The Price Of Doing Business

Ethan Kaille is a Thieftaker in Boston in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Having suffered losses and reversals in his life, he is neither naive nor without considerable personal resources. He isn’t just a detective; he’s also a conjurer, which makes him someone who lives on the margins of polite society. Some people fear his powers; others merely find him a distasteful rogue who should simply go away . . . but still, he is useful to the powers-that-be when problems arise requiring his unusual skill-set. In the novels Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, as well as in the story “A Spell of Vengeance,” which was published on Tor.com, Kaille has had to deal with a variety of crimes and their perpetrators. The story that follows is one from Kaille’s early days as a thieftaker in Boston. In it, he must face a formidable foe, one of a most unexpected sort, whose own powers, very different from his own, prove the equal of Ethan’s.

 

Ethan Kaille eyed the tavern door, his fingers drumming an impatient rhythm on the worn wood of the table at which he sat. He had arrived early at the Crane’s Roost, a publick house on North Street in Boston’s North End, but he felt certain that by now the appointed time for his meeting had come and gone. Knowing how important this job could be for him, Ethan had put on his cleanest linen shirt and his finest waistcoat and matching breeches. But the shirt had fit him better in the days just after his release from prison, when he was so emaciated that he feared the parchment-thin skin over his ribs might tear. And though the waistcoat and breeches might have looked better than his usual clothes, wearing them made him feel like a fop.

The man he was waiting for, a merchant named Aubrey Heap, lived nearby on Princes Street and had a small warehouse on Verin’s Wharf. Whether he had been home or at his place of business, he wouldn’t have needed to travel far to reach the Roost.

But Ethan had yet to see anyone who looked like a merchant enter the tavern. Several wharfmen and a few joiners, their shirts still covered with sawdust, had straggled in since his arrival, most of them congregating at the bar to eat oysters and drink ales. A short while before, several craftsmen—shipwrights probably, given the proximity to the tavern of so many of Boston’s largest shipyards—had entered the Roost and taken a table near his. They were now eating stew and drinking flips; they ignored him.

No one would have counted Heap among the most successful or influential of Boston’s merchants; next to men like Thomas Hancock and Abner Berson, Heap seemed of little consequence. But while Ethan had plied his trade as a thieftaker for the better part of a year, he had so far worked only for men of middling means, like Henry Dall, the cooper from whom he rented his room. If Heap—Mister Heap—decided to hire Ethan, he would be far and away the wealthiest client for whom Ethan had worked in his new profession.

Feeling uneasy, he shifted in his seat and considered getting himself an ale. He immediately thought better of it. Mister Heap would want to see that he was sober and responsible. He smoothed his waistcoat, and settled back once more, still eyeing the door.

The message delivered to Ethan at his room on Cooper’s Alley had been quite specific about the time and place of their meeting, but vague on the particulars of the inquiry Mister Heap wanted Ethan to conduct. As a thieftaker, Ethan recovered stolen items and returned them to their rightful owners for a fee. It could be dangerous work, but after nearly fourteen years as a convict, toiling under a blazing sun on a sugar plantation in Barbados, there were few other lines of work open to him. He had some skill with a blade and with his fists, and though few knew it, he was also a conjurer who could cast spells that made thieftaking just a bit easier and less risky.

He knew of no spells, though, that could speed a man to an appointment for which he was late.

He had just made up his mind to buy himself an ale—sobriety be damned!—when the door opened again and a wisp of a man, half a head shorter than Ethan and as slight as a child, entered the tavern. He paused at the door, surveyed the great room. Spotting Ethan, he faltered, glanced around one last time, and then started toward the table. Ethan stood.

“Mister Heap?” Ethan said.

“Mister Kaille.” The man smiled and extended a hand. Despite his diminutive stature, his grip was firm.

They both sat, and Heap leaned forward resting his hands on the table, palms down. His beige silk suit, and his powdered wig, plaited in back, marked him as a man of some means. His face was youthful, his brow smooth, his eyes a clear bright blue. Ethan guessed that he was in his late thirties.

“Thank you for meeting me, Mister Kaille. I apologize for being late.”

“Not at all, sir. Your message indicated that you’ve recently had property pinched from your home.”

The merchant frowned, though the corners of his mouth quirked upward. “Pinched?” he said. “Is that a term used in the streets?”

“Aye. Forgive me.”

“You needn’t apologize, Mister Kaille. It sounds rather more exciting than simply saying that we were robbed.”

