the captive & the thief.
"There's a woman! There's a woman in the house!"
"What are you on about? No there ain't. The wife, the mum – she left, she left earlier with the kid, I saw her with me own eyes."
"Not her! Not the wife! Someone else!"
"Come off it. Nobody's gone in or out of that house. We've been sat on it for a month, mate. I've been here since yesterday mornin' alright? Two maids, one chef, the bleedin' butler, the wife, the kid, Bren... even the little ankle-bitin' dogs, they've all left, all checked off and accounted for. There's nobody in there, you're knackered."
"Listen to me! You need to flag Kline! There's a woman in there!"
"Fuckin' hell, if there's somebody in there, then she went in there over six weeks ago and never left, never got near a window, never went in the garden, and she weren't invited to their posh weekend in Napa. I mean, Christ, I know he's a damn villain, but you're tellin' me that William bleedin' Bren's holdin' a proper captive in his flat? Come on, mate."
William Bren is
holding a captive in his flat.
A blessed captive, a captive with instant and unfettered access to every possible form of in-home entertainment and food that the richest and most metallic of blood money can buy, a captive that might not sound very captive at all thanks to the excess of comfort and luxurious trappings, but make no mistake, Leta Bren might as well be a captive.
Each morning she wakes up, stirred from sleep by the sound of Patricia, the estate housekeeper, ringing a dastardly shrill bell throughout the entirety of the third floor – an actual bell, an actual fucking bell. This errant chime is said to indicate that breakfast is ready to be served, a regular and consistent gourmet meal prepared by whatever chef has been hired and yet to be fired for the current moment, their paper thin existence teetering on the edge with every risky tip of the salt shaker, lest they upset William's delicate tastebuds. But that's not what the sound of the bell actually means. No, the cacophony of clang that sweeps through the third floor and noisily fills Leta's bedroom, mind, and what's left of her soul? It means come.
It's an imperative call, an instruction, a demand the likes of which usually only ever utters from the lips of a human being to the ears of their dog. Fitting, then, that it's the sound of a bell. Leta's always been William's little pet.
Now, at twenty-six, it's somehow worse than it's ever been, a fallen princess relegated back to her school age position, kept locked in a tower lest she erroneously act out (again) and risk harm to the family (again) and endanger their precarious fortune (again) – as if she could ever be responsible for such a thing, responsible for anything other than herself, than her own misery, than her own godforsaken station having fallen so out of favor with the king.
"Mm," her father mused aloud, the morning after the wedding, or rather the morning after the day the wedding was meant to take place. "You should be around family, Leta. It's a difficult time. Best not to be alone in the middle of all this right now. That's what family is for." Her father had a habit of phrasing everything in that way, painting with a brush that created an illusion of choice, a mirage of free will, a beautiful little piece of artwork that presented the idea that William Bren wasn't in complete control of everyone around him all the time. He couldn't be beaten. He couldn't be told no.
And so Leta agreed.
Leta spends her days dodging her little brother Mateo's traps; he's seen Home Alone
more times than he can count, and plied with money and armed with a giant brownstone in which he can run free, he regularly torments all other occupants in the name of entertainment. Leta steps into a shower full of lizards, Leta feels a bundle of small rocks nestled beneath the case of her pillow, Leta swears she steps on glass when browsing for an outfit in her closet one morning – Mateo is the only
Bren child that should've attended long distance boarding school, so needless to say, he's the only one whose name has never been scribbled on the memo line of a fat check accompanying enrollment. Renata would never allow it.
Sometimes Leta almost likes Renata. Sometimes. Almost.
Renata is complicit, as are all of her father's immediate threads of connection, so Leta doesn't respect her as much as either woman might like her to. She's decades younger than her father, only a couple years older than her eldest brother, and maybe that should've damned her from the start, destined to be the third wife loathed by all the children due to her age and – more importantly – her sudden influx of shares in the company. Leta doesn't care about those things, not really; Leta doesn't care about Renata being a slightly less embarrassing trophy wife than an Instagram fitness guru, nor about the fact that she absorbed anywhere from ten to thirty million of their collective inheritance, depending on whether Mateo was included. No, the whisper of dislike that lingers between third wife and only daughter resembles something more feminine, a passive aggressive game of mutual coldness, reinforced only by the fact that Leta has never heard Renata tell her father no.
