Thieves’ Quarry (Excerpt)

Here’s a peek at  Thieves’ Quarry, out on July 2, the second Thieftaker novel by D. B. Jackson, a historical urban fantasy set in 1768, three years after the first novel, in the politically charged cauldron of Boston, as events conspire to bring the American colonies steadily closer to revolution. Thieves’ Quarry will be published on July 2, 2013.

Nothing like revolution has occurred yet, but the presence of a number of ships of His Majesty’s Navy in Boston Harbor is creating fear and unrest among the colonials in Boston. And when a terrible tragedy befalls the entire crew of a British naval vessel, the circumstances are so unusual and shocking that Ethan Kaille, a thieftaker who uses his conjuring skills as well as his wits to fight wrongdoers, is summoned.

Ethan is viewed with suspicion by the agents of the Crown who have called upon him, but they know that only someone with his unique . . . talents . . . can discover the cause of the mysterious and horrifying crime that confronts them. He has often been an object of scrutiny by the authorities, but one hundred men are dead, and he offers their best hope of apprehending whoever perpetrated this monstrous crime . . . if he survives his battle with a magical force that could kill so many.

Readers may recall a Thieftaker story that appeared here last year, “A Spell of Vengeance.”  There are more magical, suspenseful Thieftaker stories and novels to come. Watch this space.

 

Chapter
One

Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay,
September 28, 1768

 

He heard the man’s footsteps first, boot heels clicking on the cobblestone street leading toward Clarke’s Shipyard. A moment later, Tanner came into view, a bulky shadow against the faint, distant glow of the comfortable homes of Boston’s North End. He walked with purpose, his hands buried in his pockets. Every few strides, he glanced back over his shoulder.

Tanner passed Ethan Kaille without noticing him, though Ethan stood just off the lane, so close that he could have grabbed the man’s arm as he hurried past. With the concealment spell Ethan had placed on himself a few minutes earlier he could have planted himself in the middle of the street and Tanner would have collided with him before realizing he was there. Still, Ethan breathed into the crook of his arm, so as not to give himself away with a puff of vapor in the cool autumn air.

He watched as the man walked onto the wharf and crept past the first of the shipyard warehouses. Tanner moved with more caution now, his steps on the gravel and dirt fill of the wharf nearly lost amid the sound of small waves as they slapped against ships’ hulls and lapped at the timbers of the pier.

The moon, a night or two past full, hung low in the east, like some great, lidded red eye. Its reflection wavered on the smooth waters of Boston Harbor, casting just enough light for Ethan to mark Tanner’s progress as the thief slipped from shadow to shadow.

Somewhere out on the wharf, amid the warehouses, Tanner had hidden a small package containing several gold watches that he had pinched from a watchmaker named Charles Short. All told, they probably were worth five times the ten pounds Short was paying Ethan to recover them. But Ethan tried not to think about that. A thieftaker’s reputation depended not only on his cunning, not only on his prowess with a blade or his brawn, or, in Ethan’s case, his skill as a conjurer, but also on his honesty.

Unless that thieftaker happened to be Sephira Pryce. But he tried not to think about her, either.

Ethan had been working this job for the better part of a month, watching the wharves, learning what he could of the men and women who unloaded trading ships when they arrived in Boston, even making inquiries with merchants and wharfmen about the captains of the various vessels. He had gone so far as to enlist the help of his old friend Diver—Devren Jervis—who worked the wharves when he wasn’t involving himself in more questionable business opportunities in the city streets. Diver had been watching his fellow wharfmen on Ethan’s behalf, looking for odd behavior or signs that one or more of them had come into some coin in recent days. It hadn’t taken Diver long to settle on Tanner.

“He’s not wearing jewels on his fingers, or anything like that,” Diver had told Ethan two nights before as they sat in the Dowsing Rod, the tavern they frequented, which was located on Sudbury Street on the edge of New Boston, as the west end of the city was known. “But he’s acting strangely just the same. Like he’s hiding something. I think he’s got those watches hidden away somewhere out there on one of the wharves. Or Clarke’s Shipyard. That’s where he works, you know.” He had paused then, sipping his ale and eyeing Ethan slyly over the rim of his cup. “So how much is Short paying you?”

Ethan had laughed. “Ten pounds. And if you’re right about Tanner, four of them are yours.”

It was more than he usually would have paid for such information, but he and Diver had known each other for a good many years, almost since the day, more than two decades before, when Ethan first arrived in Boston. Diver had only been a boy, but he had become Ethan’s first friend in the city. He had known that Ethan was a conjurer—a speller, as his kind were called in the streets—for longer than anyone alive other than Ethan’s sisters. And Ethan’s work had gone well in recent months. He could afford to be generous.

After speaking with Diver, Ethan too had begun to watch Tanner, observing him from a distance as the man worked the shipyard, and following him through the narrow alleys of the South End to a small, run-down tavern where he spent most of his evenings. The thief was easy to spot: brawny and tall, mustached and fair-haired. He spoke with a faint Cornish accent, and he had a raucous laugh that frequently punctuated his own jokes.

It had taken Ethan only a couple of days to decide that Diver had to be right. Tanner was their man. The Cornishman had returned to the shipyard warehouses several nights running, each time arriving after midnight, skulking through shadows, and crawling on his hands and knees out near the end of the pier. He had also met with a number of men whom Ethan knew to be fences. But thus far, Ethan had yet to see Tanner exchange money or goods with any of them. And, on the one occasion when Ethan managed to get onto the wharf unseen and search for the watches himself, he found nothing.

