Thief of Hearts (Hearts #5)


by L.H. Cosway

One

If you ever want to experience the true depths to which humanity can sink, go live in a ground-floor flat in any major city.

It was three a.m. on a school night, and I’d just been woken by the sound of someone shuffling around outside my bedroom window. I groaned and blinked my eyes open, sitting up and rubbing the bird’s nest that was my hair. Grumpily, I wondered who was out there this time.

I used to get anxious, worried about what kind of nutter could be hanging around and if they were going to try and stage a break-in.

Now I was just numb to it, willing the person to get whatever they were doing over and done with so I could go back to sleep. Sweet, precious sleep.

When I heard the recognisable trickling sound, I saw red. Acting purely on instinct, I got up, shoved my feet into a pair of boots, grabbed the cricket bat I kept especially for occasions like these, and stomped my way outside.

A middle-aged guy in a suit stood there, pissing into the corner of my building, directly outside my bedroom window like it was his own personal urinal.

“Get the fuck out of here before I do something I regret,” I threatened, wielding the bat like a sleep-deprived mad woman. The irritating thing was, other than the fact that he was clearly drunk, he looked like a perfectly normal human being. He wasn’t some kind of homeless crackhead who had nowhere else to go. He was someone with a home, and most likely, a job, but more importantly, a bathroom. In spite of all this, he decided that tonight was the night he said fuck it to common decency and pissed on somebody’s home.

As you can probably guess, this wasn’t my first rodeo. I’d had a lot of time to stew on the fact that people did the scummiest things when they thought they weren’t going to be caught. Unfortunately, this was what you had to put up with when you were drowning in debt like I was. Simply put, nice flats cost money.

The man’s drunken, bleary eyes widened, as he quickly put his cock away, tucked tail, and made a run for it.

“You should be ashamed of yourself!” I shouted after him.

There was a deep, dark part of me that kind of wished I’d hit him with the bat . . . just a little. Maybe it’d teach him a lesson. Or maybe I was going mad from lack of rest. I wasn’t the best sleeper in the world, and even the slightest noise woke me up.

I stomped back inside and noticed the light was still on in my cousin Alfie’s room. Alfie was a creature of the dark, burning the midnight oil as per usual. We’d been sharing our tiny two-bedroom flat in Finsbury Park for the last three years. It was on the basement level of a renovated Victorian house that had been split into separate units. We weren’t even technically on the ground floor. We were subterranean. Still, this was one of the more affordable neighbourhoods to rent in London, though strangely home to a disconcerting number of hair shops. Some days I felt like throwing caution to the wind and getting myself some hot-pink extensions.

I could hear chuckling a moment before Alfie came out of his room, holding his hand to his stomach as he practically bowled over with laughter. I scowled at him.

“You were watching from your window.”

“That was priceless, Andie, the look on his face. If he wasn’t already pissing, I think he might have wet himself.”

My scowl didn’t fade as I walked into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. “Ha ha.”

“Seriously, we should hire you out to scare children on Halloween. You could play the role of the crazy old witch.”

I gave him the finger as I slugged back a mouthful of water. He came over, sighed, and draped an arm around my shoulder. His attempt at parental soothing didn’t exactly work since he was several inches shorter. The kids at school used to call us Little and Large, though I’d always been slim.

“I’m almost finished Young Girl with Kite. Do you want to see?”

I nodded and exhaled. “I might as well now that I’m up.”

We went inside his bedroom/studio and I tried not to trip over all the crap on the floor. Alfie was a chaotic soul: a painter. Born the only child of two wealthy parents, he’d been able to pursue an artistic calling. Well, that was until his dad was prosecuted for running a Ponzi scheme and subsequently had his assets frozen. These days Alfie survived on rare patronage and sales of his works to a handful of specialist art galleries.

My cousin left the flat mostly to buy coffee and sandwiches from the hipster café around the corner, whose employees consisted solely of six-foot-tall Swedes with white-blond hair. I wasn’t sure if these attributes were a job requirement or what, but Alfie always said he found their presence soothing. He also spent a lot of time at his best friend, Jamie’s, second-hand bookstore. If it weren’t for Jamie and me, Alfie would probably turn into a full-fledged hermit.

I stood in front of the canvas, taking in Young Girl with Kite and feeling that sense of awe that often accompanied seeing Alfie’s finished works. I took several moments to absorb his mastery before turning and giving him a hug.

“It’s beautiful. Every time I think you can’t possibly top the last, you go and prove me wrong. You’re a genius.”

Alfie rubbed at his chin, contemplating the piece and leaving a smudge of brown paint behind. “The yellow is revelatory. It allows your eyes to absorb the leaves on the ground and the kite in the clouds all at once,” he said, his voice energised. Alfie was fascinated by colour, could find things in it I’d never even think to look for.

He was the most intelligent person I knew, but it was the kind of artistic intelligence that left you a homeless vagrant on the street, rather than a millionaire CEO. The problem was too much empathy. Alfie could see a story on the news about how Russia was involving itself in the troubles in Ukraine and spend days wallowing over the disaster it might lead to. Whereas I, on the other hand, could see the same story and continue on with my day, wholly oblivious.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t heartless. In fact, as a teacher I spent most of my days helping others. I had empathy in spades, but I didn’t have Alfie’s level of intelligence, and trust me, folks, that was a blessing.

“You’re right,” I told him finally. “And the ribbon in the girl’s hair has so much life; the way it moves in the breeze looks like dancing.”

Alfie turned to me, his grin wide. “That’s exactly what I was trying to achieve.”

I returned his smile, gave his shoulder a small, congratulatory squeeze and told him I was going back to bed. On my way out I noticed some paintings stacked by the door. They were copies of old masters, Vermeer and Rembrandt mostly. Oddly enough, reproduction was how Alfie started out painting. Growing up, his mother liked to decorate their home with replicas of famous pieces, so Alfie used to create imitations. The accuracy was actually kind of spooky. Anyway, after a few years he finally progressed to doing his own original works, but the replicas were how he honed his skills to what they are today.

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