Ava’s hair glowed in the afternoon sun, a dark blond. She walked ahead of me, leading me to Target or wherever we were headed. Though it was my idea to go, I was fine being the follower; she knew what she was doing.
She was certainly the most intelligent of our group, at least if you judged intelligence by real life skill. She always knew the right thing to say and do, and though she may not get as good grades as Claire, I thought she was smarter.
Her hips almost sashayed as she walked, drawing my eyes to an area they probably shouldn’t be focused on. I rarely focused on those aspects of her. Nothing extra had ever happened between us, not even a moment like that one with Jacoby. It wasn’t surprising; best friends don’t normally spontaneously make out with each other.
She looked back at me as we made our way onto the main street. I hadn’t brought myself level with her on the sidewalk since it was pretty narrow, and plus, standing next to her would change the view.
She tilted her head and bunched up her eyebrows, questioning. I just shrugged and moved closer to her.
“So what do you think we need?” I asked, turning to face her.
Well, I don’t know really. What could help us do a better job stealing?”
I shrugged. “I think we could use some more gloves, but other than that, no idea. Can you not think of anything at all?”
She squinted, but it may have just been because of the sun. “I can’t think of anything. It’s not like we need weapons to threaten people, and I don’t know what else is useful. Maybe lock-picks, but we need to actually practice at that. And going to the library to get a book right now to help us would let someone trace something back to us.”
“Yeah. If only the internet was on, but then we probably wouldn’t be doing the whole stealing thing in the first place.”
“Yeah,” she chuckled. She pressed the button that signaled the crosswalk, since we were at the main road, Target across the street.
I thought of something important, so suddenly I almost stopped while in the middle of crossing the road. Ava recognized the look on my face and grabbed my hand, and I stumbled forward and onto the far sidewalk.
She planted her hands on her hips as soon as we got there, and pursed her lips. “What’s the stroke of brilliance this time, Elie?”
I said excitedly, “When I said we wouldn’t be doing this if the internet was on, it reminded me of something. The organization wouldn’t have hired us if the internet, as in communications, were working, right?”
She nodded mutely.
“Because they would be able to use their own people, like they said in the letter,” I continued. “Or something like that, since the letter wasn’t all that clear on why they had to hire us in the first place. But the issue with all communications being down and them having to use the mail isn’t an excuse! They have the phones that work or something else quicker than mail, because the more recent letter knew what we’d stolen, and exactly what we’d done the whole time. They didn’t have time to send a letter back and forth with Mr. Owens or that other creepy man. So therefore, they could have used their own contacts inside the city, and contacted them with the satellite phone through Mr. Owens or the other guy.”
She frowned when I finished stating my conclusion. I barely managed to restrain myself from jumping up and down, proud of solving a part of the mystery. Her facial expression brought me back down to earth.
“So you’re saying we have no idea why these people are sending us letters telling us to steal stuff, but they must have some other reason than their stated excuse?”
“Yeah…” I agreed tentatively. Her businesslike tone quelled even more of my exuberance.
She looked over her shoulder, then turned back to me. “I’ve been thinking that for a while. We really have no idea why they wanted us specifically, and even if we ignore that, we don’t know why they wanted anyone. A mob or similar type of group that needs random possessions stolen from houses and will pay well for it has some strange priorities.”
I didn’t know who could be listening, and it seemed at least possible that our contractors had had us followed given what they knew about how we did the mission. We might be safer in a more noisy crowd.
As we walked in the doors of Target, I leaned close to her, laid my hand on her shoulder, and whispered, “We should be careful about where we talk about these types of things.”
I was worried, but I also wanted to show I still knew some stuff. Her insight had caught me off guard.
Her unique scent wafted in her nostrils, from her hair. I’d notice before that smell, but not how gentle, yet enticing it was. No matter, we were here on business.
She turned her head, and whispered back, “I agree. Do you think we should keep going with it?”
After a moment’s deliberation on my part, we were in the clothes section. “Yeah. We’re still getting paid, and just because we don’t know what they want isn’t a reason not to follow their rough guidelines. We can make sure we don’t do anything with unintended consequences.”
She snorted, and tossed her hair. “I’m sure we can, as long as we’re extra cautious. Though I think we’re more likely to do whatever they want without realizing we’re even involved at all.”
That prospect worried me. I didn’t like being manipulated. But it wasn’t necessarily for a bad purpose. These could be part of the government, and we were taking stuff they desperately needed to stop the virus or maintain the quarantine. Not that I was on their side on that issue, but I could see how it was beneficial overall.
I scowled. “I think we’ll be fine. If we’re on the lookout, whatever the unintended consequences are, they can’t be as bad.”
She nodded, and we walked along in silence, still close together. I noticed her proximity more than I otherwise might have.
We came to the winter clothing, and maybe half the shelves were empty. I guess the air deliveries, how everything was getting resupplied now, were somewhat limited in quantity. People were probably stocking up in case the quarantine lasted a long time. On the other hand, this could be the normal amount of shopping that was done each year; I had no idea.
“Let’s look for gloves first,” I said, heading for that isle.
“Okay.” She followed me.