“Yes, sir. Can you tell me what was taken?”

“Mostly items of a personal nature. A gold watch that had belonged to my wife’s father, two brooches made with small diamonds and emeralds, a set of hair combs made of ivory and gold, and . . .” The merchant’s cheeks shaded to red. “Well, several bottles of . . . of French wine.”

Ethan schooled his features. With war still raging between France and the British Empire, the sale of any French products, including wines, was illegal in the colonies. Unless those bottles were several years old, chances were they had been smuggled into Boston. Judging from Mister Heap’s obvious discomfort, Ethan assumed that he had acquired them recently.

“The wine is nothing,” Heap said. “The bottles were rather dear, but they’re of little importance. The other items, however, are a different matter. The watch especially is of great sentimental value to my wife.”

“Yes, sir. Do you have any idea who might have stolen these treasures from you?”

“As it happens, I do. I’ve no proof, mind you. But there was a man—a laborer who did some work for us this past autumn. Our home was built originally by my grandfather, and after all these years, the hearths in two of our bed chambers had fallen into disrepair. This man represented himself as a trained mason, although I’m now convinced that this was a ruse. His workmanship was poor, and he spent far too much time lavishing his attentions on my elder daughter, who of course did all she could to spurn his advances.”

“Do you remember the man’s name?”

“Edwin Randle,” Heap said. “He called himself ‘Ned.’ I don’t know where he lives, but he’s a tall man, red hair, ruddy complexion. He has a scar on his chin.” Heap placed a finger just to the right of the shallow cleft in his own chin. “Right here.”

“Thank you, sir. That should be quite helpful.”

“So, do you think you might be able to retrieve what we’ve lost? I approached another thieftaker about this, but was told that the jewelry was probably already beyond our reach, sold to one who deals in pilfered goods.”

Ethan frowned at this. “Who told you that?”

“A thieftaker of some renown—a woman. Sephira Pryce.”

“Sephira Pryce told you your property couldn’t be retrieved?”

“Yes. Do you know her?”

Ethan sat back in his chair. “By reputation,” he said. Perhaps he should have told the man more, but at the moment he was too bewildered.

Sephira Pryce, the so-called Empress of the South End, was the most notorious and successful thieftaker in Boston, perhaps in all the colonies. She was said to be beautiful, charming, and utterly ruthless. Some also said—though always in whispers—that while she managed to find most every stolen item she sought, this was only because the men who worked for her were responsible for the lion’s share of the thefts. She stole with one hand, returned property with the other and was paid handsomely for her efforts. That she had judged Heap’s property irretrievable struck Ethan as peculiar, to say the least. He wondered if she’d had some other reason for refusing to take on this inquiry.

“So, do you think you can help me, Mister Kaille?” Heap asked once more, pulling Ethan out of his musings.

“Aye, sir, I believe I can.”

Heap smiled with obvious relief. “I’m glad to hear it.” The man’s smile turned brittle. “Would that I could see to this matter myself. Understand, I’m no coward. But Randle is a brute, and as you can see”—he gestured at himself—“I am anything but.”

“Of course, sir. I understand.”

The merchant faltered. “I’ve never done this before—actually hired a thieftaker, I mean. Do I pay you now?”

“You pay me a retainer, sir. I receive the balance of my fee upon returning your property.”

“And what do you charge for your . . . your services?”

“Different people pay me different amounts, in proportion to their means and the value they place on those items they’ve lost.”

Heap still looked uncertain.

“I’ll take a pound and ten as a retainer,” Ethan said, wondering if the merchant would balk at such a large amount. “And three pounds, ten upon returning your property.”

Heap appeared to consider this. At last he nodded. “Five pounds sounds reasonable.” He pulled out a leather purse that rang with coins when he placed it on the table. With great care, he counted out one pound and ten shillings and handed the coins to Ethan. “There you are.”

“Thank you, sir,” Ethan said, pocketing the money. “I’ll be in touch as soon as I have tidings to share. Would you prefer that I contact you at your home or at the warehouse?”

“I believe the warehouse would be best.”

“Very well.” Ethan stood. “I’ll start my inquiry immediately.”

Heap got to his feet as well and shook Ethan’s hand again with great vigor. “Thank you, Mister Kaille. I look forward to our next encounter.”

“Yes, sir.” He watched the merchant leave the tavern, and then crossed to the bar.

