so, miss. I’m supposed to be meeting for a…ah…business transaction,” he replied haltingly.
     “That’s a shame, the snow is lovely today,” she answered, with just the hint of a pout, before continuing. “What kind of business are you in, stranger?” she asked, lowering her eyes just enough to elicit a nervous cough out of him.
     “That…um,” he fumbled. “I’m afraid that’s a secret,” he said dumbly. Over the roar of his own heartbeat, he could hear a soft snort from Kormak, who had sequestered himself at the far end of the bar like any good bartender. He’ll pay for that later, Jim mentally growled.
     “Oh, a secret?” she smiled, and part of him leaped for joy as the smile grew wider than it had earlier. “I like secrets. I’m quite good at keeping them, too.” She ran one of her long, delicate fingers around the rim of her glass and stepped closer. “You could tell me,” she whispered.
     “Maybe,” Jim whispered back with an answering smile, his confidence slowly growing. “Or maybe not.” Then he paused, looking down. “That’s a lovely necklace you have.”
     The heavy golden necklace sat prominently on her chest, the delicate craftsmanship readily apparent, laden with more jewels than Jim had ever seen in one place. A few he recognized, due to his work, but some of them he was sure couldn’t be defined by any jeweler in the country, and he sensed that was what gave the piece it’s true worth. It shined under the soft lounge lighting like it had some kind of inner glow, always catching just the right reflection on every facet. “Thank you, it is very special to me,” she replied, touching it delicately, almost like a lover's caress.
     “From a special someone?” he asked, a small catch in his voice.
     “Not really,” she answered, her eyes suddenly far away. “More accurately, I earned this, but that is neither here nor there,” she continued as her gaze returned to the present and locked with his once more. “Perhaps we could meet again, when your business is concluded?”
     A thrill shot from the base of his spine into his head, and Jim was once again at a loss for words. His mouth opened and closed several times until he was finally able to squeak out something that sounded similar to, “Dan-gawz.”
     As if this were perfectly understandable and more than enough answer, she nodded and said, “I wish you luck in your…business transaction.” She smiled widely and returned to the lounge chair she had occupied earlier.
     “You lucky sumbitch,” Kormak said, pure envy in his voice as he set the non-alcoholic drink on the bar in front of Jim.
    “Wha-?” Jim stammered, shaking his head to clear it.
     “You’re the first one I’ve seen that she approached. She’s had dozens try to strike up a conversation, but that’s the first time I’ve seen her start one herself,” Kormak replied.
     “Yeah, well. She’s outta my league, with that outfit and that jewelry,” Jim shot back a little angrily, taking a long drink. If only I could actually have something with a kick. I sure could use one right now.
      “Maybe, maybe not,” Kormak shrugged.
     Jim ran his calloused fingers through his close-cropped sandy blonde hair in frustration, the kid from earlier had gone, and he had completely missed it. For the next couple hours, he watched the room, tracking each guest as they arrived, mentally noting those that weren’t hiding their wealth. His eyes continued to return to the beautiful woman in the chair. She never looked his way again, having to deal with one suitor after another, mildly flirting with each before gently shooting them down.
     Suddenly she rose from the chair, and every male eye in the room rose with her as she gracefully ascended the stairs, a faint smile on her face. With the briefest of glances, her eyes locked on Jim again, and then she was gone.

     “You want another?” Kormak asked dully. The energy of the room seemed to have lessened with the woman’s departure, and everyone was moving just a little slower.
     “I guess-“ Jim began, but was saved from the monotony of yet another carbonated beverage by a loud scream from the second story. Within a heartbeat he was at the base of the stairs, yelling “RCMP, clear the way! Move, move, move!” He thought the scream might have come from the mysterious woman, but he paused at the landing to get his bearings.
     “Filthy thief, return that at once or I will end your miserable existence!”
    She sounds mad, he thought, bolting down the hallway off of the balcony to the open door. She was naked, or near enough, covered in only a hotel bathrobe cinched at the waist with the flimsiest of knots. Her cream-colored skin was flushed in fury, and Jim knew he had better keep his eyes from wandering. “RCMP. What’s wrong, miss?” he called.
