Peter was convinced that he was one of the world's best cat burglars, but there was no way to know for certain because all of the best practitioners of the art would never reveal their true profession. There were no award ceremonies for burglars. No medals were handed out, and even if they were they'd probably be stolen before the presentation. Peter only broke into the houses of the wealthy, partly because of the rich pickings on offer there but mainly because these victims could easily afford to lose whatever he stole. He revelled in the challenge posed by their elaborate security systems. Any sort of a challenge was a chance to show off his skills to the burglary fans he liked to imagine, the real fans who'd go to all of the burglary matches, rather than just watching them on TV. He loved stealing the jewellery that people wore as they slept. It took the hands of a brain surgeon to remove a diamond necklace from someone off in dreamland. It was satisfying to perform such a delicate task and to steal from people who wore extravagant outfits in bed.
One night, while he was congratulating himself just after stealing a gold watch from the wrist of a sleeping hedge fund manager (and doing a lap of honour in front of the cheering fans in his mind) his victory celebrations were marred when he looked at his wrist and noticed that his own watch was gone. As he walked down the stairs he tried to figure out what could have happened to it. He remembered looking at it just before going into the house. The strap must have broken while he was inside. Victory could become a humiliating defeat if he left a piece of evidence like that behind.
Another problem arose when he went into the study and found that he wasn't alone. A woman dressed in black was sitting on an armchair. He only recognised her when she removed her black hat and her red hair fell down over her shoulders. It was Lucinda, his ex-wife.
She held up his watch and said, "Looking for this?"
"Where did you find it?" He had a lot of questions, but 'Where did you find it?' was the only one he knew how to ask.
"I stole it. You once said I was as awkward as an elephant working in a restaurant, but I stole your watch. You were only stealing a watch from someone who was asleep, but I stole a watch from someone who was stealing a watch from someone who was asleep."
"But... What's going on?" He put all of his questions into 'What's going on?'.
She told him that she had developed a love of cat burglary before their divorce, when she started following him at night because she was convinced that he was having an affair. She'd spent the past seven years perfecting her art, and now she was undoubtedly one of the best cat burglars in the world, if not the best.
"Every cat burglar thinks they're the best in the world," Peter said dismissively.
"I think I've just proven that I'm better than you."
"When we were married, a conversation like this would always end in an argument."
"Any conversation would end in an argument."
"True, and as much as I'd like to have an argument for old time's sake, I think we should do something together. For old time's sake. Let's do a job together. We'll choose some offensively lavish mansion and break in. You were always saying we never did anything together when we were married. I hated all the things you loved doing."
"And you loved doing nothing all day. Why would I want to do a job with you to be reminded of that?"
"Because we had good times as well. Doing something together would be a way of emphasising the good memories and diminishing the bad. Even if we never see each other again, we'll never be able to get away from the memories."
After giving the matter some thought, Lucinda agreed to work with him. On the following night they broke into a mansion near the coast. It seemed as if the owners had only just moved in. Everything was new. Peter was delighted, but Lucinda had reservations. "They're newly-weds," she said. "Look at the wedding photos, and there are even wedding cards on the mantelpiece."
"So there must be wedding presents. And at those sort of weddings, people don't give toasters and kettles."
"I can't go through with this. We can't steal from newly-weds, not when we're only here to remind ourselves of the few good times we had when we were newly-weds."
"Well it's probably only going to end up reminding us of our differences. I'm going upstairs to get the jewellery."
When Peter went into the bedroom he saw the newly-weds sleeping in each other's arms, and his conscience made him go back downstairs to Lucinda. She'd found a bottle of whiskey. She poured him a glass when he told her he'd be leaving empty-handed. They sat on a sofa and they started talking about old times. The whiskey made them forget to keep their voices down. When a light came on and a man stepped into the room, Peter wished he had at least stolen the shotgun.
Both of the newly-weds were awake. While he held the gun, she went to get the phone, but before she dialled a number, Lucinda said, "There's something you should know before you call the police. We were hired by some friends of yours. Bill and Triona. They wanted us to retrieve the wedding present they gave."
"That's absurd," the man said.
"It sounds absurd, but unfortunately it's true. They've been hit badly by the recession. Their hotel is certain to go out of business, but they're desperate to keep up appearances. When ye've been visiting their house recently, I bet they seem nervous every time ye go to the bathroom."
"As a matter of fact, I have noticed that. I thought it was something else, but... I have noticed that."
"They're afraid ye'll stray into the wrong room. The hall, the kitchen, the dining room and the bathroom all look fine, but every other room in the house has been stripped bare. They've sold all of the furniture and all of their valuables. They simply can't afford to buy presents for all these weddings they're going to, so they hired us."
"I had no idea. I should have suspected something. Bill keeps cancelling things. We haven't gone to a rugby match in nearly a year. If there's anything that involves an overnight stay, he'll come up with some excuse to get out of it. I feel so sorry for them. Desperation makes people do strange things. Of course they can have the wedding present. Take as much as ye can carry and give it all to Bill and Triona."
Peter saw the first light of dawn as he left the house with Lucinda. They turned around to say goodbye Toby and Michelle (they were all on first name terms by then). Peter and Lucinda couldn't wave because of all the presents they were carrying. It was the first time Peter had ever completed a job with the whole-hearted approval of the victims. These victims had made him toasted sandwiches. The job hadn't provided any opportunity to show off his skills, but working with Lucinda had been enjoyable.
On the way home she told him that she had broken into Bill and Triona's house a few weeks earlier, and she had left empty-handed. The place was exactly as she had described. In the study she found piles of bills and evidence of the doomed hotel. "I'd be surprised if they still have electricity," she told Peter. "I wonder what excuse they'd come up with if their power was cut off. I bet they'll suddenly become committed environmentalists. We all have to make sacrifices to reduce our carbon footprint, they'll say."
"But how did you know they were friends of Toby and Michelle?"
"When you went upstairs I couldn't resist having a look around to see if there was anything I could take. Anything I could take. I wasn't necessarily going to take it. It's like when I'm on a diet and I have to look at a cake. Just to make sure it's there. I came across some wedding photos, and I recognised Bill and Triona in them."
"What'll we do with all of our wedding presents?"
"I think it's appropriate that we give something to Bill and Triona."
"How about a book on how to minimise your carbon footprint."
"That's a really good idea. We should work together more often."