At first, the barkeep, a tall, narrow-shouldered man with lank brown hair, barely spared him a glance. But when Ethan placed a shilling on the dull, dark wood, the man walked over and reached for the coin. Before his fingers touched it, Ethan covered the shilling with his hand.

“I’d like an ale,” he said. “Kent Pale, if you have it. And I’m wondering if you know a man named Ned Randle.”

The barkeep met Ethan’s gaze for but a moment before looking down at his hand once more.

“That man paid you more than a shillin’,” the barkeep said.

“Aye, he did. And last I checked, an ale should only be costing me a penny and a half. Do you want the shilling or not?”

The barkeep licked his lips. “We haven’ got the Kent. Just a local small beer. Cider’s pretty good though.”

“All right,” Ethan said. “And Randle?”

“He comes in now an’ again. He’s not a regular, but I know him.”

“Do you know where I might find him when he’s not here?”

The barkeep shook his head. “There must be a dozen pubs between here and the wharves. He could be in any one of them.”

“He works the wharves?”

The man shrugged. “Most scrubs do when times are hard. And when was the last time they wasn’ hard?”

“Do you trust him?”

“Do I trust him?” the barkeep repeated, chuckling. “I trust him as much as I trust any of the coves who show up here, and a fair bit more than I trust you.”

Ethan grinned and removed his hand from the coin. The barkeep pocketed the shilling, then reached for a tankard.

“Cider then?” he asked.

Ethan started toward the door. “Another time,” he said over his shoulder. He stepped out of the tavern into the chill air of an early spring day. The sun shone down on Boston Harbor, her wind-riffled waters sparkling as if strewn with diamonds. Gulls circled overhead, their plaintive cries echoing across the harbor and through the lanes of the North End, and cormorants preened atop the roofs of nearby warehouses.

Ethan weighed his options, then struck out westward, skirting the base of Copp’s Hill and making his way to Gee’s Shipyard. Mister Heap had known a good deal about the man who robbed him; few of Ethan’s clients provided so much information. But still, Ethan didn’t know where to begin his search. Thus, he thought it best to follow the counsel of the Roost’s barkeep and look for Randle first on the wharves and in the North End shipyards.

He followed Charles Street to Salem Street and walked past the old Christ Church, with its brick façade and soaring white spire. Taking a right onto Shease, he checked to see that no one was watching and slipped into a narrow alley between a pair of buildings. There, he pulled his knife from the sheath on his belt, pushed up his coat and shirt sleeves, and cut his forearm.

Blood welled from the wound. “Velamentum ex cruore evocatum,” he whispered. Concealment conjured from blood.

Power thrummed in the cobblestones beneath his feet and in the brick walls on either side of him. At the same time, a glowing russet figure winked into view beside Ethan. He appeared to be an older man, lean, with closely shorn white hair and a trim beard. He wore chain mail and a tabard bearing the lions of the ancient Plantagenet kings. A long sword hung from his belt.

“Hello, Reg,” Ethan said.

The spirit frowned, his eyes glowing brightly in the shadows of the alley. Ethan did not actually know the old man’s name. He was the shade of an ancient ancestor, a specter who allowed Ethan to access the power that dwelt between the living world and the realm of the dead. Without him, Ethan’s conjurings would have no effect. But his appearance and perpetual scowl reminded Ethan of his mother’s splenetic brother, Reginald, and so Ethan had long ago taken to calling him Uncle Reg.

With the concealment spell in place, Ethan could not be seen. He could search the wharves and shipyards freely, without drawing attention to himself or to his inquiry, and, he hoped, without scaring Randle away before he had a chance to question the man.

He left the alley, Reg stalking beside him, and soon reached Princes Street, near Aubrey Heap’s house. He turned northwestward in the direction of Gee’s Shipyard and fell in step with men and women making their way to the Charlestown Ferry, using their footfalls to mask his own.

Once Ethan reached the shipyard and its dock on the Charles River, he had to take greater care not to make noise. Those around him might not be able to see him, but they could hear every sound he made and they might even notice signs of his footsteps on the dirt fill of the wharf.

One ship, its hull mostly complete, sat on blocks near the end of a pier at the west end of the shipyard. Shipwrights and mechanics scrambled over the vessel, like beetles on a carcass, but otherwise there was little activity in the yard.

