The Fortune Cookie Heist

A grisly burp and then a giggle emitted from the hunched form at a circular table. No one but a waitress hovering nearby—a middle-aged woman dressed in a shoddy, red T-shirt and black slacks—had heard the sound from the secluded corner of the Chinese buffet. Then, moving with alarming sluggishness, the figure lifted its head off the table to examine the stack of greasy, emptied plates beside her face. Her dark bangs had fallen forward and hid her expression. In front of the seemingly dazed woman, an array of glasses had been arranged into a shape that mimicked the colon and parenthesis of a sad-face emoticon.

"I'm done," the woman murmured with a yawn. "I'm done." With stiff fingers, she adjusted the collar of the tattered, black jacket that covered her from head to toe and then glanced back to find the waitress. She began eagerly waving at the other woman to come closer.

"Are you okay, ma'am?" The waitress scurried closer to place a receipt on the table. This particular waitress had worked at the Chinese restaurant for ten years and in that time had managed to deal with all sorts of people, but…This young woman had been sitting at the buffet for half the day now. She had gone through five plates, at least, not including deserts. After a while, the waitress had stopped counting.

The woman surged to her feet with a cheerful wave now. "I'm fine. Just had a sugar coma and fell asleep. Happens all the time. Really!" she laughed as the waitress leaned forward with concern. After scrutinizing the receipt, she laid out money bills for the correct amount and a precisely calculated tip (a calculation that she scribbled on the receipt itself) in meticulous piles on the table. After offering a heartfelt thank-you, she was striding towards the exit before the waitress could say a word in reply. On her way out, the young woman snatched a fortune cookie from the plastic bowl beside the glass door.

Outside, the crinkling of plastic filled the stagnant city air as the woman fumbled to open the fortune cookie. She muttered under her breath as half of the curved, yellow cookie tumbled to the broken sidewalk. Then, the sight of the white slip of paper sticking out of the remaining half of the cookie diverted her frustration to curiosity. Carefully, her fingers teased the paper out. It read:

"Your life is in danger. Come to the shop beside the bowling alley, and speak to no one."

The bowling alley in question lay in a dingy building at the very end of Chortle Street, a few hundred meters from the Chinese restaurant. That was strange. There was no shop on either side of the bowling alley, only two empty, disused parking lots. On the rare occasion, usually on warmer and sunnier days, children would venture out of their houses and play there.

After tucking the fortune into a pocket and swallowing the half of the cookie left to her, the woman strolled in the direction of the closest empty lot. A basketball hoop stood, crooked with exhaustion, at the furthest end. Right under it lurked a tall man, who was enveloped in gray from neck to toe as thoroughly as the woman was wrapped in black. He made no move as she approached with quiet, deliberate footsteps.

"You came. Very unwise of you," the man finally said.

The woman gave a yawn and rubbed at her eyes. That nap at the restaurant couldn't accommodate for not sleeping properly over the span of a few days. "Unwise?" She flinched back a little as the man drew a polished, black hand-gun.

"Give me your purse."

Reaching into the front of her jacket, she withdrew a ragged white pull-bag. It gave a sad clink as the woman handed the bag over to the man's eager, stubby fingers. She watched as he tore it open, peered at the contents and clicked his tongue in disgust.

"That's it?"

"That's all I have," the woman said.

Thoughts flickered through the man's dark eyes, and then he said. "I want us to go the bank nearby. You quietly withdraw a few hundred bucks, give that to me, and I'll let you go."

"How did you get this piece of paper in the fortune cookie?" She brandished the fortune at him like a pre-schooler showing her mother a crayon drawing.

He jabbed the end of the gun against her heart, and the woman frowned. It seemed there would be no more discussion until she shook the piece of paper again in the criminal's stubbly face. "Tell me before we go to the bank! Please!"

"I have a friend that works in that restaurant," he said with a sigh.

"Oh, does your friend slip them in all the cookies?"

"No, only in a few, and only a select number of people ever follow through. I guess, in a way, we're taking money out of idiot hands." He furrowed his eyebrows at the victim before him.

"Heey!" The woman pouted until the man put away his gun and began to explain the ingenious plan that he had concocted with his accomplice and a number of others who were living out on the streets for the moment. They had hoped the odd fortune would lure naïve prey out to the plot where someone would be waiting to relieve them of their monetary baggage.

After the man had finished his exposition, they began strolling towards the closest bank, arm in arm at the woman's insistence. After a while, the criminal felt a chill crawl into his skin at her familiarity and her open smile. Why wasn't she afraid? Why hadn't she screamed for help?

They had already encountered several passerbies—most walked with their eyes pinned to the ground—though the woman took no notice of them. She did take notice of a group of pigeons, however, and charged and scattered them with glee before walking back to clasp the criminal's arm.

He flinched at her touch, and the woman gave him a curious glance. "Is something wrong?"

"What's wrong with you?"

"Well, I'm not the one trying to steal from people," she replied pettishly. "There's nothing wrong with me."

The acknowledgement that she understood what was happening put the criminal's questions at rest, and he tugged her along though she didn't protest at the rough treatment. Instead, she watched the windows of the closed shops go by and exclaimed on occasion at ones carrying particularly pretty or interesting items.

"I bet Mama would enjoy looking at that place," she said, tilting her head at the diamond jewelry glittering behind the glass of a store squeezed between a deli and a video-game shop. "We can never afford anything like that though…"

The woman fell into a meditative silence, and the criminal froze. "Where…are your parents?"

She slowly recited an address with a proud smile— as if she had taken time to memorize it— and then blew air out through pursed lips. The resulting sound forced the man to stifle a smile. "I've been trying for days, and I can't find it. The city is too big!"

The man gave a slow nod. "Don't worry, I know where that is. I'll bring you back."

"I thought we were going to the bank?"

"Maybe some other time." He took her soft, small hand. She grinned up at him, and the man found himself smiling back.