18. Cat Burglar’s Assistant


           Next day, Aunt Millicent’s knee looked like a Texas grapefruit.  She put ice in a zip-lock and her feet on a chair and wrapped an ace bandage around the zip-lock to keep it in place, but it kept sliding off anyway.  She was in miserable pain.  She didn’t say anything—in fact she didn’t complain once the whole time, but you could tell.  She smoked four cigarettes that day.  “That’s what I get for overdoing,” she muttered, bumping around the apartment on her cane.
            We sat and read most of the morning and then she gave me some math problems and bumped into her office to work.  When I finished the problems, I went into the office and she corrected them and handed me a page of code she’d copied on her scanner.
            “Still want to work on the code?” she asked.
            “Sure.”
            “Take this and circle any place you see the numbers five, three and eight side by side.  They can be grouped together or separated by a space, or even at the end of one line and the beginning of the next.  Okay?”
            “That’s it?”
            “For right now.”
            The numbers were small and written in an old fashioned style and a few were almost blurred out, so it took awhile to catch all the five-three-eight combinations.  When I brought the page back in, Aunt Mill compared it to a second copy that had all the same combinations circled already.  She’d been testing me.  She nodded, satisfied, and handed me another copy of another message.  “Same thing.  Fives, threes and eights.”
            “What am I actually doing?”
            “You’re discovering number patterns.”
            I did that all afternoon with different copies of different coded notes, never the real thing, just the copies.  Then, after going through about twenty copies, Aunt Mill asked me to count the digits and spaces between each occurrence of five, three and eight and list them on a separate sheet.  Action packed, this code breaking. 
            When I came in with my completed list, Aunt Mill was staring at her computer, screen saver doing its waiting-for-you dance, cigarette crooked in her fingers, thread of smoke gliding up, ash a half inch long. 
            “Aunt Mill?”
            She flinched, ash dropping, nudging her mouse, computer screen lighting up with a grid of numbers.  I held out the copies and my list.  She seemed surprised to see me.
            “You okay?” I asked.
            “Just thinking.  All done with those?  What’s the largest interval between occurrences?”
            I checked my list.  “Eighty-seven numbers.”
            “What’s the most frequent interval between them?”
            “Most frequent, let’s see.  Um, I found five times when there were seventeen numbers in between.”
            “Good.”  She handed me a yellow highlighter.  “Go back and highlight between the seventeen number occurrences.  Then write down the string of numbers between, in those five examples, including the spaces between.  And be absolutely accurate.  One small mistake can really mess things up.  Okay?”
            I nodded and marched out.  I had no idea what this all meant, what I was supposed to be looking for, or what she was looking for, but still it was way cool.
            That evening she phoned in an order and sent me around the corner to bring back couscous d’agneau aux légumes.  (Le Saint Gervais was closed on Sunday evenings.)
            Monday morning was torture for Aunt Mill.  She called a taxi to get to school.  You could tell she hated calling a taxi.  She didn’t even bother saying how bad smoking was when she had her cig by the window.   Then I had to help her down the stairs.  It was super-slow going.  Her jaw was locked the whole way down. 
            Still, she managed to write out two-dozen math problems before she left.  Tough ones.  Maybe she wanted me to share her pain.  Or maybe she was testing her new code-assistant.  I couldn’t even solve the first one.  I stared at it for like six months.  Nothing.  I was tempted to e-mail Lucia for help.  Would she even be awake?  I wanted to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head.  Stupid math. 
            Escaping into one of the green chairs, I read my book about Jeanne de la Motte for the rest of the morning.  The sun got brighter.  Math disappeared entirely.  Just when I was thinking about getting up to spread butter and jam on a piece of grilled baguette, Sief thumped into the window like a bird. 
            I couldn’t believe my eyes.  He hung by a rope, four stories above the street, just squeezing into the little balcony that jutted out a few inches from the living room window.  He signaled for me to open up.  I stared like an idiot.  He became frantic, tapping the glass, shouting, “Come on, Grace Kelly, let me in.”
            “Are you crazy?  You could kill yourself,” I said when I finally forced open the window latches.  He tumbled into the room, flat on his face, looking up with a triumphant smile.
            “Grace Kelly!”
            “Don’t call me that.  What do you think you’re doing?”
            “I come to see you since you never come to see me.”
            “You never heard of knocking on the door?”
            “This is more adventure-full.”
            “Yeah, but what if I wasn’t here?  You’d just hang in the balcony like a squished sardine till Aunt Mill came home?”
            “I would make a cat burglar escape back to the roof.  I comes down from the roof, you know.  And anyways I knew you were to be here.”
            “You are so cracked, Sief.
            “You want to go for a walk?”
            “No.  I want you to get out of here.  I’m busy.”
            “You are just reading of a book.”
            “Maybe I want to read a book.”
            “Maybe I will read of a book too.”  He started looking through Aunt Mill’s stacks, pretending to be interested.  “Is there anything of books on cat burglars?”