That was why he had come tonight. He had guessed that Tanner would return to the shipyard yet again, and this time he intended to confront the thief while he had the watches on his person. As Tanner continued along the side of the warehouses, Ethan eased onto Ship Street and began to make his way toward the wharf, still concealed by the spell.

Out on Boston Harbor, in the distance and to the south of where Ethan walked, lights bobbed on the gentle swells: lanterns burning on a dozen or more British naval ships. Several of the vessels had been anchored within sight of the city for a week or more; eight others had sailed into view earlier this day. They were arrayed in a loose, broad arc, their reflections dancing and swirling like fireflies. They might have been beautiful had it not been for what they signified: more strife and fear for a city already beleaguered by its conflicts with the Crown.

But these were worries for another time. Tonight, Ethan had business with Christian Tanner.

He stole toward the wharf, placing his feet with the stealth of a housebreaker, peering into the shadows, trying to keep track of the thief. Before he had gotten far, however, he heard raised voices. A man cried out and was abruptly silenced. An instant later something—or someone—fell to the ground with a heavy thud. A torch was lit on the merchant ship nearest the end of the wharf, and then another.

Ethan started running toward the commotion, but halted at the sound of an all-too-familiar voice. It was that of a woman, low and gravelly, so she sounded as though she was purring as she spoke. Except that her words didn’t match her alluring tone.

“. . . Not very clever, Tanner,” Sephira Pryce said. “Mister Short isn’t pleased, and that means that I’m not pleased either. You’re new here in Boston, but that doesn’t excuse what you’ve done.” She stood over the man, and even from a distance, even in the flickering light of the torches held by her toughs, Ethan could see that she looked lovely. Black curls cascaded down her back, shining with torchfire, and her breeches and the tight-fitting indigo waistcoat she wore accentuated the generous, perfect curves of her body. “When you come to a new city you should inquire of those who are familiar with its customs and its habits. You should find out who to avoid angering, and who to avoid altogether. Wouldn’t you agree, Ethan?”

This last she pitched to carry.

Tanner, who was on his knees at her feet, bleeding from his mouth and nose and from a dark gash on his temple, looked around and licked his bloodied lips.

“Come now, Ethan,” Sephira called, a smug smile on her perfect face. “Don’t be shy.”

Ethan rubbed a hand over his face and cursed under his breath. She had done this to him before, swooped in on one of his jobs at the last moment to rob him of the goods he hoped to recover, and thus of his payment. She knew the streets of Boston the way a merchant captain knew the Atlantic coastline. She had cultivated friendships with nearly every useful person in the province, from the king’s commissioners on the Customs Board to Boston’s most successful merchants, from the city’s barkeeps and street peddlers to its most violent criminals. Most often, Ethan’s jobs were too small to draw her notice. But on occasion, one of Boston’s wealthier citizens hired him to recover something of value, arousing Sephira’s interest in his work. It had happened three years before, when Ethan was hired to find the killer of Jennifer Berson, the daughter of Abner Berson, one of the city’s most prosperous merchants, and again sixteen months ago, when Ethan was asked to recover goods stolen from one of the city’s wealthier shopkeepers. And it seemed it had happened once more with this job.

Charles Short’s wares might not have been the best in the city, but gold watches were enough to entice Sephira no matter who made them. Ethan had known this from the start; from the day Short hired him, he had expected her to be watching his every move, looking for some way to find the watches first. But he had been so careful; he had been sure that this time, at least, he had bested her.

“Show yourself, Kaille,” she said, her voice hardening. “I want to see the look on your face.”

On more than one occasion, Sephira and her men had come close to killing him. She was brilliant and deadly and her toughs were skilled street fighters, as good with blades as with pistols, and skilled with their fists as well. But as long as Ethan could conjure he could protect himself. He hesitated to answer her, but not out of fear: rather because he didn’t care to be mocked.

“There’s no sense in sulking. I’ve beaten you. Again. I would have thought you’d be used to it by now.”

Cursing a second time, Ethan pulled his knife from its sheath on his belt, cut his forearm and whispered in Latin, “Fini velamentum ex cruore evocatum.” End concealment, conjured from blood.

Power coursed through his body and hummed in the ground beneath his feet, deep and resonant, like the tone of a pealing church bell. At the same time, a radiant figure appeared beside him: an old man, tall and lean, with a trim beard and the dark expression of a warrior. He wore ancient battle armor and the tabard of a medieval British soldier. He even carried a sword in a scabbard on his belt. He glowed with a deep russet hue, nearly a match for the color of the moon, except for his eyes, which burned bright like brands. This was Ethan’s spectral guide, who allowed him to access the conjuring power that dwelt in the realm between the living world and the domain of the dead. Ethan had long suspected that his guide was also the wraith of one of his ancient ancestors, a link to his family’s conjuring past. He called the ghost Uncle Reg, after his mother’s oldest brother, a waspish, difficult man of whom the shade often reminded him.

The blood that had been flowing from the fresh wound on Ethan’s arm vanished, and he felt the concealment spell begin to fade. Because Sephira wasn’t a conjurer she wouldn’t have felt the spell as Ethan did. But as soon as Ethan took another step on the wharf, she saw him. Her gaze settled on his face, and a broad predatory smile lit her features.

“There you are,” she purred.

Her men, including a hulking, yellow-haired ruffian named Nigel, turned as one and started toward him. Nigel pulled a pistol from his coat pocket.

Ethan raised his knife to his forearm again. The toughs halted.

Ethan wasn’t tall like Yellow-hair or broad in the shoulders and chest like Tanner. Those who had fought him in the past, as Sephira’s men had, knew that he could handle a blade, either short or long, and that he could fight with his fists if he had to. But no one would have been afraid of him because of how he looked. His face bore a few scars, and his long hair had begun to gray at the temples. While serving time as a prisoner on a plantation in Barbados, he had lost three toes on his left foot to gangrene, and ever since, he had walked with a pronounced limp.