      “Someone stole my necklace, he went out the window!” she spat, pointing to the open window on the opposite side of the large suite.
      “Did you get a look at him?”
      “Red hair and a camouflage jacket, that’s all I saw. Now get my necklace back!” she yelled at him, her chest heaving in indignation.
     Jim nodded, never questioning her command for an instant, and raced to the window just as a figure matching her description vanished into the tree line on the edge of the resort. “Damn, that’s a hell of a head start,” he muttered, looking around. The drive-under awning for the resort’s main entrance was directly below him, a two meter drop, and then another two and a half meters to the ground at the edge of the awning. I’m gonna feel this in the morning, he thought ruefully.
     The thin layer of fresh snow did little to lessen his impact, but the thief’s tracks stood out clearly in the mid-day sun, and Jim grinned as he took off into the woods, hot on the trail.

     "Damn, damn, damn!" The curses echoed through the national forest eerily an hour later, neither echoing nor fading as they should. "Where did that thieving little shit go?" Jim wondered aloud. His quarry was still on foot, which helped little in his current situation. The forest was over 2 million acres, in an area that already had one of the lowest populations per square kilometer ratios. If his prey managed to reach a road before he was caught, there was little chance this situation would be resolved quickly. Jim was a decent tracker, but the thief seemed to have realized he should cover his tracks only after leading Jim a couple kilometers into the forest. "A month without getting caught and now the little bastard's gone and grown a brain stem!" he fumed.
    Jim was the last member of a task force that had been whittled down to nothing thanks to departmental incompetence and bureaucratic nonsense. A rash of thefts at the local resorts had resulted in several Very Important People calling the Chief about their missing multi-million dollar bits and bobs getting snatched right out of their rooms. The calls quieted as insurance reluctantly paid out, so fewer and fewer officers were given leave to continue the hunt. More than once the thief had been spotted, but no one ever saw enough of the thief to give a descent description. All they ever knew was medium build and red hair. Jim had nick-named the thief the Red Fox, since he always seemed to know the way in and out of the best henhouses. 
     Jim had been working his way through resort lounges, trying to spot marks the way the thief was bound to be doing, but until today he had always been two steps behind. Now he was less than twenty minutes behind the thief, in the middle of no-man’s-land, and a severely muddled trail.
     Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to focus on recapturing the trail rather than how much his boss was going to chew him out for losing the target after days of stakeouts and ‘drinks’ on the company dime. He let his eyes defocus, slowly turning in a circle, keeping his attention from zeroing in on any one thing, when he spotted a sign. A sapling was bent at a severe angle, and the edge of a boot print could be seen next to it, heading in a completely different track than the thief had previously taken. "Maybe he's not so smart after all," he smiled ruefully as he quickly resumed his chase. Red Fox’s trail reappeared quickly, heading for what Jim knew was a deep ravine capped at one end by a waterfall. The water would be colder than frigid at this time of year, but there might be a downed tree or two that a certain desperate thief might be able to use to cross the water.
      Focused once more on the trail, Jim almost missed the camp that he was running through. It was a strikingly simple affair, with a small fire pit and a large pack. There was no evidence of a sleeping roll or tent, but it looked heavily frequented, as if someone had been there for several days. Then he spotted the stranger on the opposite side of the fire pit. He was a big guy, likely a lumberjack or trucker. He seemed unconcerned with the early winter chill in a simple gold and white checkered flannel shirt and sensible jeans. A breeze swept through the camp, scattering some of the fresh snow over the fire pit and tossing the stranger's long hair haphazardly. "Howdy," Jim said, straightening as non-threateningly as he could. There were quite a few survivalist junkies in the area, despite it being too close to a tourist trap for the hard-core nuts, and the last thing he wanted to do as an armed stranger was set off a crazy person.
     Running a practiced eye over the stranger, Jim sized him up. He was only a few centimeters taller than Jim, but he had bulk to Jim’s wiry frame. Jim was no slouch in hand-to-hand combat drills, but the guy looked like he straightened horseshoes with his bare hands for fun.
     The stranger nodded in reply to Jim’s greeting, his striking blue eyes piercing Jim where he stood. "You are looking for someone," he said, a deep bass that rumbled heartily through the trees around them.
