I’ve just had an email with the results of the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition – Round 1. My story got an honourable mention – that means I was close but didn’t actually make it into the top 5 to proceed to the next round. I’m looking forward to seeing the judge’s feedback so I can improve going forward.
As so many people are trying to find ways to fill their time at the moment, I thought I’d share it here. Grab a cuppa, take five and escape for a little while. Let me know what you think in the comments.
The Other Thief
It’s like a gut punch. I mean, it’s never good to get called into the bosses office, that’s going to get your guts churning like a dodgy Vindaloo no matter who you are. But when you’re me? An unexpected call into the Security Manager’s office could spell doom.
He has flourescent lights overhead, they’re giving me a headache and making the room look weirdly far away. It’s buzzing. The transformer needs sorting, but that’s not my job. It’s just distracting, and I need to concentrate on what he’s saying.
‘…items going missing from dressing rooms overnight.’
I open my mouth with a denial and Nick shakes his head. ‘Look, Pete. I don’t care who’s doing it, I just need it to stop. I took a chance on you, stuck my neck out, and now I look like a right muppet. So I don’t need to hear anything, I just need it to stop.’
I can see my nostrils flaring as I stare down my nose at my hands. There’s so much I want to say. I’m taking my meds. I’m seeing my therapist. I’m healthy, just now. I haven’t felt the urge to take anything for a while, and longer since I acted on it.
But that little voice? The new me? It’s struggling to get heard above the roar of shame. ‘You’ll never change!’, ‘Rotten to the bloody core, just like your father.’, ‘If I see you in my court again, it’ll have to be a custodial sentence.’
I want to vomit, but that will probably be seen as a sign of guilt. So I swallow it down and just nod.
‘Alright,’ Nicks says and waves me towards the door.
I make it all the way to the gents before I puke, the sour stench snapping me out of my mood better than a bucket of water to the face.
It’s not fair. It’s not bloody fair! I’m going to lose everything because some other tea leaf is taking stuff out of dressing rooms. If Dave knew anything about my condition, he’d know that wasn’t my scene. What’s the fun of stealing in an empty building? It’s the thrill of the chase that gets me going. Fires off the reward centers of the brain. I’m an addict, but I’m in recovery. I have healthier mechanisms now. Meds. Talking therapy.
I flush, move to the sink and take a sip of the stale water. It’s a Victorian building, the pipes are probably lead and sending everyone crazy. I’m grounding, though. Coming back to myself.
If things are going missing at night, then someone’s either hiding out or breaking in. Either way they must be dodging the cameras, because even if Nick is too tight to pay for a night guard, he must leave the CCTV on. Not that it would be hard to dodge, there’s dead spots all over the place.
All I have to do is hide myself, get into the security room and find out who the other Klepto in the building is. I’ll show Dave, he’ll apologises profusely, I’ll ask him to put in a word with the boss and maybe I’ll get a reward or a raise or something. Simple.
Theatres are strange places. They stand empty for so much of the time, it’s like when people are there they have to make up for it. The overblown luvvies, the ‘characters’ that make up the back stage crew and the audiences, all dressed up and eager to be entertained, or to find fault, depending on their personalities.
It’s all over quickly, time doesn’t drag because you’re always waiting for the next cue and the next silent journey through the rat runs to leave a prop or move a flat.
Tonight, I feel like I’m being watched all the time. I try and tell myself it’s paranoia. I’m just sensitive because Nick made me feel like a thief, not a recovered one. But who else knows things are going missing? Who else knows about me? I just don’t know and it’s sending the hairs on the back of my neck into overdrive.
It’s a relief when the curtain goes down for the final time and everyone starts to file out. I keep myself busy so I know that most people have gone, and then I go to sign out. Old Terry, the stage door keeper, is looking predictably tired and distracted by now. He should retire, really, but I don’t think stage door keepers do that. They seem to last forever. I take my time scribbling my name, then wait until something distracts him and move as though I’m leaving – and then step into a CCTV dead zone.
I’d be willing to bet that Pete left the security office hours ago, but not enough to go straight there. I head down the narrow stairs that leads to the cellar, less chance of bumping into anyone who’s slow to leave down there where it’s just long-term storage and large equipment.
As I near the bottom step I realise I might not be the only one who’s decided it’s a good place to wait. Is the other thief down here in the darkness, too? I stop on the bottom step and let my eyes adjust to the darkness, listening for any sound.
The layout down here is pretty simple, it’s a rectangle that runs underneath the backstage area, and the stage itself. It’s where the trap door lets out. There locked cupboards around the sides full of props that might get used again one day. Cinderella’s carriage, Banquo’s Ghost, the perfect rock to sit on while you wait for Godot. Once I’m as sure as I can be that I’m alone down here, I start walking the perimeter.
I thought it would be quiet here at night, but it’s not. There’s clicks, ticks, and rumbles coming from all over the place. It’s the pipes. The heating. Everything cooling down as the heating gets turned off. It’s an old building. Definitely not the grey lady.
The first padlock I come to is locked, I give it an experimental tug to be sure and then keep walking. I’m more scared than I thought I would be. I don’t mean tense or anxious, I mean proper, creeping fear. That feeling that there’s something just out the corner of your eye, that there’s danger hiding in the shadows.