She wouldn't, of course, that's not her role, that's not who she was cast to play. But Leta's mother always did. And maybe that's why she looks down on Renata, a bit judgmental and disappointed, casting wayward looks across the dinner table, bell rung indicating crab or duck or scallops have been served. Every night. Every night for weeks.
But not tonight. Tonight is different.
Tonight everyone has left, swept away in a flurry of excitement so raw Leta could barely stand it. Privacy. Three whole days.
She can't remember the last time she was alone, truly alone, uninterrupted and set at peace. Her family and the staff have all vacated, some of them relishing their own free time, some of them off to Napa for the weekend to celebrate Renata's sister's birthday, a gathering that Leta was barred from attending. She's surprised her father doesn't leave behind a security guard (read: babysitter) to keep an eye on her, stoic and cold and unwavering in his job as a veritable prison warden, but she supposes the security system is enough. That's why she's excited when everyone leaves, pleased to have the house to herself, but not entirely elated, because when it comes to William Bren's money, someone's always watching.
Leta might as well be money. At least for now.
Her night progresses with a foreign sort of normalcy, almost hazy and silent enough to distract from the seemingly endless hellscape that she calls a life. No incessant chiming of a bell, no forced smiles over meals, no tolerance for the cruel antics of a budding sociopath; bare feet carry her through the brownstone, wandering about on her own accord, retrieving cereal from the fridge and peering out at the garden. (Where, unbeknownst to her amidst the boring bliss of being unkept, uncontrolled, and undemanded, Leta is seen,
really truly seen, observed and relayed and described as precisely what she is – captive
– for the first time in months.)
Stumbling through the second floor is risky, and she knows it, all sorts of cameras and alarms the mark of a rich and paranoid man intent on flexing the muscle of his power and wealth in the face of anyone who dare inhabit his walls, but she proceeds regardless, bowl of cereal in hand, clad in only her nighttime robe. The second floor is where everything interesting is kept (everything interesting aside from Leta, anyway) but most notably the smallest sliver of her father's ostentatious collection of rare goods. He's fond of paintings and antiques, everybody's always known, and that which he hasn't bought for himself has always been gifted instead: an ancient Viking sword to make him feel strong on his birthday, or a private Manet acquired after much tracking down to celebrate the anniversary of Brencorp going public. It's obscene, Leta thinks, the sound of her stride echoing through the fucking museum exhibit of a room, the sheer amount of stupid crap he's managed to amass, as well as how none of his children could ever hold a candle to it in his eyes.
Click, click, click.
After a particularly traumatic family gathering several months back, wherein Leta's brother Charlie overdosed right in the middle of William toasting over the Thanksgiving turkey, Leta's therapist told her that people in the thick of depression don't often respond to catastrophe in a manner perceived as either rational or irrational, overreacting or reacting. No, she told her, as if this would be some sort of helpful insight: depressed people are always prepared for the worst, they experience it all day every day a million times per day, so witnessing something horrifying unfold in front of them doesn't even make them flinch. They underreact. That was why Leta just sat there while Charlie overdosed and the rest of her family panicked, yikes'd, or promptly scrambled into action.
That's why Leta seems entirely unfazed when after six clicks, it becomes rather apparent that her father is being robbed, and she's a witness to the crime.
Perhaps she should be concerned. After a moment of consideration and silent observation, when the thief steps out from the shadows, Leta realizes that she can see his face quite clearly, even if he's yet to see hers. That's typically pretty damning for criminals, isn't it? The urge to hide their identity, to go unnoticed. Naturally the effect of being seen should equal something dastardly for her, like getting knocked out or murdered, or maybe even something more sinister, a kidnapping to extort additional money from her father, or a violent and unrelated opportunistic assault, or any number of horrific intruder-filled paths she could mentally wander down. But Leta isn't concerned. At all. Maybe it's the depression, she thinks, just for one stray moment, before stepping out from the small and dark reading nook where she'd been sitting, eating her cereal, defiantly taking food into a room where it's never allowed.