     "Yes, a thief who just robbed the resort a couple kilometers back," Jim replied, pointing back over his shoulder. “He’s got red hair and a camouflage jacket, probably running like crazy.” Jim repressed the urge to visibly shudder under the man’s gaze. There’s something about those eyes, he thought, like he’s seeing me from two inches and two light-years away at the same time. “Don’t suppose he came nearby?”
     That seemed to amuse the big man for some reason, a faint smile raising the corner of his mouth as his eyes darted past Jim along the thief’s trail for a heartbeat before locking back on Jim’s. “I see him. He is headed down to the ravine to meet his buyer. We should hurry if we are to intercept him."
     "Whoa there, Brawny-man," Jim replied, holding up a hand. "I don't know who you are, but I don’t need the trouble of getting a civilian involved." Suddenly what the big man said registered fully. "Buyer? He's got help out here in the middle of nowhere?"
     "Yes, and you will need my help if you want to catch the thief. The buyer is my quarry," the stranger replied, holding up a hand. "I solemnly swear to you, I will not make your job any more difficult."
     Jim almost snorted in amusement, then thought better of it. Something in the stranger's voice lent it a forcefully honest quality, and Jim actually believed him. "You got a name?"
     Again, the corner of the stranger's mouth twitched in amusement, "Brawny will do." He bent to pick up his pack and secured it while using his boots to cover the few remaining coals in the pit.
     Jim frowned, "What is that made of? Some kind of new back-packer material?"
     "Sealskin," Brawny replied. Seeing Jim's stricken expression, he sighed, "Synthetic, sad to say. Not quite as good as the real thing."
     Jim wasn't sure how to reply to that, so he changed tack, "We're going to have to move quick if we're going to catch the thief and this buyer you mentioned. You need a jacket or something?"
     Brawny actually laughed at that, a deep belly laugh that startled nearby birds, "I am used to much colder, I assure you."

     The two made their way down to the bottom of the ravine over the next couple hours, when the sun was high above and the air a few degrees warmer. Despite the fact that the thief tried twice more to cover his tracks and make abrupt direction changes, Brawny never hesitated, picking up the trail again with ease. Jim wondered just how well those bright blue eyes could see, but kept his musings to himself. Suddenly Brawny threw up a hand, signaling a halt. Jim skidded to a stop, quietly sneaking a peek past Brawny, eyeing the rocky shore of the river carefully. The Red Fox was at the water's edge, casually tossing rocks onto the thin ice, obviously waiting.
     "You want to wait for the buyer?" Jim asked in a low voice, still unsure why he trusted the stranger so much.
     A silent nod was his only reply. The two of them waited another half hour in silence, watching the thief grow more and more impatient. At last, as the afternoon was nearing completion, a figure emerged from the opposite side of the river. The sun was just high enough to light the floor of the ravine, though the light only reached the river and the opposite shore. Jim, Brawny, and the thief were all in a chilled shadow. Despite the distance, Jim could see a wiry figure, dressed in a thick winter coat, topped by a shock of red hair that caught the sunlight like a freshly-lit flame. They’re almost brothers, right down to the pattern on the jackets, Jim thought.
     "Ahoy there, my friend!" the figure called, snapping the thief's head around so fast Jim wondered if the man had hurt himself.
     "What the hell, dude? I've been waiting, like, forever here! I've got your stuff, where's my cut?" the Red Fox yelled back angrily.
     "I'm afraid we've got a problem a trifle worse than deciding your cut, friend," called the buyer. "You've got company!"
     Moving so fast Jim had no time to react, Brawny bolted from the trees, running past the thief and straight onto the thin ice, "As do you, Troublemaker!" he roared, the yell echoing angrily in the ravine.
     "Idiot! That ice won't hold!" Jim called as he followed Brawny from the trees, drawing his service pistol at the same time. 
     "Freeze, Police!" he called to the thief, who was gaping open-mouthed at the mountain of a man that was now nimbly hopping across the iced-over river. With each step, there was a loud cracking sound as the ice gave way and a small spray of water from under the ice, but the large man had somehow already moved on.
