Catch a Thief!
By Julia Archer
Imran, who cooks and cleans for our family, came home from Friday prayers at the Mosque with the face of someone who’d had a bad afternoon.
I asked, ‘Wasn’t it a good lecture?’
He was indignant. ‘Of course, the Imam spoke only good words.’
‘This is not about the Mosque, Joel.’
‘No. Okay. So?’
His frown got deeper. ‘There was a shopkeeper at the prayers. His name is Reza. He is from the street where they sell old craft things from Gulistan’s past.’
‘Yep. We’ve been to those shops together a few times.’
‘Yes, and Reza has seen us there. He says you have studied old things, and you are an honest man. He says you know if something is okay to sell, or is a treasure that should be in my country’s museums.’
I liked the ‘honest man’ bit. I’m only thirteen. ‘And?’
‘Most of those shopkeepers want to protect our treasures. But Reza thinks one shopkeeper maybe buys treasures from thieves, and sells them illegally to collectors.’
He passed me his phone with an image on the screen. ‘Reza took photos. It is this shop he is worrying about.’
‘And he thought perhaps you know this foreign man. Reza has seen him go into that shop many times.’
I looked at the second image, a middle-aged guy coming out of the shop with a package.
My head snapped back. The foreign community is not that huge, but I didn’t really expect to recognise him. I never even thought he’d be a teacher at my school.
‘Douglas Probyn,’ I said.
‘You know him?’
‘He teaches Math at the International School.’
Imran sat down on the arm of the couch, his mouth hanging open. ‘What do we do?’
‘I don’t know. I need to think.’
‘Joel, should you tell your father?’
‘No.’ Adults handle things by the rulebook, even my Dad, and that doesn’t always work.
All I could say to Imran was, ‘We can’t do anything over the weekend. On Monday, at school, I’ll try to find out something.’
It’s going to be a long weekend, I thought.
Monday came too slowly – and too quickly. And I still had no plan. Where was Probyn’s office? Not in any corridor I was used to walking through. So how many did that leave? Too many. And we weren’t permitted in halls we had no good reason to be in.
I was standing in my own corridor wrestling with this, and there was a teacher’s office right in front of me. Locked, of course, but the door is glass, my eyesight is good, and there was a neatly typed list pinned on a corkboard.
So now I knew where Probyn’s office was.
I went to homeroom sweating, my heart thumping. Now I really had to make a choice. I knew where to go. The only question was, should I? I could get into serious trouble, some I could imagine and probably some more that I hadn’t even thought of.
In the hall going to English, Zachary asked me, ‘You have a bad weekend, Joel?’
‘You could say.’
‘Maybe we’ve got a teacher buying stolen antiques.’
‘Really?’ He looked more excited than shocked. ‘Who?’
‘Can’t say. Need to check if it’s true.’
‘And if it is?’
‘Hey! Don’t leave me out of this, Joel! Ji-Hoon and Aurangzeb should be in it, too. After all, if stuff is being stolen, it’s Aurangzeb’s heritage.’
‘Okay. I’ll see you at lunch, after I’ve tried to check it out.’
So, just like that, I’d decided.
The nearest class I had to that office was third period. Before the class I sprinted down the hall, dodging the students moving through at the approved smart walk, raced up stairs two at a time, and along a hall I had no right to be in.
I found the office. Locked. No Probyn. A quick look showed nothing to answer my question. Sprinted back to class. Arrived late, breathless, looking as apologetic as a spaniel puppy, and sank into my seat.
After class, repeat steps one and two. Desperate now. Losing the courage to think of doing this a third time if I come up empty this time.
I slowed down, walking casually, not fast, not too slow, approaching the open door of Douglas Probyn’s office. I knew now what it meant to say your heart’s in your throat. What do I think I can find out anyway?
The teacher looked up from sorting papers on a ledge in front of a bookcase.
‘Hello, Mr Probyn,’ I said, smiling politely.
‘Hello – one of the Fleming boys, is that right? Year Eight? You don’t have a class up here, do you?’
‘No, sir. Just asked to run a message.’
Then I saw it. On a shelf with the books. You had to know a bit about really old stuff to even notice such a boring little grey pot. But I did know. I’d worked for weeks in the University Museum. The really old stuff isn’t exciting to look at, but it’s very, very valuable.
Probyn saw where I was looking. He laughed. ‘Oh, you like my replica.’
I shook my head. ‘Just looking at all the Math texts. Thinking I have to learn all that before I graduate.’ I sort of laughed and walked on.
I found the guys in the cafeteria. I told them everything and said, ‘Rats it was a replica! Who makes copies of boring little grey pots?’
‘So, what now?’
Aurangzeb, the prince of one of Gulistan’s ancient kingdoms, said in his quiet, firm voice, ‘He has to be stopped from taking this hoard out of my country.’
‘We could tell the school,’ Ji-Hoon said, but he didn’t sound convinced.
‘Do you think you spooked him?’ Zachary asked me.