It was the threat of his spellmaking that made Yellow-hair and the others falter. They stared at his knife the way a child might gape at a rabid cur on an otherwise deserted lane. Even Tanner regarded him with alarm. Only Sephira appeared unconcerned. Actually, she looked bored.

“Leave him,” she said in a low voice.

Nigel and his friends glanced back at her, all wearing frowns.

“We’re not going to touch him,” she said. “And he’s not going to do anything to us. Isn’t that right, Ethan?”

God knew he wanted to. He could cast a hundred spells, from simple illusions that would scare Yellow-hair into diving off the pier, to complicated, violent conjurings that would kill all of them. With a bit of blood and a few well-chosen words he could have snapped Sephira’s neck or set her men on fire. But Sephira had powerful friends, and as much as he hated her, he wasn’t willing to hang for her murder or return to the horrors of prison.

“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” Ethan said at last, forcing a grin onto his lips. “Just give me what’s mine and I’ll be on my way.”

She laughed. He had to admit that it was a good laugh: throaty, unrestrained. Had it not been directed at him, he might have liked the sound of it.

“Nothing here is yours,” she told him.

He pointed at the sack she held in her hand. “Those watches—”

“Are mine.” She handed the watches to Nigel. “You can try to take them, but I think we both know how that will turn out.”

Ethan’s eyes flicked toward Yellow-hair, who smirked back at him. If he could have taken the watches from her with a conjuring he would have done so, but the power he wielded didn’t work that way. He could hurt her, make her drop the package. He could make the wharf collapse beneath her. He could even grind the watches to dust, rendering them worthless—this last was quite tempting. But he couldn’t make them leave her hand and appear in his own. If he wanted them, he would have to try to take them from her, and she was right: That might not work out well for him.

Ten pounds wasn’t enough to justify risking his life or his freedom. Diver might have disagreed, but Diver was young, reckless. Ethan lowered his blade.

“Good boy,” Sephira said, sounding like she was speaking to a wayward puppy.

“How did you know?” Ethan asked, his voice thick.

Her smile was luminous. “You know better than to ask me that.”

She motioned for Nigel, and the big man returned to her side, as obedient as a hunting dog. Ethan raised his blade again, making sure both Sephira and Nigel understood that he was ready to conjure at the first sign of a threat.

Sephira handed her man the watches and whispered something that Ethan couldn’t hear.

“How did you know, Sephira?” Ethan asked again.

“Ask your friend,” she said, sparing him a quick glance. “Derrey is it?”

Derrey. Diver. He was known in the streets by both names. Ethan muttered a curse under his breath.

“We’re leaving now, Ethan,” Sephira said, turning away from Nigel to face him once more. “Good work on this one. You made it very easy for us.”

She sauntered his way and then past him, hips swaying. Most of her men followed, including Gordon, a brute of a man, even brawnier than Nigel, and Nap, who was smaller than the others, though no less dangerous with a blade or gun. Ethan still held his knife over his arm, and he racked his brain for some spell that would stop her, allow him to reclaim the watches, and also enable him to make his escape.

But as Sephira walked away, Yellow-hair bent low over Tanner and in one quick motion slashed at the man’s throat with a blade Ethan hadn’t noticed before. Blood gushed from the wound. Tanner’s eyes rolled back into his head and he toppled onto his side. Blood stained the wharf crimson and began to pool at its edge, seeping over the wooden boards to drip into the water below.

Ethan rushed forward, all thoughts of stopping Sephira fleeing his mind. He pushed past Yellow-hair, who merely chuckled. Reaching Tanner, he dropped to his knees.

Remedium!” Ethan said, practically shouting the word. “Ex cruore evocatum!” Healing, conjured from blood! Usually a healing spell required that he mark the injured body part with blood. But in this case, blood was everywhere; the air reeked of it.

The wharf beneath him pulsed with power. Uncle Reg appeared again, though he hardly even glanced at Ethan or Tanner. Instead, the wraith stood with his back to them, staring after Sephira. And as the blood disappeared from the wood and dirt, and from Tanner’s neck and shirt, the gaping wound began to close. Ethan couldn’t tell if he had acted soon enough. Tanner had lost a great deal of blood in just those few seconds.

A part of him wasn’t certain why he cared. Tanner meant nothing to him. But if Sephira wanted him dead, Ethan would do all he could to keep him alive.

At first, even after the gash had healed itself, Tanner didn’t move. But leaning close to the man’s face, Ethan felt a slight stirring of breath. He grabbed Tanner’s wrist and felt for a pulse. Also faint, but unmistakable. Ethan sat back on his heels, and took a long breath. After what seemed like years, Tanner’s eyes fluttered open.

Ethan cut himself once more and drew forth a bright light that hovered over them like a tiny sun.

“You’re a . . . a conjurer!” Tanner said, trying to scramble away from him, although he was too weak to go far.

“Aye, I’m a conjurer. I just saved your life with a spell.”

The man’s hand strayed to his throat, his fingers probing the raw scar left by Nigel’s blade. “Why?” he asked.

Ethan shrugged. “I don’t know. Don’t make me regret it.”

With some effort, Tanner sat up. His arms trembled and his skin looked pasty. “Is she gone?”

“Aye,” Ethan said. “But you need to leave Boston. If she sees you, she’ll try to kill you again, and I might not be around to heal you.”

“But—”

“Short—that’s the man who owned those watches you stole—he wants you transported as far from these shores as possible. Failing that, he wants you dead. He made that clear when he hired me, and I’d wager every shilling I have that he told Sephira the same thing.”