            “What is it with you and cat burglars?”
            “That is what I am going to be—a famous roof man.  I come in like silence, steal the lady’s jewels, and vanish into the night like a black cat.”
            “Are you kidding?  Why don’t you just turn yourself into the police now and get it over with.”
            “The police will never catch me, Grace Kelly.”  I made ugh-face.  He grinned and shrugged a kind of it-is-so-obvious shrug, then turned and closed the windows. 
            “Do you know anything about math, Sief?”
            “Like what?”
            He followed me into the kitchen.  I handed him my sheet of problems.  He studied it, picked up my pencil and then stopped.  “You got another paper?”
            I went to my room, brought back a notebook, flipping it open to a clean page.  He sat down, licked the end of the pencil, started writing out the first problem, saying, “when I am done you must destroy of this paper so that Madame Millicent never knows I do this for you.”
            “Is that the right answer?”
            “Of course it is the right answer.”
            I watched as he worked, slow and steady, running through all twenty-four problems one after the other, never saying a word, looking up now and then to think, setting back to work till he had them all answered.  I didn’t trust him so I followed what he was doing the whole time and sure enough one problem after another became clear to me just by watching.  How could that be?  How could he do them and I understand how he did them, understand that he had the correct answer even, and yet when I was alone I couldn’t see past the first problem? 
            “Fini,” he said, handing me the notebook.  “Now copy out the numbers with your own hand.  Then I destroy my paper.” 
            He handed me the pencil.  But I couldn’t do it.  I sat there staring at the answers, feeling like a creep-tard, thinking where this would end up, thinking about all the lies that would grow like weeds from this one lie.  So what if I could never do math and break codes and so what if Aunt Mill was disappointed with me—what did it matter to me if she was disappointed, or rather, which kind of disappointing did I want to be?  I tore out the page from my notebook and handed it back to Sief.  “Here, just take this and destroy it.”
            He didn’t take it.  He just stared.  I couldn’t look him in the eyes.  “You are a very cool cat, Grace Kelly.”
            “Can you just take it and forget about it.”  He nodded.  I didn’t know what to say next.  I wanted to hit the disappear button.  “You want to go for a walk or something?”
            “Only if you want to.”
            “I think I got to get out of here for awhile.”
            He nodded, creased the notebook page and shoved it in his pants pocket.  “You want to go for someplace super-super cool?”
            “How far is it?”
            “Not far.”
            “I just thought of something.  The key to the apartment is in the safe.  Without the math answers I can’t get the key to get back in.”
            “No problem,” he said.  He took the notebook, ripped out a sheet of paper.  “Go get of your coat.”   When I came back with my hat and coat he was standing at the door, folding the paper into a tiny square so it would keep the latch from catching when the door was pulled closed.  I stepped out.  He eased the door shut behind us.  I started down the stairs.  “Not down,” he said, “up.”
            I paused.  He pointed then started up the steps, stopping two flights up, at the top floor landing, where, around a bend in the shadowy hallway, a ladder—last used to storm the Bastille—rounded steps, rounded vertical rails, varnished till it was purple-black—was set into the frame of an open skylight.  Up Sief shot, through the open hatch, hopping outside in a flash, smiling back down at me.  “Come on, Grace Kelly.”
            Eyes wide, I climbed.  He took me under the shoulder as I came through the hatch.  The angle of the roof was steep so we just sat there for a moment, my butt glued to the cold, gray zinc.  I could make out Notre-Dame and Tour Saint Jacques and Le Centre Pompidou and even, way off, the tiny Eiffel Tour, plus all the ragged, orange chimney pipes and antennas and satellite dishes and gray rooftops of the Marais, of all Paris really, spreading out forever in an immense forest of creamy stone. 
            “Cool.”
            “Told you.”
            He crawled on all fours to a blocky chimney with a dozen pipes coming out the top and undid a rope from around one of them, dragging the rope up from the roof edge where it had dangled down to Aunt Mill’s window.
            “You’re totally nuts, Sief.”
            He coiled the rope into a tidy package and tucked it into a corner, setting a brick on top of it, then said, “Come on.  I show you round.”
            He sauntered off, bent low, staying to the crest of the roof.  When he got to a chimney block that stuck up six feet and formed a barrier from one side of the building to the other, he turned back and signaled for me to come.  I crawled on all fours, moving like a snail, keeping my body low.  When I got to the chimney I grabbed hold of Sief, then let go, realizing how creep-o that was. 
            “I show you the other side.”  He monkeyed up some metal handholds, balanced on the top of the chimney block for a second then disappeared down the other side.
            “Sief?”
            “What?  I am right here,” he called back.  “Don’t be afraid.”
            “I’m not.”
            “No?”
            “No.”  I grabbed the iron holds and pulled myself up hand over hand, heart thumping, ears ringing, short of breath.  I leaned onto the top of the chimney block, squiddled my legs over, shimmied across on my butt.  With an ear-to-ear smile, Sief looked up from the other side.
