The Thief Lord


by Cornelia Funke

1 Victor's New Clients

It was autumn in Venice when Victor first heard of Prosper and Bo. The canals, gleaming in the sun, dappled the ancient brickwork with gold. But the wind was blowing ice-cold air from the sea, reminding the Venetians that winter was approaching. Even the air in the alleyways tasted of snow, and only the wings of the carved angels and dragons high up on the rooftops felt any real warmth from the pale sun.

The house in which Victor lived and worked stood close to a canal; so close, in fact, that the water lapped against its walls. At night, he sometimes dreamed that the house was sinking into the waves, and that the sea would wash away the causeway that Venice clings to, breaking the thin thread that binds the city to Italy's mainland. In his dream the sea would sweep the lagoon away too, swallowing everything -- the houses, the bridges, the churches, the palaces, and the people who had built so boldly on its surface.

For the time being, however, the city still stood firmly on its wooden legs. Victor leaned against his window and looked out through the dusty glass. Surely no other place on earth was more proud of its beauty than Venice, and as he watched its spires and domes, each caught the sun as if trying to outshine one another. Whistling a tune, Victor turned away from the window and walked over to his large mirror. Just the weather for trying out his new disguise, he thought, as the sun warmed the back of his sturdy neck. He had bought this new treasure only the previous day: an enormous mustache, so dark and bushy that it would have made any self-respecting walrus extremely jealous. He stuck it carefully under his nose and stood on his toes to make himself taller. He turned to the left, to the right, and became so engrossed in his reflection that he only heard the footsteps on the stairs when they stopped outside his door.

Clients. Blast! Why were they bothering him now of all times?

With a deep sigh he sat behind his desk. He heard voices whispering outside his door. They were probably admiring his nameplate, Victor thought, a handsome black shiny sign with his name engraved in gold letters.

VICTOR GETZ

PRIVATE DETECTIVE

INVESTIGATIONS OF ANY KIND

It was written in three languages -- after all, he often had clients from abroad. Next to the sign was a knocker -- a lion's head with a brass ring in its mouth, which Victor had polished just that morning.

What are they waiting for? he thought, tapping his fingers on the armrest of his chair. "Avanti!" He called out, "Come in!"

The door opened. A man and a woman stepped into Victor's office, which also doubled as his living room. They looked around warily, taking in the cacti, the beard and mustache collection, the coat stand bursting with Victor's caps, hats and wigs, the huge street map of Venice on the wall, and the winged lion that served as a paperweight on Victor's desk.

"Do you speak English?" asked the woman, although her Italian sounded quite fluent.

"Of course!" Victor answered, gesturing toward the chairs in front of his desk. "English is my mother tongue. What can I do for you?"

They both sat down hesitantly. The man folded his arms and looked rather sullen, the woman stared at Victor's walrus mustache.

"Oh, that's just for camouflage," he explained, pulling the mustache from his lip. "Quite a necessity in my line of work. Well, what can I do for you? Anything lost or stolen, any pet run away?"

Without saying a word, the woman reached into her bag. She had ash-blonde hair and a pointed nose. Her mouth didn't look as if smiling was its favorite activity. The man was a giant, at least two full heads taller than Victor. His nose was peeling from sunburn and his eyes were small and dull. Doesn't look like he can take a joke either, Victor thought, as he committed the two faces to memory. He could never remember a phone number, but he never forgot a face.

"This is what we've lost," said the woman as she pushed the photograph across the desk. Her English was even better than her Italian.

Two boys looked out at Victor from the photograph. One was small and blonde, with a broad smile on his face; the other was older, dark-haired and more serious looking. He had his arm around the younger boy's shoulder, as if he wanted to protect him from all that was evil in the world.

"Children?" Victor looked up in surprise. "I've tracked down a lot of things in my time -- suitcases, dogs, a couple of escaped lizards, and some husbands -- but you are the first clients to come to me because they've lost their children, Mr. and Mrs...?" He looked at them inquisitively.

"Hartlieb," the woman answered. "Esther and Max Hartlieb."

"And they are not our children," her husband stated firmly, which immediately earned him an angry look from his pointy-nosed wife.

"Prosper and Boniface are my late sister's sons," she explained. "She raised the boys on her own. Prosper has just turned twelve, and Bo is five."

"Prosper and Boniface," murmured Victor. "Unusual names. Doesn't Prosper mean 'the lucky one'?"

Esther Hartlieb arched her eyebrows. "Does it? Well, one thing's for sure, they're very strange names, and that's putting it mildly. My late sister had a fondness for anything peculiar. When she died three months ago, my husband and I applied for custody of Bo since we sadly don't have any children of our own. But we couldn't possibly have taken on his older brother as well. Any reasonable person could see that. But Prosper got very upset, acting like a lunatic, accusing us of stealing his brother -- although we would have allowed him to visit Bo once a month." Her pale face grew even paler.

"They ran away more than eight weeks ago," Max Hartlieb continued, "from their grandfather's house in Hamburg, where they were staying at the time. Prosper's quite capable of talking his brother into any foolish scheme, and everything we have found out so far indicates that he has brought him here, to Venice."

"From Hamburg to Venice?" Victor raised his eyebrows. "That's a long way for two children to travel on their own. Have you contacted the police here?"

"Of course we have," hissed Esther Hartlieb. "They were no help at all. Surely it can't be that hard to find two children, who are all alone --"

But her husband cut her off. "Sadly, I have to return home on urgent business. We would therefore like to put you in charge of the search for the boys, Mr. Getz. The concierge at our hotel recommended you."

"How nice of him," Victor mumbled. He fiddled with the false mustache. The thing looked like a dead mouse lying next to the phone. "But what makes you so sure they've come to Venice? Surely they didn't come just to ride on the gondolas ..."

"It's their mother's fault!" Mrs. Harltieb pursed her lips and glanced out through Victor's dirty window. Outside on the balcony, the wind was ruffling the feathers of a pigeon. "My sister kept telling the boys about this city. She told them stories about winged lions, a golden cathedral, and about angels and dragons perched on top of the buildings. She told them that water nymphs came ashore for walks at night up the little steps on the edges of the canals." She shook her head angrily. "My sister could talk about these things in a way that she almost made me believe her. It was Venice this, Venice that, nothing but Venice! Bo drew winged lions all the time and Prosper simply drank in every word his mother said. He probably thought that if they could make it to Venice, he and Bo would land right in the middle of fairyland. What an idea!" She wrinkled her nose and cast a contemptuous look through the window at the crumbling plaster of the neighboring houses.