‘Yes. I’m pretty sure I did.’
‘Why did he even have it where anyone could see it?’
I shrugged. ‘Criminals are arrogant, like to take risks. And it wasn’t a very big risk, that someone in the school would recognise it was an ancient treasure.’
Zachary was nodding. ‘It’s like the certificates and awards people hang on their office walls to say, aren’t I clever?’
Aurangzeb’s dark eyes narrowed. ‘I am not into the psychology of thieves. I simply want to recover what he has stolen.’
‘How, if we don’t tell the school or the police?’
‘I will have to tell my father,’ Aurangzeb said. ‘He has all the right connections at the top of the government. There is no other way.’
There probably wasn’t. But I didn’t like it. Adults either act too slow and too late, or they won’t believe you at all.
Next morning, I asked my homeroom, and Math, teacher, ‘Do you know if Mr Probyn is in today, Mr Neumeier?’
‘He promised to lend me a Math textbook.’
‘He’s phoned in sick. I have to take some of his classes.’
I spun around, and the three guys who knew why I looked so panicked were staring back at me.
I mouthed, ‘He’s made a run for it!’
The rest of the class was looking at me like I’d stopped even pretending to be normal.
I sat down, my mind bouncing off the walls. Maybe Probyn had been arrested. Did the school know? Was ‘off sick’ a quick cover story? Was it all fine? Had the police saved the old treasures from leaving Gulistan? Were they now questioning Probyn?
Did the police ever move that fast?
We met in the hall. Ji-Hoon said, ‘He’s American, isn’t he? The only direct flight to the US is on Tuesday. Today. Eleven thirty.’
‘He’s booked on it. Sure, as we’re standing here, he’s booked on that flight.’
‘Forget the police,’ Zachary said. ‘It’s up to us now.’
Even Aurangzeb nodded, and as a prince, he normally wouldn’t even think of acting so far outside the rules. But he’d told our story to the right authorities, and it looked like they and their rules hadn’t acted fast enough.
I warned the guys, ‘This could get us expelled. At least suspended.’
Ji-Hoon sort of gagged. His parents were going to love that.
He shook himself and stood taller. ‘If it were historic treasures of Korea… Let’s go!’
We sprinted along walkways least likely to be overlooked by teachers, across the carpark and into the street. Zachary signalled to a taxi, we piled in, Aurangzeb waved a fistful of notes at the startled driver and growled in Gulsha, ‘How much I pay you depends on how fast you take us to the airport!’
The driver thought about his family he had to feed, and the rent that was due, and the electricity bill, and he forced that shuddering rusty wreck to its top speed in seconds. We roared into a lurching turn onto the Main Road that set horns blaring, bus and truck tyres screeching as brakes were slammed on, and we were away, weaving and diving between lanes.
We peeled off onto the Airport Road, the engine screamed as the revs rose along with the temperature gauge, and the bright flowerbeds and cheerful flags on the median strip blurred as we flew past. Almost overturning at the roundabout where the bronze horsemen fly eagles off their wrists in a frozen tableau surrounded by sparkling fountains, we straightened to see the airport dead ahead.
The taxi more or less crash-landed outside Departures.
Aurangzeb pushed all the money at the driver, and we were running into the building, tugging our identity cards from our pockets. Three of them didn’t impress the security guys, but when they saw the prince’s, they almost saluted. We were in.
We raced for the escalators, ran up them, nearly sent some passengers flying, and we were in the security clearance line. Aurangzeb used his status to take us to the front. Phones, wallets through the X-ray, us through the metal detector, grab our phones and wallets and run for the gates.
‘B6,’ shouted Zachary, reading the board, and we were off running again, and there Probyn was, sitting in the departure lounge.
We walked straight up to him, and I twitched the boarding pass from his fingers and stepped back fast. He jumped to his feet, and the other guys were on either side of him, pulling his jacket open, and Zachary whipped his passport from the inside pocket.
We all backed away. His eyes turned wolfish and he came after us and we spread out. He tried using authority, then pleading. Passengers screamed. Security came running.
The first call to board the plane came over the PA. The woman who’d been sitting beside him stood and collected her things. She said quietly but very clearly, ‘You’re on your own, Douglas,’ and walked towards the air bridge.
Security didn’t know who they were supposed to detain, and Aurangzeb mustered all his personal authority to tell them who was the criminal here, and what was the crime.
They grabbed the teacher, rounded us up as well, and took us downstairs to this little room, and allowed us to phone our parents. Ji-Hoon was almost in tears telling his Mum in Korean he was in police custody.
After a bit of a wait, the suitcases that had been taken off the plane arrived. Expensive. Hard shell. Extra strong. Security opened them, of course, and wrapped ever so carefully inside was loot that made my stomach turn over.
I was glad they had all that treasure spread on the floor when my Dad walked in. It did make it easier to explain why I was in a police office at the airport, not a classroom in my school.
Explaining why I’d never told him anything at all until now was going to be a little harder.