“So . . . so you were goin’ to turn me over to the sheriff?”

Ethan made no answer. He didn’t always turn in those he was hired to pursue, and he never killed any man unless left with no choice. He had lost too many years of his life to prison and forced labor to send men away for commission of petty crimes. And he had seen too many lives wasted in battles and in the harsh conditions he had endured in his plantation prison to kill for little cause. But he always insisted, under the threat of a painful spell-induced death, that those he captured leave Boston, never to return. The last thing he needed was for word to get around the city that he didn’t punish the men he was hired to pursue. He would never be hired as a thieftaker again. He saw no reason to trust Tanner with this information.

“Aye, probably,” he finally said. “And Sheriff Greenleaf would have dealt with you harshly. But Sephira took the watches and left me to heal you, so I suppose this is your lucky day.”

Tanner’s dark eyes narrowed. “Well, then—”

“Don’t even think it,” Ethan said. “Just leave Boston on the next ship that sails. If you don’t, she’ll kill you. And if she doesn’t, I will.”

Ethan climbed to his feet, let the light fade out, and started to limp back along the wharf to the city street. He needed an ale, and it seemed he also needed to have a conversation with Diver.

“I suppose I ought to thank you for savin’ me,” Tanner called after him.

“Don’t bother,” Ethan said over his shoulder. “I didn’t do it for you.”


 

Chapter
Two

 

Ethan followed Ship Street to Fish Street and continued along the edge of the North End, skirting the finer neighborhoods. He walked by warehouses and darkened storefronts, past Paul Revere’s Silver Shop and the Hancock Wharf. The moon cast his shadow, long and haloed, across locked doors and clapboard façades. The air was cool and dry, laden with the smells of brine and fish, burning wood and ships’ tar. After crossing over Mill Creek, he followed Ann Street as it turned away from the harbor and met Union.

Two men of the night watch stood at the far corner, speaking in low voices, one of them chuckling at some jest Ethan didn’t hear. There was no established constabulary in Boston, and for now at least, there were no British regulars patrolling the streets. Men of the watch were expected to guard the citizens of Boston and their property from lawbreakers. And when they failed, which they did with some frequency, one of Boston’s thieftakers—in most cases, Sephira Pryce or Ethan— was hired to recover the stolen items. The sheriff of Suffolk County, Stephen Greenleaf, bore some responsibility for keeping the peace as well, though he was but one man, with no soldiers or guards under his immediate authority.

The long and short of it was that even with several hundred British soldiers aboard ships in the waters off the city’s shores, Boston remained a lawless city. Some of the men who served the watch were honest and competent; others were not. A few worked for Sephira Pryce, and took advantage of their time on the watch by robbing empty homes, so that Sephira could return the stolen items to their rightful owners, for a substantial fee, of course.

He didn’t recognize either of these watchmen. This didn’t mean necessarily that they worked for Sephira, but he would have felt better had he known at least one of the two. He kept his head down and his hands in his pockets as he walked past them.

“It’s late to be abroad in the streets.”

Ethan halted and turned. Both watchmen had stepped forward, their expressions hard. They were young men, one tall and spear-thin, the other shorter and brawnier. Ethan guessed that they both were armed, although they had yet to pull out either pistols or knives.

“Yes, it is,” Ethan said. “I’m just on my way to the Dowsing Rod for an ale or two.” His voice remained steady, and he met the taller man’s gaze, unwilling to let them believe that he feared them.

“I’m less interested in where you’re going than in where you’ve been.”

“I’m a thieftaker,” Ethan told him. “I was down at the wharves looking for a man who robbed a client.”

The tall one continued to regard him like something a dog might drag in off the street, but Ethan could see from the easing of his stance, the slight droop of his shoulders, that this answer had satisfied him. “Find him?”

Ethan shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”

“Well, better huntin’ next time.” The man was already turning away as he said this. The second man continued to watch Ethan, but he made no effort to stop him.

Ethan raised a hand in farewell and continued on toward the tavern, glad to get away with nothing more than a few questions. He cut through Wings Lane, a dark, narrow byway that connected Union and Hanover Streets and turned south toward Sudbury.

Before he reached the next corner, a gray and white dog bounded at him from the shadows between two shops. She ran a tight circle around him, her tongue hanging out, her tail waving wildly.

“Well met, Shelly,” Ethan said, stopping to scratch the dog behind her ears.

She licked his hand and fell in stride beside him as he continued toward the Dowser.

Even here, closer to the center of the city, the streets were mostly deserted. On most nights as clear as this one, even this late, there would have been at least a few people walking the lanes, a chaise or two rattling past. But the arrival of the king’s warships in Boston Harbor seemed to have brought a deeper chill to this autumn night.

Reaching the Dowsing Rod, Ethan gave Shelly one last scratching and a pat on the head. “Good night, Shelly,” he said, and stepped inside.

The great room of the tavern shone with candles. The warm air was tinged with the pungent bitterness of spermaceti candles, the sweet scent of pipe smoke, the musty smell of ale, and the savory aroma of yet another of Kannice Lester’s excellent fish chowders.

Kannice, the Dowser’s owner, made the best food found in any of Boston’s publick houses and she served good ales at a reasonable price. When Ethan first met her over six years before, she had already inherited the tavern from her husband, who died of smallpox during the outbreak of 1761. A young widow, whose beauty and sharp humor complemented a keen wit and savvy business sense, she had transformed the tavern from a dreary, broken-down haunt for rogues and miscreants into a reputable and profitable establishment. Her rules were simple: No whoring, gambling, or fighting. If you couldn’t discuss politics or religion without getting into an argument, you were to take your differences out into the street. And if anything you said or did attracted the notice of the watch or the sheriff, chances were she didn’t want you in her tavern.

