In a distant town there was a famous thief known as Crack, whom nobody had ever been able to catch. The main ambition of this Crack was to meet Crook, another notorious thief, and form a partnership with him. One day as Crack was eating lunch at the tavern across the table from a stranger, he went to look at his watch and found it missing. The only person in the world who could have taken it without my knowing, he thought, is Crook. So what did Crack do but turn right around and steal Crook’s purse. When the stranger got ready to pay for his lunch, he found his purse gone and said to his table companion, “Well, well, you must be Crack.”
“And you must be Crook.”
“Fine, we’ll work together.”
They went to the city and made for the king’s treasury, which was completely surrounded by guards. The thieves therefore dug an underground tunnel into the treasury and stole everything. Surveying his loss, the king had no idea how he might catch the robbers. He went to a man named Snare, who had been put in prison for stealing, and said, “If you can tell me who committed this robbery, I’ll set you free and make you a marquis.”
Snare replied, “It can be none other than Crack or Crook, or both of them together, since they are the most notorious thieves alive. But I’ll tell you how you can catch them. Have the price of meat raised to one hundred dollars a pound. The person who pays that much for it will be your thief.”
The king had the price of meat raised to one hundred dollars a pound, and everybody stopped buying meat. Finally it was reported that a friar had gone to a certain butcher and bought meat. Snare said, “That had to be Crack or Crook in disguise. I’ll now disguise myself and go around to the houses begging. If anybody gives me meat, I’ll make a red mark on the front door, and your guards can go and arrest the thieves.”
But when he made a red mark on Crack’s house, the thief saw it and went and marked all the other doors in the city with red, so there was no telling in the end where Crack and Crook lived.
Snare said to the king, “Didn’t I tell you they were foxy? But there’s someone else foxier than they are. Here’s the next thing to do: put a tub of boiling pitch at the bottom of the treasury steps. Whoever goes down to steal will fall right into it, and his dead body will give him away.”
Crack and Crook had run out of money in the meantime and decided to go back to the treasury for more. Crook went in first, but it was dark, and he fell into the tub. Crack came along and tried to pull his friend’s body out of the pitch, but it stuck fast in the tub. He then cut off the head and carried it away.
The next day the king went to see if he had caught the thief. “This time we got him! We got him!” But the corpse had no head, so they were none the wiser about the thief or any accomplices he might have had.
Snare said, “There’s one more thing we can do: have the dead man dragged through the city by two horses. The house where you hear somebody weeping has to be the thief’s house.”
In effect, when Crook’s wife looked out the window and saw her husband’s body being dragged through the street, she began screaming and crying. But Crack was there and knew right away that would be their undoing. He therefore started smashing dishes right and left and thrashing the poor woman at the same time. Attracted by all that screaming, the guards came in and found a man beating his wife for breaking up all the dishes in the house.
The king then had a decree posted on every street corner that he would pardon the thief who had robbed him, if the thief now managed to steal the sheets out from under him at night. Crack came forward and said he could do it.
That night the king undressed and went to bed with his gun to wait for the thief. Crack got a dead body from a gravedigger, dressed it in his own clothes, and carried it to the roof of the royal palace. At midnight the cadaver, held by a rope, was dangling before the king’s windows. Thinking it was Crack, the king fired one shot and watched him fall, cord and all. He ran downstairs to see if he was dead. While the king was gone, Crack slipped into his room and stole the sheets. He was therefore pardoned, and so that he wouldn’t have to steal any longer, the king married his daughter to him.
— from Italo Calvino’s Italian Folk Tales, translated by George Martin