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If you’re going to be a thief, the first thing you need to know is that you don’t exist.
And I mean, you really have to know it. You have to own it. Bug Eye taught me that. Because if you do exist, you might snag someone’s eye who will frown and wonder who you are. They’ll want to know who’s letting you run around. Where you’ll sleep tonight. If you’ll sleep tonight.
If you exist, you won’t be able to slouch through a press of bodies, all warm arms and shoulders smelling of work and soap. You won’t be able to take your time and choose: a big lady in pink and gold. You won’t be able to bump into her and swivel away, her wallet stuffed down your pants. If you exist, you can’t exhale and slip through the bars on a window. Your feet might creak on the floorboards. Your sweat might smell too sharp.
But I don’t.
I’m the best thief in this town.
I don’t exist.
I’ve been sitting in this mango tree for long enough to squish seven mosquitoes dead. I can feel my own warm blood between my fingers. God only knows how many bites I have. Ants are exploring my nether regions. And yet Sister Gladys, bless her, will not sleep.
Through the windows I see her bathed in the light of the common room’s television. Her face shines a radiant blue, and her belly shudders with laughter. Feet propped up on a stool, her toes bend at odd angles like antelope horns. I wonder what she’s watching, relaxed now that all the students are asleep. Old Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reruns? Churchill Raw? What do nuns think is funny?
I check the time on my phone and briefly consider coming back tomorrow and lifting that ancient television once and for all. Shouldn’t she be praying or something?
Eight mosquitoes. My stomach growls. I clench it and it stops.
Finally, the sister’s head slumps. I wait for the rhythm of her breathing to steady, then slowly lower myself over the wall that surrounds the school.
A guard dog materializes from the darkness and rushes toward me.
I put my arms up. Dirty leaps on me, slobbering all over my face. “Shh . . .” I say to his whines. His wagging tail thumps my legs as I walk toward the washroom at the end of the dorms.
“What took you so long?” Kiki asks, pushing open a creaky window as I approach.
I wince at the noise and look around, even though I know there’s no one in the tidy yard but Dirty. He leans against my thigh, panting happily as I rub the soft fur between his ears. Dirty and I are old pals.
“I think Sister Gladys has a crush on Will Smith,” I say.
My sister grunts and pushes a white bun through the bars on the window meant to keep thieves like me out. It tastes sweet, store-bought. I give a bite to Dirty, who wolfs it down in one gulp, licks his lips, and whines.
“Everything okay?” I ask between bites. “The penguins aren’t beating you up too bad?”
She shakes her head. “You?”
“No penguins up on my roof. Can’t fly.”
“You know what I mean, Tina.”
“I’m fine,” I say. “Hey, I brought you something.” I rummage in my bag and pull out a pack of No. 2 pencils, still wrapped in cellophane. I slide them through the bars.
“Tina . . .”
“Wait, there’s more,” I say before she can protest, and fish out a notebook. It has a cartoon of happy kids on the front, and the words SCHOOL DAYS! in dark, emphatic capitals.
I push the goods toward her. Her eyes linger on the tattoos that cover my arms.
“The nuns will give me school supplies,” she says. “You don’t have to steal them.”
“They’ll give you the reject bits. You don’t have to depend on their charity. I can get you better.”
“But you’re giving me charity.”
“That’s different. I’m family.”
She doesn’t say anything.
I step back, leaving the gifts on the windowsill. “You’re welcome.”
“Tina,” she blurts, “you can’t just live on the streets for the rest of your life.”
I zip up my bag. “I don’t live on the streets. I live on a roof.”
Kiki’s doing that thing where her brow pinches, and she looks like Mama. I see more and more of our mother in Kiki every time I come here, which hurts sometimes, but still, better Mama than him. He’s most obvious in her lighter skin and eyes, in her loose curls. You can still see that we’re sisters; I just wish it wasn’t so obvious that we’re half sisters. Not that I would ever call her that. I hate how it sounds. Half sister. Like half a person.
But there’s no hiding that Kiki’s dad, unlike mine, is white. Once she let it slip that the other girls call her “Point-Five,” as in, point-five black, point-five white. I told her to tell me their names, but she just said, They don’t mean anything by it, Tina. It doesn’t bother me, and besides, you can’t go around beating up little kids. But sometimes I see her looking at my dark skin, comparing it against her own, and I can tell she wonders what it would be like to fit in for once, to not be the “Point-Five” orphan.
Kiki squeezes the bars separating us, as if she could pull them apart. She’s not finished. “You can come stay here with me. You know you can. Sister Eunice would let you. You’re not too old. She let that other sixteen-year-old in. They’ve got lots of books and a piano and—”
“Shh.” I put a finger to my lips. “Too loud.”