      The world slowed as Jim watched the stranger dance across the ice with effortless grace, the water kicked up by the big man’s boots scattering faint rainbows behind him in a multi-colored pathway that Jim knew he could never follow, no matter how much his heart suddenly, inexplicably, wished it could.
      Time snapped back to normal speed and his attention focused on the thief, who had gotten over his shock and was eyeing the gun in Jim's hands. "Not a chance, kid. Hands up," Jim barked. The thief raised his hands in surrender and Jim spared a glance at the crazy stranger who had made it to the opposite side without falling in, and was now swinging his pack over his head threateningly.
     Okay, that's just weird, Jim thought, as the stranger brought the pack down hard across the buyer's head, knocking the other man to the ground. The buyer was nimble, though, and was quickly on his feet again, running for the relative safety of the trees, a mad laughter burst from the buyer as he pulled away from the larger man. Brawny chased after him with another angry roar, and both of them disappeared in moments. 
     "Hey!" Jim yelled at the thief, who had been sliding surreptitiously towards the trees. "Nice try, kid." The thief froze again, and Jim pulled some zip-ties out of his pocket. Frisking the thief for weapons, he found the necklace in the kid’s inner pocket. “Finally got you, Red. Let’s go,” he said, beginning the long march back to civilization.

     “Here you are, My Lady. I don’t think we’ll need to enter this for evidence. The officers found most of the other stolen goods back at the thief’s apartment, so there’s more than enough to get a conviction,” Jim said, handing over the necklace, which somehow managed to give off blinding reflections even in the early evening moonlight. 
     "You have my gratitude. I shudder to think what might happen if I lost it." The woman was in another curve-hugging, low-cut dress of some unknown material, topped by a heavy coat that was ringed with a stunning array of feathers across her shoulders. He swallowed hard, trying desperately not to picture her in the bathrobe he had last seen her in. He felt his pulse quicken as those sensuous lips tightened in a smile, as if she was fully aware of his internal struggle. 
      Uh-oh...say something idiot! he thought. "You're...uh...quite welcome. All part of the job," Jim fumbled in reply, feeling a heat rise on his face and neck.
     "Somehow I doubt chasing that nasty little thief through half the forest was your ideal…business transaction," she replied coolly, batting her eyes at him. 
     I can’t think when she does that. I don’t want to. Please, tell me what you want, and I will see it done. Take me with you… Jim suddenly cleared his throat loudly, trying to snap himself out of whatever hold she had on him, "Well, ah...I had a bit of help. I ran into a big guy who claimed to know the thief's buyer and seemed to be after him. He helped me chase down the thief, but I haven't seen or heard anything about either of them since I got back. I'm afraid I didn't catch his name" he replied sheepishly, not wanting the attention to end, knowing that it would all too soon.
     Suddenly the woman stopped flirting, growing serious. "A 'big guy', you say? Did you see the buyer? Was he caught?"
     "I did see the buyer, but only at a distance. He had a big coat and bright red hair, that's all I could tell, not too much different from the guy we caught, actually. Do you know someone who might want to steal your necklace?" he asked, suddenly much more comfortable investigating this whole bizarre episode, rather than his not-so-subtle attraction to a victim. Oh, but what a gorgeous victim!
     A low growl of "not-happy" emerged from two cat carriers in the woman's luggage behind her, stealing attention for a moment as the ghost of something between amusement and anger flashed across her beautiful face. "Yes, I do," she sighed. "I doubt he'll be punished, but you have my thanks, both for returning my necklace and your honesty." She kissed him on the cheek lightly, leaving a hint of roses in the air. Jim was certain this time she could hear his heart pounding in his chest, excited and terrified in one pure moment...and then she moved past him and out the door of the resort lobby. Perhaps we shall meet again, my gallant guardsman, and on that day, your questions would be answered, her voice echoed in his head.
     Jim's head whipped around, but the woman didn't look back, nor gave any indication that she had said anything at all. "Ha-happy to help," Jim stammered as his heart returned to a pace that didn’t threaten to shatter his ribcage, looking around the lounge as the woman slipped out the door. I need a real drink...


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