Friday, January 20, 2012

Unseen (part 22)


It's easy to travel light when nobody knows you exist. I don't carry food or bedding, since I tend to gather both as I need them. I didn't use money growing up in Corey, and rarely see the point of carrying it even now. I don't need keys or a flashlight as long as I have the knack. So my ratty old backpack is more than roomy enough for the few items I do carry: two changes of clothing, one of them a dress lifted from someone's clothesline; a tin drinking cup from a military surplus store; a zippered bag containing a toothbrush, a hairbrush and a bar of soap; a discarded Leatherman tool with the knife blade partially broken off, but otherwise useful.

Then there are the two other things.

Although I try to make sure I don't look like I have anything worth stealing, I've had the occasional run-ins with pickpockets. They're easy to avoid in large crowds, because they're stupid enough to broadcast their thoughts and because I can blend into a crowd so completely that they'll never find me. But streets like this one -- dark, mostly deserted, shrouded in patches of fog -- present more of a challenge.

And the three would-be pickpockets behind me, who have tailed me for about a block and a half, are slowly gaining on me. I know they have designs on my backpack, and I also know they're not going to get it.

I know how the scam works. They send their newest guy out to jog up beside me and ask questions about a nonexistent address he's trying to find; he provides the distraction his buddies need to loot my backpack and beat feet. Calling the police would be out of the question even if there were any around, and I can't possibly take on three guys half my age and win. So at the moment I'm trying to decide how best to disappear.

"Excuse me? Ma'am?"

Ignoring my fluttering heartbeat, I keep walking steadily, firmly, swallowing the urge to speed up. I must not show fear. A botched pickpocketing can easily turn into a mugging.

"I'm sorry, ma'am? Lady?"

His voice cracks on the last word; he's younger than I thought. This must be his first time out pickpocketing, and he's not doing very well in front of his friends. But his lack of experience makes him dangerously unpredictable; he might try anything in an effort to impress them, and I don't want to find out how inventive he is.

There's a gathering patch of fog ahead of me. It's not much, but it'll have to do; the kid is coming up fast. I turn suddenly and look out into the street, over their heads, and I gasp and point out into thin air. Just as I'd hoped, their eyes all follow the direction my finger is pointing -- and as they do, I hold my breath, gather up an edge of the fog and fold myself into it like a cloak, and duck back into a doorway.

Moments pass. One of the pickpockets swears under his breath.

"Wait, where'd she go?" says the youngest.

"Your face musta scared her off, man," says another voice. "Toldja you were too ugly for this job."

"But she was right next to me," the youngest insists, a little petulantly.

"That was weird," says a third voice. And then, teasingly, "Hey, maybe she wasn't real. Maybe she was a ghooooost."

"Shut up, man!"

"It's too dead around here, anyway. We should try over by the Cinemark."

I hold very still, focusing on the breath charm, and they pass by, still teasing and arguing.

If they'd wanted my soap or my Leatherman tool, I would have handed it over. But I can't afford to lose the two other things in my backpack. One of them is my commonplace-book. I've been writing in it nearly every day, for some reason. The other is in the bottom of the backpack, wrapped and tied neatly in white linen, and I'd sooner give up my right arm than let anyone take it away from me.


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