She glances over her shoulder into the dark washroom. From somewhere I hear one of the other girls cough.
“Seriously, Tina,” she whispers, turning back. “They could put you on scholarship, like me.”
“Come on, Kiki, you know they won’t. It’s one per family.”
“Enough,” I say sharply. Too sharply. Her shoulders sag. “Hey,” I say, and reach my hand through the bars again to smooth down the curls that have escaped her braids. “Thanks for dinner. I’ve got to go. I have to meet Boyboy.”
“Tina, don’t leave yet,” she starts, her face pressed up close against the metal.
“Be good, okay? Do your homework. Don’t let the penguins catch you out of bed.”
“You’ll be back next Friday?” she asks.
I gently push Dirty off my leg and make sure my pack is tight on my back. Scaling the wall to get out is always harder than climbing the tree to get in, and I don’t want to get caught on the barbed wire and broken shards of glass embedded in the concrete.
Kiki is still watching me. I force a grin. For a moment her face is still, and then it softens and she smiles.
For half a second, I exist.
And then I disappear in the dark.
Rule 2: Trust no one. Or if you must, trust them like you’d trust a street dog around fresh meat.
Take the Goondas, for example. Just because I am one doesn’t mean I trust them. Bug Eye is okay. I probably wouldn’t be alive without him. But guys like his brother, Ketchup?
No way. I learned that a long time ago.
The Goondas are everywhere in Sangui City, and they pick up refugee kids like that street dog picks up fleas. It might make my life easier if I lived at the warehouse with them, but then someone would probably wriggle in beside me in the middle of the night and next thing you know I’m like Sheika on the sidewalk with her toddlers, begging for change. Most girls don’t last long with the Goondas.
I’m not most girls.
I hurry through the dark alleys, the route from Kiki’s school to the Goonda warehouse so familiar that I hardly have to keep my eyes open. But I do. A girl on the streets alone after dark is prey. Generally, I try not to stand out too much. My face is usually hidden under my hoodie and my clothes are purposefully shapeless. I keep my hair cropped short. Being scrawny and flat chested helps.
I skirt mud and concrete and garbage rotting in gray pools. The pink glow of the sky over the city lights my way well enough. When I reach Biashara Avenue, I see the hawkers have gone home for the night. The only people left are night crawlers: drunks and restless prostitutes bathed in neon from the bars. The twilight girls watch me suspiciously from their side of the street. I ignore them and walk fast, until I’m at the bridge that separates Old Sangui Town, where Kiki’s school is, from the industrial Go-Downs, the Goondas’ home turf. The lights of the warehouses and factories shimmer in the river like a sort of magic dividing new and old.
Once I saw a body float by as I crossed over this bridge. It was the middle of the night and nobody noticed but me. I guess it floated until a crocodile got interested, or maybe it got all the way out to the mangroves and then the ocean if there was anything left. But there are no bodies tonight, just a handful of wooden dhows anchored in the current, fishermen asleep in their hulls.
By the time I reach the other side, I’m practically running. The Go-Downs are still; no bars on this side. I hear only a few far-off alarms and the growls of dogs fighting over garbage.
They don’t even look up when I scurry by. I don’t need my phone to tell me I’m late. I curse Sister Gladys and her TV shows. I shouldn’t have gone to see Kiki. There wasn’t enough time. But if I hadn’t shown up like I always do on Friday nights, she would worry.
Plus, I didn’t want to do what I’m about to do without seeing her first.
When I finally reach the salt-rusted warehouse door, I’m breathing hard and hungry again. I rap three times. Pause. Rap two times. Pause. Once.
A peephole opens to reveal a malevolent eye.
“It’s Tiny Girl,” I say.
The guard opens up for me.
Boyboy is waiting inside. “You’re late,” he says, skinny arms folded over his chest, petulant scowl on his face. I take in his bright pink see-through shirt and mascara.
“You were supposed to wear black,” I say. As if the Goondas don’t give him a hard enough time already. “Let’s go.”
He follows me down the hall to Bug Eye’s office. I can’t see them, but I hear Goondas through the walls. They’re hanging out on the warehouse floor, getting high, watching football, waiting to be sent on errands. Maybe some of them are practicing in the gym, beating up old tires and lifting concrete blocks, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Another guard slouches out of the way to let us into Bug Eye’s office. When I open the door, Bug Eye and Ketchup are bent over the desk, looking at blueprints and maps, their sleeves rolled up in the heat. The tattoos on their arms twitch
as they jab at the paper, arguing about something. They’re going over the plan one last time. Good thing too. Bug Eye got all the brains in that family. His brother, Ketchup, on the other hand, is as dull witted as two rocks in a bag. We’ve all worked together on break-ins before, but never one with such high stakes. I don’t like it that Ketchup is in on this job. He makes stupid gay jokes about Boyboy that throw him off his game. Plus I just don’t like the guy. I don’t like counting on him to have my back. But it’s not the sort of thing you complain about to Bug Eye. Where Bug Eye goes, his little brother goes too.