She relied on her hulking barman, Kelf Fingarin, to keep order and to see to it that no one disobeyed. But Kelf rarely had to do more than serve ale and stew and, on occasion, toss a drunk out into the lane. Kannice was willowy and nearly a foot shorter than Kelf, but most of the time one of her tongue-lashings was enough to tame even the hardest man who set foot in her place.

Ethan stood just inside the door, scanning the tavern for her, but she was nowhere to be seen.

“Hiya Ethan,” came a booming voice from behind the bar. Kelf raised a meaty hand in greeting. “You lookin’ for Kannice?” he asked, his words coming out in one long quick jumble, as they always did.

“Hi, Kelf,” Ethan said, grinning at the huge man and walking to the bar. “She in back?”

Kelf nodded. “Made the chowder tonight. Everyone’s favorite. She can barely keep up. I can tell her you’re here, though.”

“No need. She’ll see me soon enough.” Ethan dug into his pocket and placed a shilling on the bar. “The Kent pale,” he said. “And some chowder when it’s ready.”

“Right. Diver’s in his usual spot.” He nodded toward the back of the tavern. “If’n you’re lookin’ for him.”

“My thanks.”

The barman handed him a tankard of ale, and Ethan made his way back to Diver’s table. The Dowser was crowded and loud this night. Some stood at the bar, eating oysters and drinking ales, while others sat at the tables drinking flips or Madeira wine and supping on Kannice’s chowder. But whether at tables or at the bar, few of them greeted Ethan with even so much as a nod. He had been a prisoner, a convicted mutineer; he was known to most as a thieftaker and a rival to Sephira Pryce. A handful of those in the tavern might have known that he was also a conjurer. He had few admirers and fewer friends. Then again, those friends he did have, he trusted.

Diver sat alone, hunched over his ale. But seeing Ethan approach, he sat up, an eager look on his face.

“Well?” he said, as Ethan took a seat across from him.

“Well, what?”

Diver glanced around to make sure that no one would overhear. “Come on, Ethan,” he said, lowering his voice. “You know. What happened with Tanner and the watches?”

“Sephira happened,” Ethan said, trying hard to keep his tone free of accusation.

Diver’s face fell. “What’s she got to do with it?”

“She told me to ask you.”

What?” His surprise appeared genuine, and Diver wasn’t that good a liar. Whatever he had done to tip off Sephira had been unintentional.

“Who have you told about this job?” Ethan asked.

“No one! I swear it!” His eyes were wide, even fearful. He knew better than to think that Ethan would try to exact a measure of revenge. But they had been friends for a long time; Diver looked up to Ethan the way he might to an older brother. The last thing he would have wanted was to fail him on a job, in particular if it meant losing money to Sephira Pryce.

“A girl, maybe?” Ethan asked.

“No.” But Ethan could see the doubt in his friend’s dark eyes. With Diver, there was always a girl—a different one from fortnight to fortnight, but he was rarely alone. He was tall and handsome, with curly black hair and a smile that could have charmed the queen consort herself.

“What’s her name, Diver?”

“She wouldn’t have told Sephira,” he said, more to himself than to Ethan. “I know she wouldn’t.”

“Diver?” Ethan said, drawing the young man’s gaze once more. “Her name?”

His friend sighed. “Katharine,” he said. “Katharine Chambers. I met her outside Faneuil Hall maybe a month ago. She wouldn’t be working for Sephira. She’s . . .” He shook his head, perhaps knowing better than to complete the thought aloud.

Ethan had never heard of the girl, but that didn’t mean much. “Have you told anyone else about Tanner?” he asked.

Diver shook his head, his expression bleak. “No, no one.” He looked Ethan in the eye. “You have my word.”

Ethan nodded and took a long pull of ale. “Well,” he said wiping his mouth with his hand, “there’s nothing to be done about it now. I’d suggest you stay away from her, though.”

“So, we don’t get anything?” Diver asked.

“This is Sephira we’re talking about. It’s not like her to share with the other children.”

The young man closed his eyes and rubbed his brow with his thumb and forefinger. “I needed that money.”

Ethan didn’t bother asking why. More often than not, when Diver said it that way he meant, I’ve already spent that money.

They sat in silence for some time. Ethan surveyed the tavern while Diver stared morosely into his empty tankard. Eventually Kannice came out of the kitchen, beckoned to Kelf, and vanished again. Soon after, the two of them emerged again bearing a huge tureen of creamy white stew. The tavern patrons roared their approval, and Kelf began to ladle the chowder into wooden bowls.

Kannice had spotted Ethan and she approached him now, her auburn hair shining in the lamplight, a few stray strands falling over her forehead. Reaching their table, she bent to kiss him lightly on the lips, her hair smelling of lavender, her breath tasting slightly of Irish whiskey.

She bobbed her head toward Diver. “He’s been like an eager puppy all night, waiting for you to come in. I’d have thought he’d be happier now that you’re finally here.”

Ethan shrugged, and flashed a rueful grin. “Yes, well, things didn’t go quite as we had hoped.”

Diver glanced up at Kannice before looking away again. Kannice tolerated Diver because he was Ethan’s friend, but she thought him a reckless fool who brought trouble on himself and on those around him. Ethan found it hard to defend Diver, because Kannice often was right. This night’s misadventure was more typical than either Ethan or Diver would care to admit.

Kannice regarded Diver through narrowed eyes and started to say something, but Ethan took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. She clamped her mouth shut, and shook her head.

“I take it you’re paying for his supper, then,” she said, looking at Ethan again.