Watching the intruder after he's fiddled with the display case of William's prized possession, beginning the initial steps to tuck it away, to secure the asset, to depart, Leta finally speaks, voice soft, like she's still a little afraid her father might hear her several states away.
"You should wrap that in fabric before you touch it," she says to the man's back, voice quiet and low, a gentle little purr, stopping him before he can go any further. Naturally, she catches him by surprise, but she's struck by how unstartled he seems to be – a thief and a witness, yet neither of them appear to be uncomfortable. Imagine that. She carries on, as if she's not actually being so bold, brazenly assisting in the robbery of her father. "He's quite spiteful," Leta explains, stepping closer toward the intruder, getting an even better look at his face. He doesn't look like a thief, but she supposes there's not really one way for a thief to look, and it's not like she's ever been very good at sussing out who someone is based on their appearance, anyway. "Everything in here, it's got a little bit of resin brushed onto the sides, invisible and dried, spiked with some unknown nasty thing in it. You'd get back to your lair, take off your gloves, touch it with all your buddies, and boom. All of you, poisoned with no antidote, dead in a matter of days."
Removing her robe, the fabric light and soft and dainty but solid enough, Leta hands it to him, a suitable safety net to transport his item from her father's house to whomever has convinced this man to rob him. Surely he can't be on his own. He never would've made it inside.
"Do you know who you're stealing from?" she asks with a slight smile, inquisitive and interested, sincerely, partly stunned and curious about his audacity, but partly for her own self-interest. If he knows, if he's intentionally going after her father, he might be the sort of person who could be useful. Of course William Bren's reputation precedes him, of course he's rarely been robbed – anyone who would try is either really, really stupid or really, really confident. Or both.
The thief doesn't seem foolish, but Leta can't tell if his confidence is misplaced. He almost seems unconcerned, unbothered by the fact that he's been discovered, unbothered by his close proximity to being caught (as well as his close proximity to William Bren's daughter). Perhaps they have that in common, a distinct and unwavering disinterest in anything that doesn't fit their reality, real or otherwise. If he's the type to fake it til he makes it, Leta thinks, he's certainly already made it.
There's an undertone, something warm and bubbling beneath the surface of the frame holding their portrait, a picture of their interaction sparked with something different than she might've imagined, something... flirtatious. Not just because he's attractive, not just because she's in her nightgown and he's holding her robe, but a chemistry, playful and familiar, a rapport established as they trade jabs, testing each other for vulnerabilities. Neither of them seem to have any. Funny.
"I could hit the panic button," she offered casually.
"Disabled," he dismissed breezily.
"Not that one," she quickly countered.
"That one too," he confidently declared.
"Hm," Leta hummed.
"Mm," he agreed.
"And the one in the library as well?" she lied.
He frowned. Leta smiled. For the first time in ages. Maybe he knew she was lying, maybe he suspected but wasn't sure, maybe he didn't have any idea – but the cat and mouse of it was fun. He was fun. Leta enjoyed him, she thought to herself.
After he's safely wrapped the piece, the fluffy feather trim of her elegantly billowing evening robe lining the edges of his bounty, Leta makes her move, wrapping her hand around his metaphorical throat, squeezing until her fingernails draw a hint of blood.
"I'll be needing your name," she says, a reminding sort of addendum, like he can't have expected to be let off the hook so easily otherwise. Taking a few slow steps backward, Leta carefully and casually blocks the doorway with her body. It's not an extortion, not really – he seems alright with it, in fact, this dance between them escalating to something mutually enjoyable, even if she is
attempting to threaten him, more or less. "And contact information, obviously. I think you owe me at least two favors. One for letting you get away, and one for saving your life. Imagine how devious I could've been, letting you leave undetected, knowing you'd probably die anyway? I'm a saint. Two favors sounds fair for a saint."
she thinks, a flirtatious little smile playing at the edges of her lips. A captive negotiating the terms of a thief being allowed to exit freely; naturally they were two people incredibly concerned with fairness.