You’d never guess the two Goondas were related. Bug Eye is older, maybe twenty-five. He’s muscled and broad, with a serious face and eyes that can see straight into your dirty, lying soul. People say he looks like Jay Z. Ketchup, on the other hand, is scrawny and seems way younger than his eighteen years. He has a narrow face and a laugh like a hyena. People say he looks like a starving weasel.
At their feet are two duffel bags full of gear: laptops, dark hoodies, wires, tape, potato crisps, and energy drinks. All the essentials.
I step up to look over their shoulders.
“We’ll roll up here,” Bug Eye says. He taps the blueprint and fixes me with his trademark unnerving stare. I nod and he turns back to the paper. “Then what, Ketchup?”
“Man, we been over this a hundred times. We drop Tiny Girl and cruise the block, try and park here.” He stabs the paper with his finger.
“And what’ll we do while we wait?”
Ketchup snickers and makes a dirty hand gesture. He looks at me to see if I blush. I don’t.
Bug Eye smacks him on the back of the head. “Weh, grow up,” he says, not looking up from the plans.
Ketchup rubs the back of his head and sulks, but doesn’t protest. Even he knows better than to fight Bug Eye.
“Okay, Boyboy’s gonna be with me in the van, doing his computer thing,” Bug Eye goes on.
Boyboy keeps his arms crossed tightly over his chest, maintaining a respectful distance. He doesn’t say anything. He isn’t a Goonda.
“And you’re lookout,” Bug Eye tells his brother.
“So what’s your smart ass going to be doing?” Ketchup retorts.
“Being in charge of you,” he says smoothly. “Reporting back to Mr. Omoko. And that just leaves Tiny Girl. You know where you’re going?”
All three are looking at me now.
I lift my chin. “Yeah.”
Bug Eye jerks his head at the blueprints. It’s a question, so I step forward. I reach between Ketchup’s and Bug Eye’s shoulders and plant my finger on the street outside the mansion. I push it past the electrified perimeter fence, through eighteen-inch-thick walls, past laser scanners, down silent carpeted hallways, and between little notes: guards, camera, dogs. It stops deep in the building’s heart.
Rule 3: Thieves don’t have friends.
Every thief has a mother, and maybe even a little sister if she’s lucky, but you can’t help any of that. You can have people like Boyboy’s mom, who I say hi to every day on my way home. That’s just keeping tabs on the neighborhood. She sells tea on the corner and tells me if cops are around, and I make sure the Goondas go easy on her boy. You can have acquaintances. But friends, people you care about, and who care about you . . .
Well, you’re only going to get them into trouble.
Before you even ask, Boyboy is not my friend.
He’s my business partner. Big difference. He’s from Congo too, so I don’t have to explain certain things to him that I’d rather not talk about, like where my family is, or why I don’t really sleep, or why men in uniforms make me twitch. Sometimes he comes over to my roof and we share a smoke and watch the sun disappear into the smog that caresses the city. That’s it. Boyboy has his party boys, and I have Kiki. You probably think that’s sad or something, but I’m not sad.
Besides, I don’t have a lot of time for making friends. I have things to do.
We use a florist’s van to get there. Ketchup is driving, and Bug Eye keeps yelling at him to slow down and watch the road. It’s two in the morning and cops are just as likely to shake us down for cash as care that we’re running red lights, but still, better that no one remembers seeing a van full of kids dressed in black and obviously not florists. The closer we get, the more ready I am to be out and working. Ketchup’s constant prattle makes me nervous. He laughs his hyena laugh and says gross stuff about the twilight girls on the street corners we pass.
In the back, Boyboy and I are quiet, getting ready. I attach my earpiece and make sure the Bluetooth is connecting to my phone.
“Let’s see how the camera is feeding,” Boyboy says.
I look at him, aiming the micro-camera embedded in the earpiece. His face pops up on his laptop screen. “Good.” He watches himself pat his hair into place as he asks, “Mic check? Say something.”
I whisper, “Boyboy got no fashion sense,” and the little earpiece relays my words to my phone, and then to Boyboy’s computer, where I hear myself echo.
He flips me off seamlessly, between the adjustments he’s making to his equipment. “Can you hear me okay?”