“I gave Kelf enough to cover both his and mine.”

She chuckled, shaking her head a second time. “Fine. I’ll leave you boys to work this out yourselves.” She kissed the top of Ethan’s head. “And I’ll deal with you later.”

This was Kannice’s way of telling Ethan that she wanted him to stay the night with her. They had been lovers for the better part of five years, and though they didn’t live together, and though Ethan had made it clear to Kannice that he wasn’t the marrying kind, he would have faced down the king’s army to keep her safe. Once, there had been another woman in his life: Elli—Marielle—to whom Ethan had been betrothed before his imprisonment. For many years, while serving his sentence on the sugar plantation, and even after his return to Boston, he had mourned the loss of his first love. But more recently that wound had healed. He and Elli remained on civil terms, but Ethan didn’t long for her anymore. Today, Ethan was as devoted to Kannice as he had ever been to Elli.

Kannice walked back to where Kelf was ladling out the stew and said something that made the rest of her patrons laugh uproariously. She might have been unyielding when it came to her rules, but she could outdrink a Scottish sea captain and she told jokes that would make an old sailor blush.

“You’re going to tell her what I did, aren’t you?” Diver said, once she was out of earshot.

Ethan took a quick sip of ale to hide his amusement. “I’ll tell her what happened. She’ll work out the rest.”

“Probably,” Diver muttered. “I really am sorry.”

“It cost you nearly as much as it did me.”

“Aye, but I know how much you hate being bested by Sephira.”

Ethan looked away. Kelf was headed in their direction carrying two bowls of steaming stew.

“There y’are,” the big man said, placing the bowls in front of them. “Another ale, Diver?”

Diver glanced at Ethan.

“We’ll both take another,” Ethan said before draining his tankard and handing it to Kelf.

Once the barkeep had walked away, Diver turned to Ethan again, a sheepish look on his face. “Ethan—”

“Leave it, Diver. Sephira’s men didn’t beat me. Sephira didn’t threaten

you or Kannice or Elli and her kids. All she did was take a bit of coin that I’d claimed for myself. It’s not worth worrying about.”

If anything, the younger man’s shoulders drooped even more after hearing this, but he muttered something in agreement.

Kelf returned with their ales, and for some time neither man spoke. Ethan watched Kannice as she made her way around the main room of the tavern, chatting with her patrons, laughing at their jokes, chastising them when they spilled their drinks. Now and again her eyes found Ethan’s and she smiled, but for the most part she left him and Diver to themselves.

“I liked working with you,” Diver said at length, pushing his empty bowl to the center of the table. “I liked being a thieftaker, even if it was just for a little while.”

Ethan eyed him. “Did you?”

“Aye,” his friend said. “Was I any good at it?”

“You figured out that Tanner was our thief. That took some doing.”

Diver beamed. “Does that mean I can help you with another job?”

“I don’t know. Can you manage to take a girl to your bed without telling her my business?”

“Of course I can,” Diver said, his color rising.

Ethan sat forward. “Are you sure? I’m asking you seriously. There are times when I’ll want your help, but after this . . .” He shook his head. “If I’m going to rely on you, I have to know I can trust you.”

The younger man held his gaze though Ethan could tell that the words stung. “You can.”

Ethan regarded him for another moment. “If you tell me it’s so, I believe you. Next time I need help, you’ll be the man I turn to.”

Diver grinned. “I’m grateful.” He hesitated before asking, “What did Sephira do to him?”

“To Tanner, you mean?”

Diver nodded.

“She had one of her toughs cut his throat.”

The blood drained from Diver’s face. “They killed him?”

“No. She didn’t want him dead,” he said, knowing as he spoke the words that it was true. “She wanted to distract me. She figured I would save him. And I did, though only just.” Ethan regarded his friend. “Do you still want to work with me?”

“Aye,” Diver said, though his hand shook as he lifted his ale.

He said something else, but Ethan didn’t hear what it was. A man had just entered the Dowser, one Ethan recognized, though at first he couldn’t remember from where. His face was sallow and thin, his cheekbones high. He had a wispy beard and mustache, and his wheaten hair, straight and shoulder-length, tied back in a plait, looked almost golden in the dim light of the tavern. He was slight and short, and dressed as he was in a brown coat and matching waistcoat, tan breeches and what appeared to be a silk shirt, he looked like a merchant. But the man also wore silver-rimmed spectacles, and it was these that struck Ethan as familiar. After a few seconds, he realized why. This was one of the men who had met with Tanner, and who Ethan had assumed traded in pilfered goods. Tanner had met the stranger in a tavern in the North End, and the two of them had spoken for nearly an hour. Ethan recalled thinking at the time that this fence had to be new to the city. He felt even more certain of this now. He had never seen him before that day in the North End.

The fence stood near the doorway, surveying the crowd in the tavern, his brow creased, his gaze flitting from face to face. For just an instant the man glanced directly at Ethan, his lenses catching the lamplight so that they appeared opaque. In the next moment he looked away, having given no indication that he had recognized him. As he surveyed the rest of the tavern, though, the stranger’s dark eyes widened in recognition. He didn’t move right away, continuing instead to survey the room. But Ethan could tell that this was merely for show.

At last he crossed to the bar and slid a coin onto the polished wood. Kelf handed the man an ale, but said nothing to him, and the stranger turned away without a word. Again he made a show of searching for a place to sit, but when he left the bar he walked directly to where whomever he had seen was seated.

Ethan followed the man with his eyes, hoping that he would also catch a glimpse of the stranger’s friend. This second person, though, was blocked from Ethan’s view by a wooden post. Ethan shifted his chair as subtly as he could, but to no avail.

