Sometimes things are not what they seem. (~1095 words.)
Wispy clouds dotted the blue spring sky, thin and streaky in the dry air and drifted east slowly over a policeman speaking to a man lying on a park bench.
“You’re under arrest, Bernie,” the policeman said to the grubby vagabond.
“Vagrancy again?” Bernie had played this game before and sat up on the bench, frowning at the officer.
“It could be robbery this time.” The officer smiled and held up a pair of handcuffs. “Same routine though.”
Bernie eyed the shiny, steel bracelets. “Robbery? I think you’re mistaken, officer.” He stood, turned around, and put his hands behind his back, wrists close together.
The officer snapped the cuffs in place and shot his hand into Bernie’s coat pocket, withdrawing a big handful of precious stones. “You have the right to remain silent... ”
The previous week.
Bernie’s daily routine never varied much. He slept in the park at night and spent most of his days out of sight, amongst the dumpsters, behind the small town’s shopping complex. These dumpsters were Bernie’s source of food, clothing, and even shelter when it rained. The staff at the shops knew him by sight and paid him no heed.
The only friend Bernie had was a clever rat. He would play with his rat and teach it tricks to pass the time away. He’d throw a set of car keys, he’d found in the carpark, and the rat would fetch them for him, rewarded suitably with a morsel from the dumpsters.
“Get the keys,” Bernie said to the rat showing him the keys. They jingled quietly and the rat quivered and stood on its hind legs. Bernie threw them across the parking lot and watched his friend scurry after them.
“Good rat... clever rat,” he said, when the rat returned with the keys in its mouth. “Good boy.” Bernie stroked its tiny head with a finger and fed him a small piece of dry dog-treat, reinforcing the desired behaviour.
Likewise, he’d taught the rat to eat glass craft-beads, also scavenged from the dumpsters.
It was a windy day. Not hot. Not freezing. Just pleasantly cold. Bernie sat with his back against a brick wall, with an itchy-grey blanket draped over his torso. He reached behind him, keys in hand, scratching away at the old mortar between the bricks.
Thirty paces away, the back door of the drug store opened. The pharmacist stepped out into the sunshine and arced up a smoke. He looked around taking a deep drag and raised his free hand in a wave when he saw Bernie.
Bernie smiled, raising a hand, returning the gesture. When his hands returned to their previous task—scratching at the mortar—he felt the brick loosen.
About time, he thought.
Slowly, he removed the brick. The pharmacist ground out his cigarette with the heel of his shoe, glanced at Bernie and stepped inside, closing the door.
Bernie reached inside his shirt and brought out the rat, placing it in the hole.
“Go, boy. Eat the glass. Good rat... clever rat.”
Most rodents have the remarkable ability of being in close proximity to humans, without being detected, and Bernie’s rat excelled in this stealth behaviour. It roamed the interior of the open jewellery store, scurrying from place to place unnoticed and sometimes remaining motionless for minutes at a time, all the while looking for glass-to-eat. However, there were no glass beads in this jewellery shop, only precious stones in trays ready for setting into gold and silver rings.
The rat came back to Bernie and he weighed it in his hand.
Heavy, he thought. Poor bugger.
He put it in the front of his shirt, before returning the brick to the hole in the wall. He folded his grimy blanket and made his way to the park.
A few more days ought to do it.
All that remained now was to wait for the rat’s bowel movements.
“We found him in the park.” The arresting officer led Bernie into the watch-house cell and locked the door. Bernie turned around grabbing the bars behind him. The officer unlocked the cuffs and hung them on his belt.
“Your hunch was right, Sarge.” The second officer held up an evidence bag full of precious jewels. “He had these in his pocket. How he got them is a mystery.”
The burly sergeant stood up from behind his desk and examined the evidence. “Good work fellers. I’m sure a nice, friendly chat with Bernie will reveal the whole story.”
“We’re going to finish our rounds,” the first officer said, dropping the cell keys on the sergeant’s desk and walked towards the front door.
The sergeant glanced at the wall clock, then at Bernie. I’m due in court soon. This case will have to wait for now.
He followed his officers outside, closing the door behind him.
Bernie sat down on his bunk and looked around. The police station was a part of the heritage listed courthouse obviously built a long time ago. One of the fluorescent ceiling lights flickered occasionally omitting a quiet hum. Outside, cars drove past with a swish of their tires. He turned his attention to the front entrance. To the worn brush-strip at the bottom of the door in particular.
A small grey head appeared under the door, parting the brush bristles and Bernie's rat squeezed through. It knew by now that if Bernie wasn't in the shopping centre parking lot, or the park, then he would be here. It raced over to Bernie and stood on its hind legs, receiving a scratch under the chin.
"Good rat... clever rat," Bernie said and swung his arm in a fake throw at the sergeant's desk. "Get the keys boy. Good rat... clever rat.”
It was still windy, and the darkness crept in. There was no moon. The only lights visible were the yellow-glowing widely spaced streetlamps.
A black Mercedes Maybach S600 stopped at the entrance of a dark alley. The uniformed driver killed the headlights, got out, and opened the rear-passenger door.
“Good evening, sir,” the driver said, seemingly to no one, staring into the dark depths of the alley, the mouth of which was littered with rubbish. The restless wind toyed with small bits of paper, swirling and whirling them in a playful flurry.
“Good evening to you too, Hutchinson,” Bernie said, stepping from the shadows and handing the driver a big evidence-bag full of precious stones. “I think it best we find ourselves another small town, with a brick jewellery store, preferably far, far away from here.”