Back in 1744, before Ethan’s imprisonment, when he first came to Boston, the shipyards of the North End had bustled with activity, and had been among the most productive in all of North America. But with the onset of war with the French, hard times had come to New England, and today, while shipbuilders in Philadelphia and New York continued to do a good business, many of Boston’s yards had fallen idle.

Ethan walked the length and breadth of the yard, but saw no one who matched Heap’s description of Ned Randle. He returned to the street and followed Ferry Way past the Charlestown Ferry dock and Hudson’s Point checking each yard as he went. Still, he saw no sign of Randle.

But as he searched Greenough’s Shipyard, he did spot a familiar face. Young Devren Jervis—Diver, for short—had been but a boy when Ethan first reached Boston. But even then, separated in age by eight years, Ethan and Diver had become fast friends. They had seen each other a few times since Ethan’s return to the city from prison, and of all the people Ethan had known before being convicted for his involvement in the Ruby Blade mutiny, Diver was the only one who had treated him as a friend rather than as an embarrassment. He was also one of the few people in Boston who knew that Ethan could conjure.

Diver was perched near the top of a ladder, caulking the hull of a ship with strips of oakum, and setting them in place with irons. Other men worked nearby, but none of them was so close to Diver that they noticed as Ethan walked to the base of his friend’s ladder and gave it a small shake.

Diver paused in his work, looking down. After a moment he turned his attention back to the caulking. Ethan shook the ladder a second time.

Frowning, Diver descended the ladder, the irons and his bucket of oakum in hand.

As he reached the bottom of the hull, Ethan edged closer to him and whispered, “Diver!”

His friend jumped and glanced around, his eyes wide.

“It’s me,” Ethan said. “I’ve cast a concealment spell.”

Diver scowled. “Ethan?”

“Meet me at the water’s edge.”

Ethan stepped out of the unfinished hull and walked to the edge of the wharf. Along the way he bent to pick up a rusted nail that he spotted lying in the dirt. When Diver emerged from the hull and paused to survey the pier, Ethan tossed the nail into the water.

At the sound of the splash, Diver strode in his direction.

“Sorry about that,” Ethan said, as his friend approached.

“You nearly scared me to death,” Diver said with quiet intensity, gazing out over the harbor. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“I’m looking for someone, and I thought you might know him.”

“And you figured that making me piss myself was a good way to convince me to help you?”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Ethan said. He smiled, though he knew his friend couldn’t see. “You should have seen your face.”

Diver grinned. He was good-looking: tall, dark-eyed, with black curly hair and a winning smile. Every week or two he had a new girl on his arm. And just as he was incapable of holding on to a pound or a sovereign, he was never able to keep any of the girls for long. Ethan had assumed that at some point Diver would grow up, find steady work, and marry. But so far his friend had shown no interest in either a lasting job or a wife.

“Who is it you’re after?” the younger man asked.

“His name is Edwin Randle, though you may know him as Ned.”

Diver turned toward Ethan at that, his expression darkening. “Ned Randle? Are you serious?”

“You do know him.”

His friend stared out at the harbor again, his gaze following a flock of cormorants flying low over the water, ebon against aqua. “Aye, I know him. He’s a cheat and a liar, and if he wasn’t the size of a seventy-gun ship I’d have broken his nose a long time ago.”

“What did he do to you?”

Diver shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. You won’t find him in the shipyards or on a wharf. Not anymore. He makes a pretty decent living cracking the houses of rich men.” Glancing again in Ethan’s direction, he added, “That’s probably why you’re asking me about him in the first place.”

“Aye,” Ethan said. “Do you know where I can find him?”

“I’ve heard some say that he spends time in a tavern on Union Street—the Three Elms, I think it’s called. He lives not far from there, in a room above a smithy on Cold Lane.”

“For a man you seem to hate, you certainly know a lot about him.”

Diver’s cheeks reddened. He had worked in the shipyards for some time, but he had also been known to dabble in business ventures of a less savory nature.

“We haven’t had any dealings recently,” Diver said, an admission in the words. “But I had some business with him last summer.”

He volunteered no more than that, and Ethan didn’t ask.

“Jervis!”

They both turned. A man stood near the ship Diver had been working on, glaring in their direction.

“My foreman,” Diver said under his breath. “Yes, sir!” he called. “Just needed a moment.”

“You’re not being paid to stare off at the gulls!”

“No, sir!” He started back toward he ship. “Good luck, Ethan,” he muttered.

“Thanks, Diver. I’m in your debt.”

“Aye. Two ales, at least.”