            “I thought maybe you fall asleep.”
            “Where are we going?”
            “All around.  This is my private park.”
            He put out his hands and guided me down as I snailed down the handholds.  He took off across this roof, strolling like he owned the place.  I got more comfortable, walking a tad more upright.  There were actually yards of roof on either side and the angle wasn’t very steep here, so there was no way you could fall, unless you went crazy suddenly and took a giant running leap at the same time gravity decided to take a vacation, but somehow the strangeness of being up here, or the badness of it, or whatever, made me wary anyway.  We scuttled around a smaller chimney block where the mansard roof dropped off steeply, sticking to the foot-wide rim around the chimney, hopping onto yet another zinc rooftop.  On and on we went, one building connected to another to another in an endless chain.   It felt like we walked for miles, till we climbed onto the bottom ledge of a slate-covered dome on the last building and sat side by side. 
            “This is maybe my all-time favorite place in the world,” said Sief.  I could see why.  We were scary high, all alone with this view that nobody else except maybe pigeons could see, with all the church towers poking up through a forest of slate and zinc, all carving odd angles into the sky.  Sief pointed out the Pantheon and Sacre Coeur and the Opera House and Tour Montparnasse and a hundred other things.  We sat looking out a long time.
            “Why did you come to Paris, Grace Kelly?”
            “To learn math from my aunt.”
            “They got math teachers in America.”
            “Yeah-but, well, my mom’s having a baby and she had complications, you know, like trouble with the baby, so they wanted me out of the house.”
            He nodded, puffed out his lips.  “You missing your mom?”
            “I guess.  Yeah.  Not really.  I mean, I don’t know.”
            “All mixed up.”
            “I’m not mixed up.”
            “Maybe not you, but your feelings are.”
            “I am my feelings.”
            “Maybe not so much sometimes.”
            I gave him a that-makes-no-sense look.  He shrugged.
            “So are you really going to be a cat burglar?”
            “Maybe.  It would be fun.  Only trouble is, when I pique somethings, you know, when I steals them, I don’t feel so good after.  I always worrying about the person, you know?  But maybe if it was from a rich-rich person, like jewels and diamonds that they don’t need, that would be different.”
            “How do you know they don’t need them?”
            “Did you ever see someone begging for food?”
            “Yeah, of course.”
            “Did they ever wearing diamonds?”
            I laughed. 
            “I’m seriously.”
            “I know you are.  But I’m freezing, Sief.  Let’s go back.”
            He nodded, hopped off the ledge, held out his hand.  I took it, hopped down and followed him back the way we came.  He walked fast now, like he was walking on a sidewalk and not a roof.  He was like a cat burglar, zipping up and over each of the chimney blocks that divided one building from another.  I tried my best to keep up with him, pretending I was the great cat burglar’s assistant, with pockets full of diamonds and jewels, with the police hot in pursuit, with endless days of sunning on a tropical beach ahead, if only we could make good our escape.
            The small chimney block with the foot-wide rim got me.  I didn’t notice the satellite cable, or whatever it was, till it snagged my toe.  Over I went, bumping down the roof, taking the end of the cable with me.  To say I freaked doesn’t come close.  To say that time slowed or stood still or any of that crap doesn’t come close either, except when I wake up in the middle of the night, reliving it, screaming-heart-slamming awake from a nightmare that feels like time is standing still and I am still falling.
            All at once I saw the edge of the roof coming closer, felt the ridges of the zinc roofing panels smacking into my back, heard Sief shouting, running, flattening himself so he had maximum surface friction as he slid down feet first toward me, felt the cable, still hooked on my toe.  Like a trout in mid-air, I flipped myself up, fingers to toe, latching onto the cable.  It swung me round in an arch, down the roof, away from the chimney, while whatever little nails that held it popped out one after another—plip-plip-plip—till the cable snapped free and I lurched down again, holding a plastic coated wire tied to nothing. 
            As fast as Sief was coming to me, which was insanely fast, I slid faster, digging my nails into the zinc rib of a roofing panel till my fingernails and skin burned off with the friction.  And then I was at the end.  Feet whisking over, then legs, waist, chest, breath stopped, voices from somewhere screaming, Sief screaming too, my finger tips clamped into the nubby lip of metal for a fraction of a second while some voice from my stomach, yes my stomach I swear, shouted at me to just hang on for even a tenth of a second more, just to slow the fall, which would surely kill me, but a tenth of a second more of life would somehow be worth it all.
            How fast we think, we react.  I saw Sief’s eyes.  He saw mine.  He was not going to reach me and if he did, all he would accomplish was falling with me since there was nothing for either of us to hold on to.  He looked so horrified, so determined, and I knew if I held on for even a nanosecond longer he would reach me and grab on to me and go over with me, like a complete idiot.  So I let go.    
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