“Yeah,” I say. “You’re clear.”
“You have to keep your phone close to the earpiece. When you had it in your pocket on that last job, the connection was bad. Where are you putting it?”
I tuck my phone into my sports bra and wave my hands—ta-da.
“Put this one in your pocket,” he says, and hands me a tiny USB adapter. “It’s the key to the treasure box and I don’t want it getting lost in your cleavage.”
“Ha.” My chest is barely larger than my eleven-year-old sister’s. But I do as he asks.
Boyboy is crazy good with tech stuff. He always has been, ever since I’ve known him. He told me when he was little the bigger boys would beat him up and call him a fairy, so he spent a lot of time in his room, taking phones and computers apart, putting them back together. His latest trick is hacking ATMs so they spit out crisp thousand-shilling notes.
He won’t join the Goondas, but he’ll work with me. He does his IT genius thing when I need him, and in exchange I lift fancy gadgets for him—computers, phones, the occasional designer handbag—whatever he needs. He says he’s the best hacker in East Africa, and from what I’ve seen, he’s telling the truth.
He’d better be. He’s about to break us into the most fortified home in the Ring.
The Ring is where you live if you can afford it. Lush, hilly, and green, it sits above Sangui City, peering down its nose at the rest of us. The houses squat on neatly clipped lawns behind fences and flame trees and barbed wire and dogs and ex-military guards with AK-47s. Fleets of Mercedes descend into the city in the mornings carrying the Big Men to work. We call these guys the WaBenzi: the tribe of the Mercedes- Benz. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, hail from all over the world, but speak a common language: money. When they return to their mansions in the Ring in the evening, they complain about traffic, drink imported scotch, and fall asleep early on soft cotton sheets. Their wives oversee small armies of servants and get delicate headaches when the African sun is too hot. Their kids play tennis. Their dogs have therapists.
At this time of night, the Ring is quiet except for frogs and insects. It’s rained up here, and the mist is thick. The eerily familiar tree-lined streets we drive are empty. The florist van doesn’t look too out of place. Maybe we have just come from a banquet. A power wedding.
I look out the window. We pass a break in the houses and trees, and I catch a glimpse of the dark Indian Ocean. Sangui: city-state on a hill, port to the world, and a fine bloody place to do business. You do the dirty work down there in town, and the Ring is where you retreat.
I should know. I’ve seen it all up close. I may live down in the dirt now, but once upon a time, a fortress in the Ring was my home.
Rule 4: Choose your target carefully.
It’s a magic word. Full of power.
Just saying it out loud on the street can get somebody killed. I’ve seen it happen. The police are worthless, so folks are disposed to make their own swift justice. And believe me, no one feels sorry for the thief when the dust settles and blood soaks into the ground. Better be sure no one’s raising a finger at you.
So listen up. Choose carefully. Choose the right target. Most of the time that means the easy target. If you’re pickpocketing, go for the drunks and people having arguments on their mobiles. If you’re robbing a house, make sure it’s the one where they hide the key on the doorjamb. You want to go for bank accounts? Try the old rich lady. Odds are her password is her dog’s name.
There are plenty to choose from. No sense in making it hard on yourself.
But for every rule, there is an exception.
Roland Greyhill’s home isn’t a natural target. His gates are locked and his guard is up. The man makes his living dealing with warlords and armies and vast amounts of cash. He knows he’s got enemies. He’s spent years watching his back. He trusts no one. There is nothing easy about him.
But make no mistake: Difficult or not, tonight he is the right target.
We’re getting close. I swallow the jangling feeling in my throat and roll down my window a little. The air is wet and smells like jasmine.
Boyboy is quiet beside me. I know he wants to ask how I’m feeling. Everyone else has been going over the plan all day, but I’ve been thinking about it for years. I’m not sure I would even know how to explain how I feel right now. Like I swallowed a hive of bees? Is that an emotion?
But Boyboy knows better than to ask me dumb questions.
When we’re two houses away, Ketchup turns the lights off and rolls to a stop.
“We’re here, Mr. Omoko,” Bug Eye says into his phone.
The mansion takes up twice the space of any other home on the street. Over the high wall, only the red tile roof is visible. What we can’t see are half a dozen dudes with AK-47s and two German shepherds prowling the grounds. But we know they’re there.
Everyone looks up at the house, dead silent. Even Ketchup.
Bug Eye rubs his hands together. “You ready, Tiny Girl?”
I touch the earpiece. It’s secure. I pop my shoulders and twist my back. It takes everything not to shout, I’m here. I’m doing this. This is my house.
“I’m ready,” I say, and slip out of the van.