I ignore it. I’m just doing something a bit risky, but whoever the other thief is they’re a thief, not a serial killer. I continue walking around the passage ways that turn and turn until I’m back at the foot of the staircase. Nothing seems out of place down here, apart from me.
When I get back up, I realise there’s a small flaw in my plan. All the lights are out, so I can’t see a thing. The cameras are still on, but it’s just got ten times harder to move from one to the other without stepping into view. I want to catch a thief tonight, not convince my boss I am one. Then I remember they all have a small, red light just above the lens. I breathe, take my time, and pick my way up the stairs and through the corridors.
I’m accompanied by that pricking sensation between your shoulder blades that makes you feel followed. At one point I think I can hear another set of footsteps but when I come to a halt, so do they. I take one step. Nothing. It’s just an echo, amplified by anxiety. The other thief might not even be here tonight. It’s still a relief to get to the security office, turn the handle and step inside.
Most of the stress disappears immediately. I’m definitely alone in a small room and there’s some ambient light from the CCTV monitors which are the main reason I’m here. It feels good to slide into Nick’s chair and sit on the opposite side of the desk I was on earlier.
There are three monitors on a side desk, and each one displays the view from four different cameras. Two are outside the front, two at the back. Then there’s four that work the lobby and bar, one for each staircase up to the circle and a final one that shows the auditorium from the stage. The final screen is what I’m most interested in. There’s a camera on each of the staircases that lead to the stalls and eventually to the costume department in the attic. Then there’s the one of the corridor outside this room, and finally one inside the stage door that takes in the green room and dressing rooms.
It figures that the cameras are low resolution. They’re in infra-red mode so everything is washed in a dark green tinge. I push the chair back until I’m in a position where all the screens are in my field of vision and settle in. It’s then that I notice that the cameras can be moved from up here, there’s a control panel on the desk.
I can’t help but smile. This is how I’m going to catch the other thief. They know their way around the cameras the way they’re positioned now, but if I move them? They won’t know exactly where the dead zones are. I’ll catch the in the act.
I lean forward, trying to decide which cameras to move where. I start with the one backstage, where I’m most likely to see our culprit. At the moment it centres on the exit through to the stage, so I move it to angle more towards the dressing room doors. Perfect.
So where next? I cant my head as at a single tapping noise from out in the corridor, I’m telling myself it’s just the radiators, and when nothing else happens within 10 seconds or so I get back to the screens. I experiment with the camera on this level. It’s just showing the corridor and the office doors off of it. That’s when it hits me that it’s strange that things are going missing from the dressing rooms but not up here. The cash office is next door, and they don’t keep a lot of money on site but there’s bound to be some. More than you’d get from selling off some piece of jewelry stolen from the sort of D-lister we get in shows here.
I know better than most that stealing isn’t about the money. Maybe whoever it is gets their kids from being in the private spaces of the not very rich and not very famous. Who am I to judge?
But if that’s the case, maybe they hang about in the auditorium, or on the stage. There’s no way I can see what’s going on on-stage, but I can move the auditorium camera a little. I put my hand on the camera and start moving it, seeing the greenish grey of the infra-red display try and keep up. It blurs and refocuses, and that’s why it takes me a while to realise I’m seeing movement.
I find myself leaning in to try and make sense of it. It’s low to the ground, and it’s like the darkness is getting displaced. The movement roils, like smoke, sometimes there and sometimes not. I shift the camera again, and as I do a more distinct shape coalesces.
Fabric. It’s fabric. A cloak or something? Did they raid costume? Of course it would be the perfect place to hide out up there, and to grab a disguise that’s been worn by someone ‘famous’. As I shift the camera gain there’s a swift response, something lurches towards the camera and I get a glimpse of a white face leering at me before it turns and disappears.
A mask. Just a mask. But my hands are shaking, and that instinct I’ve been trying to ignore all night is shouting really loudly now. This isn’t right. None of this is right. Where the hell did that thing go?
Not out the front to the lobby, and there’s nothing on either staircase. Has it come backstage then? No. Not yet.
It’s that noise outside the door again. Get a grip, Peter. There’s an actual human person in here, you don’t need to be giving your attention to radiators.
Yes, there they are. Just coming off the stage. It’s a movement low to the ground, perfect for staying out of sight of the old camera position but slap bang in the middle of the new one.
I’m leaning in again, trying to spot who it could be. They’re agile, whoever it is. Definitely not Old Terry. The cameras make their movement look oddly disjointed, like their limbs are too long.
I have a sudden thought that this has all been for nothing. All I’ve done is stay in the theatre to get unidentifiable CCTV footage that looks like a prank. Best case scenario we can leak it on YouTube and say it’s the grey lady and maybe attract some paranormal nuts into the audience. Whoever it is, they’re leaving now.
They’re gone from my field of vision. Slipping into a dead zone. I switch my attention to the outdoor cameras, waiting to see them emerge from the stage door.
Tap tap tap.
It’s with a sickening lurch that I realise they haven’t left the building at all. They’re coming up the stairs, towards the office. They’re right in view now, not trying to hide at all, and one thing I know for sure now. They’re not human.
Medway Messenger, Friday, January 24th, 2020.
Police were called to Rochester Theatre today, following the discovery of a body in the security office this morning. The victim has been named locally as Peter Mannion, a stage hand at the theatre who had recently come under suspicion of stealing from his fellow staff members. Police report there are no suspicious circumstances.