“Are you even listening to me?” Diver asked, leaning forward to force himself into Ethan’s line of sight.

“No, I’m not. A man just walked in—don’t turn! I saw him with Tanner about a week ago.”

“What was he doing with Tanner?”

“Trying to buy watches, I think.”

“Do you think he came here looking for you?”

Ethan shook his head. “No, I’m not sure he ever saw me. But I want to see who he’s with.” He drained his ale and stood. “Stay here. Don’t do anything to draw attention to yourself.”

“All right,” Diver said.

Ethan walked to the bar, squeezing past a crowd of young wharfmen.

“I woulda brought you another ale,” Kelf told him, taking his tankard and refilling it.

“I know. Thank you. I wanted to stretch my legs a bit.”

The barman shrugged and handed him the ale.

Ethan took a sip and turned to lean back against the bar, doing his best to appear relaxed and uninterested. He could see the stranger now, though his back was to the room. Sitting across from him, his face shrouded in shadow, was a large man who looked very much like someone Sephira would hire for his brawn. Ethan didn’t recognize him. He had dark, straggly hair and a broad, homely face. His nose was crooked and a dark scar ran from the corner of his mouth to his chin, so that his face seemed to wear a perpetual scowl.

The two men sat hunched over the table, their heads close together. The big man didn’t seem to be saying much, but he nodded every so often.

After Ethan had watched them for several moments, his curiosity got the better of him. He bit down hard on the inside of his cheek, drawing blood.

Audiam, Ethan said to himself. Ex cruore evocatum. Listen, conjured from blood.

He felt the blood in his mouth vanish. Uncle Reg appeared beside him and power thrummed like a plucked string on a lute, making the air in the tavern come alive for the span of a heartbeat. No one standing near Ethan appeared to notice—only someone who conjured would. But the bespectacled man stiffened noticeably.

Ethan felt his blood run cold. The man had sensed his conjuring, and already was turning to look for its source. Biting down on his cheek a second time, he whispered a second spell. Abi! Go away! A second pulse made the tavern floor hum. The old ghost shot Ethan a filthy look, and vanished. An instant later the bespectacled man swiveled in his chair, his gaze passing over Ethan.

“What is it?” the big man asked, his voice now reaching Ethan’s ears. “Did you hear—?”

But the stranger raised a hand, silencing him as he continued to search the tavern.

Ethan waited until the man had turned to look elsewhere, and made his way back to the table, his eyes fixed on Diver, the hand holding his ale steady. His mind was reeling, though. Whatever else this man was, he was also a speller, or at least someone who had been born to conjuring. Ethan hoped that he wasn’t skilled enough with the craft to know what kind of spell Ethan had cast.

“It is nothing,” he heard the man say at last, his voice low, the words tinged with a barely discernible accent that Ethan couldn’t place at first.

“You was tellin’ me about the ship,” the big man said.

The bespectacled man didn’t respond right away. Ethan assumed that he was still searching the tavern. If Ethan had sensed someone else casting spells near him, that’s what he would have done. He regained the table and sat opposite Diver, though he kept his attention on the conversation now echoing in his head.

“Yes, the ship,” the man said. Forced to guess, Ethan would have said he came from somewhere on the Iberian Peninsula; Portugal perhaps. “It arrived with the others. I do not know yet when it will dock—it does not matter really. What matters is that he does not find his way into the city.”

“Which wharf do you think they’ll dock at?”

“I do not believe that will matter either,” the man said. “We are to keep him out of the city. The rest is of less importance, but it has been made clear to me that he must not reach Boston.”

“Made clear?” the big man repeated. “You mean by Seph—?”

“Shh!” the bespectacled man said sharply. “Do not say anything more.”

“Bu—”

“Nothing more. It was made clear to me. You know by who. We need not speak of it further.”

The big man grunted and said, “All right then. And how’re we supposed to keep him away?”

“That is my concern. You have other responsibilities, which I have already explained to you. See to them, and we will not have any surprises, even if the rest does not go as it is supposed to.”

“You all right?”

Ethan looked over at Diver, who was eyeing him with concern. He held up a hand and shook his head.

“How much we gettin’ for all of this anyways?” the big man asked.

“Ethan—”

“Quiet, Diver!” he whispered harshly. “I’m listening.”

“. . . pounds, divided the usual way.”

“Aye, well that way still ain’t right. You said last time it’d be changin’. Remember?”

“Listening to what?” Diver asked, obviously wounded by Ethan’s tone.

Ethan glared at him.

“. . . will change. Perhaps this time. But first we have to complete the task. After that we can talk about a new division of payment.”

The big man grunted again, sounding unhappy.

The stranger and his friend fell into a brief silence. Then Ethan heard one of them put a tankard on the table. A chair scraped across the tavern’s wooden floor.

“I am leaving now,” the bespectacled man said. “I would suggest you leave this place as well. I am not sure it is as safe as we assumed.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Nothing,” the stranger said, his voice low.

Ethan saw the bespectacled man emerge from their section of the tavern and make his way to the door. He watched out of the corner of his eye as once again the man surveyed the room, perhaps hoping that his unseen observer would reveal himself with another spell. Reaching the door, he glanced back one last time, his spectacles flashing in the lamplight. Then he slipped out into the night. Shortly after, the big man left as well, lumbering to the door without so much as a backward glance.

Still Ethan didn’t release the spell, for fear that the stranger lurked outside the Dowser, waiting for him to do just that.

But he faced Diver again. “I’m sorry about that,” he said. “I had cast a spell and was listening to their conversation.”

“Whose conversation?” Diver demanded. Ethan could tell that he had pushed his friend to the limits of his patience.

