There was a burglar in my apartment, and for once it wasn't me.
I knew it wasn't me because my intruder was stomping round my living room, bumping into furniture, and I'm a stealthy kind of thief. Added to that, I hadn't picked a lock or cracked a crib or been anywhere unbidden since I'd first set foot in Venice, almost a year ago. What's more - and this really closed the case for me - I was tucked up in bed, scribbling a few notes at just after 2 a.m.
Actually, you can scratch that last bit. I don't want to be accused of being anything but straight with you, so perhaps I should say that I wasn't simply jotting down frivolous ideas. In truth, I was thinking of ways to transform my latest Michael Faulks novel into something that might turn my life around for good - my breakout book. Except now my attention had been snatched away by what appeared to be a break-in.
I hopped out of bed in my boxer shorts and crept to the door of my room. Peering along the darkened hallway, I could see the glow of torchlight.
Now, as a general rule - and perhaps this is just me being terribly old-fashioned - I've always preferred to burgle places that are empty. In my experience, it makes the whole enterprise a lot more enjoyable and the chances of being caught a good deal less likely. Sadly, my unexpected visitor appeared to disagree. Either that, or he hadn't done his homework, and whichever it was, I wasn't altogether keen to point out his error. Then again, I wasn't altogether keen to stand idly by as he ripped me off.
But what could I do? I didn't own a gun, or anything that could be mistaken for one. There were knives in the kitchen, just off the living room, but I didn't relish the idea of waving a blade around. Sure, it'd be dandy if my intruder went all weak at the knees, held up his palms and sat nice and quiet while the boys in azzurro found their way to my home, but suppose he came at me and got hold of the knife and plunged it somewhere soft and fleshy that I'd rather it didn't go?
The torch swept the living room slowly, as if the person holding the flashlight believed they had all the time in the world. When the beam hit a certain angle, I could almost make out the shape of Mr Curious through the internal glass doors. He didn't strike me as an ogre, but neither was he a waif. He seemed broadly average, except that the average Venetian resident doesn't make a habit of breaking into people's homes -least of all when the front door of the home in question has been fitted with quality locks by an experienced thief.
I smiled in the darkness. Thinking of my door had given me an idea. No, I wasn't about to run outside and rouse a vigilante mob - I'd simply remembered the coat hooks in my hallway. And I'd also remembered the umbrella hanging from one of them.
The umbrella was as long as my leg, with a black fabric canopy and a sturdy wooden handle. If I could get to it, I could swing it like a club, or jab it like a sword. Hell, if push came to shove, I could ram the thing in the bugger's mouth and open it inside his oesophagus.
I edged into the hallway and skulked through the dark on my toes, but I needn't have worried. My visitor was making so much noise striding around the living room that I could have bumbled into a drum kit without being heard. Funny, I'd always favoured baseball trainers when I was on the prowl, but this clown appeared to be wearing tap shoes.
I lifted the umbrella down from its hook. It felt heavy enough to do some serious damage, assuming I was really prepared to use it. I didn't know about that. Speaking as a thief, it was all too easy to put myself in his (very noisy) shoes, and I was reluctant to barge in and land a series of blows without waiting to gauge his reaction.
I rolled my shoulders and circled my neck, trying to loosen the tension from my muscles. Nope, didn't work. Wiping my brow with my forearm, I glanced down at my bare feet. I wasnaked aside from my boxer shorts and the umbrella. It didn't make me feel any better.
The light from the torch had settled on the wall at the end of the living room, exactly where my desk was positioned. My laptop was there. It contained the working draft of my novel. The only version.
I lifted my foot in the air and kicked the double doors hard. They spread like a split log and I burst through with the umbrella high above my head. The light from the torch hit me square in the eyes and I squinted and reeled, thumping into the wall and fumbling for the light switch. The room lit up brightly. I spread my feet and prepared to swing hard with the umbrella.
Nobody was coming for me.
My eyes were stinging and watering from the stark electric light. I squinted towards my desk. My laptop was still there. I swivelled left and finally I saw him.
She was blonde. Very blonde. A platinum wonder with a red painted smile on her full, plush lips. The teeth were white and dazzling, the eyes sparkling and alert. Her pose was provocative, taunting even. Shoulders back, chin up, she had one leg through my window and the other in my living room, straddling the sill. Long leather boots with high heels. Blue skinny jeans and a zipped leather jacket. A climbing harness around her waist.
All too slowly, I remembered the situation I was in.
'Who the hell are you?' I asked.
The smile grew wider. The head barely shook.
'What are you doing here?'
The plump lips puckered up and she raised a gloved finger to them. I gaped at her, unsure how to react, and before I was able to resolve the puzzle, her long lashes fluttered, her left eye closed in a wink and she leaned right back in a graceful curve and fell plumb from the window.
Rushing across the room, I braced my hands on the crumbling ledge and thrust my head out into the foggy night air. I caught a flash of her torch, close to the shrouded canal water below. She had one hand gripping the rope she was lowering herself on and the other wedged behind her bottom. She glanced down just once before letting the rope slip free and dropped with a thud onto the flagstone pavement, the noise muffled by the soggy air.
'Hey!' I yelled. 'What the hell? Come back.'
Ignoring me, she freed the rope from her climbing harness, then stepped aboard a white speedboat, kicked off from the moss-clad canal bank with a grunt and reached for the starter cord. The engine fired with a throaty splutter and a blue diesel puff.
I tugged at the rope hanging beside my window. She'd secured it to the roof, which suggested she'd targeted my apartment from above. I gave some thought to lowering myself down to her - the kind of thought that's destined to go precisely nowhere - and meanwhile she cranked the throttle and sped offbeneath a low, arched bridge in the direction of the lagoon, her blonde hair flickering in the misty darkness like a guttering flame. Within seconds she was gone, and all that remained was the slap of disturbed water, the stench of diesel in the dank air and the fading note of her engine rebounding from the walls of the crooked buildings that surrounded me.
I dragged my head back inside and shook it groggily, then turned to find my friend and literary agent, Victoria, emerging from her guest bedroom to do much the same thing. She stumbled towards me in spotted pyjamas and fluffy slippers, her hair like an Eighties revival night gone wrong and a slick of drool glistening on her chin.
'Charlie?' She yawned without covering her mouth. 'What's all the fuss?'
'Break-in,' I mumbled, cupping my hand to the back of my neck.
'My God. Anything gone?'
I looked again at my laptop, untouched on my desk. My notebooks and papers were there too.
'Nothing,' I told her.
But then my eyes drifted up to an empty space on the wall and my heart clenched with the sudden realisation of what I'd overlooked. Something was very much missing, and something else had been put in its place.
THE GOOD THIEF'S GUIDE TO VENICE. Copyright © 2011 by Chris Ewan. All rights reserved.