I found a rack of gloves and mittens, mostly in black. The problem was most of them were also not cloth or cotton or whatever, they were the waterproof slick stuff. Less grip, less dexterity, more noise. I pulled one of the only good pairs off, and it was too big, but seemed as if it might fit Jacoby. I handed them to Ava silently, then went back to browsing.
Eventually we found ones that might fit all of us, meaning a slightly smaller size for Claire, and a bigger one for Jacoby. I thought it’d be cool if we had full uniforms, but even using automatic checkout and everything, the cameras could build up too much identifying evidence against us, if anyone ever saw what we were wearing while we were on a mission.
As we went to look for some strong rope, just in case it’d ever be useful, I daydreamed up perfect costumes for us. Ava was content with silence, still examining the glove packaging. Instead of a one piece ninja polyester outfit, it’d be a shirt and pants, since they were easier to get on and off. A pair of leggings would work on the bottom, even for Jacoby, though they might not be the most comfortable for him in certain areas. On the top we could have Under Armor or similar shirts, also stretchy and tight. I thought that material was the best since it would be the least likely to get caught on stuff, and didn’t inhibit mobility at all. It might be a little cold for a few months, but we could handle it until we got back to our backpacks and heavier clothes. For our heads a ski mask could work, which I was wary of buying at the store even though they’d be handy. It would be too suspicious.
Unfortunately, I didn’t feel comfortable getting the outfits until we had internet and semi-anonymous purchasing available again.
When we got to the hardware section, Ava grabbed a strong looking rope, that was rated at a high enough strength that we could all climb on if necessary.
Before we headed to the checkout, I asked her, “Do you think we’ll actually use the rope?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I mean I hope not, simply because it’s dangerous and much easier to get in doors, but if we go onto a second floor where people are sleeping we might want a secondary escape route.”
“Yeah. I think we should get a hook or grapple so we can at the very least attach it to a window, you know?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I don’t know if I’d trust that with the rope. But I guess it couldn’t hurt.”
I hurried off to find the best thing for the job, like a child that’d just got permission to buy a load of candy. Funny really, since I was the one in charge. I guessed Ava just had a natural authority to her that made me, if not look up to her, at least default to her judgment. Maybe she’d be the long term planner, and I’d be the operational commander. As long as I still had an important role.
I settled on a four pronged grappling hook that wasn’t metal, but at least claimed to be strong. I’d test that for myself before using it. It surprised me to find that kind of thing at Target, but if there’s one thing the store wasn’t lacking in it was variety.
I met back up with Ava, and enthusiastically showed her what I’d found. She examined it with a measured eye. That sunk my heart for a second or two, but then I remembered it didn’t matter what she thought of it. I was in charge.
I still asked, “Do you think this is okay?”
“I guess it’ll work,” she said reluctantly.
“Okay, good. Now is there anything else you’d like to get?”
“No, I think we’re good. I want to get out of here, I don’t like doing stuff connected with the stealing in public.”
“Sure. Do you think we should have something to threaten people in a house with if they catch us?”
She flinched back, horrified. “No! God Elie, we aren’t part of the mob. We aren’t going to threaten people. If we get caught, it’s our own damn fault, and we’ll just have to live with the consequences.”
I pressed on. “I really think this could be helpful. Not knives or anything, just something like pepper spray. It doesn’t hurt people permanently, but it would delay them enough so they couldn’t grab us or call the police.”
Her expression softened, but it still was a far cry from moments before. “I still don’t think we need it,” she said. “If we have it, we’ll become reliant on it, be less careful in other facets of our mission planning and execution.”
“How about if we don’t buy any, but bring that one we took from Mrs. Gissard’s house with us?”
I guess,” she said, shifting her weight from one foot to another.
I hugged her, and she reluctantly wrapped her arms around me as well. A warm envelopment, so comforting.
“Thank you,” I said solemnly.
She rolled her eyes, and gently shoved me away. We headed to the checkout finally, after spending much longer than I expected shopping. All the automatic checkout lines were full, and I was getting antsy to leave the store, so we used a regular checkout line. The cashier raised an eyebrow at our purchases, but when we both adopted confused expressions, like we had no idea what he found so weird, he didn’t say anything. Which was good, because I didn’t have an excuse ready. I just expected that people saw weird things often enough they wouldn’t question us.
As we left the store, our shopping bags only contained the rope, grappling hook, and gloves, which seemed like a meager haul. I’d wracked my brains many times though, and not been able to come up with anything else to buy.
I took the bags home with me, and Ava veered off to her house. I found myself gazing at her wistfully as she turned the corner, wishing I was still with her. Not in a simply friendly way either. I enjoyed her company, and in return, she kept me sane, kept me from doing stupid things like buying a few unnecessary canisters of pepper spray. We’d always been like that. But spending this time with her, after the fight before about whether she was even going to join us stealing, just served to emphasize how much I needed her.
Approaching my house, I hoped my parents weren’t inside. They’d be extremely curious about what I’d bought, and depending on how much they knew about my finances, where I got the money. Thankfully, my dad was at his desk doing something with his computer, so he didn’t notice me open the front door. After a quick glance into the kitchen, I hurried upstairs to deposit the bags in my room, then went back down to check on my mom’s location.