“I didn’t catch either of their names. I told you, I saw one of them with Tanner; the other I had never seen before. But he started to say something about Sephira. I’m sure of it. The other man cut him off before he could say more.”

“What were they talking about?”

Ethan repeated their cryptic references to the ship.

“Do you think any of this is important?”

“I don’t know,” Ethan admitted. “But there was something else about the one who knows Tanner: He felt my conjuring.”

Diver’s brow furrowed. “You think he—” He stopped, his mouth dropping open and his eyes going wide. “You mean,” he whispered, “you think he’s a speller, too?”

“Aye. And if he is—and if he’s working on something with Sephira—then this could be very important.”

“So what do we do?”

Ethan managed not to laugh. “I’m not sure that ‘we’ do anything. I don’t know that it’s a good idea for you to help me with this.”

“Why not?”

“Because it can be dangerous meddling in Sephira Pryce’s affairs. And because you’re not exactly the most reliable person I could choose as a partner.”

Diver’s cheeks colored. “I told you I wouldn’t discuss your business with anyone else,” he said, with an earnestness Ethan had never seen in him before. “And I meant it. I don’t blame you for not trusting me. But I can help you with this.”

Ethan felt his resolve weakening.

Diver grinned. “Come on. Give me another chance. I lost money tonight, too, and I wouldn’t mind getting back at Sephira just a little bit.”

“All right,” Ethan said, knowing that if Kannice were listening, she would call him a fool and worse. “You’re working the wharves tomorrow, right?”

“Aye, but I can skip it if you need me to.”

“No, I need you there.” Diver’s face fell, but Ethan pressed on. “Where will you be?”

“Thornton’s Shipyard,” Diver said, his voice flat. “Or maybe Greenough’s.”

“Good. In that case you can be responsible for watching the North End wharves for Sephira or this friend of hers.”

“How can I do that? You didn’t even let me look at him!”

Ethan described the man and his companion. “Don’t say anything to them. Don’t even go near them. Just watch what they do and report back to me.”

Diver frowned. Ethan could see that he was disappointed by his instructions. “All right. What are you going to do?”

“I’ll be watching the wharves in the South End and Cornhill.” He couldn’t possibly watch all the wharves, of course. Boston’s waterfront was as active as any in New England and was nearly a match for those in New York and Philadelphia, even with the hard times that had befallen the city in recent years. But he hoped that if he could stay near Long Wharf, the busiest in the city, he might learn something of value.

“Are you sure there isn’t something else you want me to do?” Diver asked. “Maybe follow Spectacles, or his big friend?”

“I’m sure,” Ethan said.

“Right.” Diver drank the rest of his ale and stood. “Best be heading off then. I have an exciting day at the wharf ahead of me.”

“Sleep well, my friend,” Ethan said.

Diver nodded, but lingered by the table. “I really am sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“It can’t happen again, Diver. It’s not just my livelihood I’m risking by letting you help me. It’s my life, and yours too.”

“I understand.”

Ethan smiled. “Good. Get some rest.”

Diver left the tavern, raising a hand in farewell as he passed Kelf. Not long after, Kannice came to Ethan’s table, as he had known she would.

She sat and took his hand. “Do you want to tell me what happened?” she asked.

Ethan chuckled. “Diver would prefer that I didn’t.”

“I thought as much. That’s why I asked you.”

“I won’t bother you with the details, but the upshot is that Sephira learned of my work for Mister Short from a girl Diver knows, and it cost us a few pounds.” He shrugged. “There’s nothing to be done about it now.”

“She could have killed you.”

“Sephira has had ample opportunity to kill me, if that’s what she wants,” he said. But Kannice was right. It could have been far worse. For Tanner it nearly was. He wondered if he had been too quick to let Diver work with him again.

“You know what I mean,” Kannice said. “I understand that he’s your friend, but you’re best off leaving him to the wharves and doing your thieftaking on your own.”

Sound advice. He would have been wise to take it.

“You’re already letting him help you with something else, aren’t you?”

She knew him as well as she did the wood grain of her tavern’s bar, and she was as smart as anyone he had ever known. He would have been well served to have her work with him, but she was too clever for that.

“It’s not a job,” Ethan said, an admission in the words. “I saw something tonight, and I just want to make sure that Sephira isn’t causing more trouble.”

She glared at him, lamplight shining in her bright blue eyes. “And you thought it would be a good idea to let Derrey tag along as you meddle in Sephira Pryce’s affairs.”

Strange that it hadn’t sounded half as foolish when he himself said much the same thing. He didn’t like to admit that loyalty to a friend could be a fault, but perhaps he had been too quick to forgive Diver.

“Honestly, Ethan, sometimes I think his stupidity rubs off on you, like it’s contagious or something.”

She shook her head, got up, and started toward the bar. Halfway there, she stopped, heaved a sigh, and walked back to his table. Halting in front of him, she offered a contrite smile. “I didn’t mean for that to come out the way it did. I just remember what’s happened in the past when you’ve crossed her.”

He remembered, too. Over the years, Sephira’s men had beaten him to a bloody mess, stolen his money, and come close to killing him more times than he could count. “I’m not going out of my way to start a new fight with Sephira Pryce. I promise. But one of the men I saw in here tonight is a conjurer, and I think I overheard him and his friend talking about Sephira. I don’t like the idea of her having access to spells.”

“I can see that.” She tilted her head to the side, a coy smile curving her lips. “Are you staying tonight?”

“I’d like to, if you don’t mind having a man as foolish as me in your bed.”

She grinned and draped the towel she was carrying over her shoulder. “It’s never bothered me before,” she said, and walked away.

 

Thieves Quarry © D. B. Jackson 2013

0 Comments

Subscribe to this thread