Ethan smiled, walked back to Lynn Street, and then crossed through the North End toward Union Street. Along the way, he paused on a deserted lane to cut himself a second time and whisper, “Fini velamentum ex cruore evocatum.” End concealment, conjured from blood. The spell would have faded on its own eventually, but it would have taken hours, and Ethan couldn’t wait.

Visible once more, he walked on to the Three Elms. He didn’t find Randle there, but slipping into his old Bristol accent, he pretended to be a friend of Ned’s, fresh off a ship from England, and thus confirmed with the barkeep that Randle still lived on Cold Lane. The barkeep even described the building for him.

Leaving the pub, Ethan strode through the streets to the narrow lane. The wind still swept in off the harbor, keening like a wild creature as it whipped through the narrow passages between buildings. As Ethan neared the smithy, he drew his knife. He preferred not to conjure in front of Randle, and had no reason to believe that the thief was a conjurer himself. But from all accounts, he was a large man; Ethan felt better with his blade in hand.

A narrow wooden stairway at the far corner of the building led to a second floor room. Ethan took the stairs with care, but still the wood creaked loudly with every step. As he reached the door, someone from within bellowed, “Who’s there?”

“I’m looking for Ned Randle,” Ethan called back.

“Well you’ve found him! Now begone, or his pistol’ll find you!”

Ethan pushed up his sleeve. It seemed he might have to conjure after all.

“I just want to talk to you, Ned,” Ethan said.

“I’ve got nothin’ t’ say t’ no one!”

“Then just listen. My name’s Ethan Kaille. I’m a thieftaker and I’ve been hired by a man named Aubrey Heap to retrieve some goods that were taken—”

The entire building shook with what sounded like the lumbering of a grizzly bear, and then the door flew open, revealing a giant of a man. He was at least half a head taller than Ethan and as brawny as a quarryman. He held a flintlock pistol in his right hand, which he leveled at Ethan’s forehead.

Ethan took a quick step back, and bumped up against the wooden railing of the stairway, which creaked ominously. He bit down hard on the inside of his cheek, tasting blood. Conflare ex cruore evocatum, he recited silently. Heat, conjured from blood. Power hummed in the wood of the stairs, and Uncle Reg appeared beside Ethan, baring his teeth at Randle like a street cur.

Randle didn’t appear to feel the spell as Ethan did, nor did he see Uncle Reg; only another conjurer could have done either. But an instant later, he started violently, dropping his pistol onto the stairway landing. Ethan kicked it down the stairs out of reach.

Randle stared wide-eyed at Ethan, rubbing his hand. “How’d you do that? How’d you make my pistol go all hot that way?”

“I just want to talk to you, Ned,” Ethan said again, ignoring the question. “Mister Heap mentioned to me that . . .” He stopped, staring at the man’s face.

Both of Randle’s eyes had been blackened. His lip was split, and he had cuts and bruises on his cheeks and temples. Ethan had been too concerned with Randle’s weapon and his size to notice until now. But for all the man’s brawn, it seemed that someone had bested him in a fight.

Randle glared back at him, his mouth set in a thin, hard line. After a moment, he turned his back on Ethan and stomped back into the room. But he left the door open. Ethan hesitated before following him inside, Reg matching him stride for stride.

“What happened to you?” Ethan asked.

Randle dropped himself into a chair; Ethan couldn’t imagine how it didn’t collapse under his weight.

“I should never have gone near Heap’s place,” the big man said, staring at the floor, forlorn. “I should’ve known better.”

“What does Heap—?”

“You steal from the poor an’ no one cares a whit. But as soon as you rob the rich . . .” He shook his head.

“I don’t understand,” Ethan said. “Who did this to you?”

“Pryce’s men.” Randle met Ethan’s gaze. “She showed up here last night with four of them. They beat me nearly senseless, found the jewels an’ stuff that I’d taken, an’ left. But not before leavin’ a message for you.”

Ethan blinked. “What? How did they know I’d be coming?”

“You’ll have to ask Miss Pryce about that. But she knew. She said to tell you that she’d be waitin’ for you at the Crow’s Nest. You’re to go there t’night.”

At first he didn’t believe Randle. He wondered if Ned was working with Pryce and whether this was all a ruse to keep Ethan from finding Mister Heap’s jewels. As quickly as the idea came to him, he dismissed it. Those bruises on Randle’s face were real, and Ethan sensed no deception in his words. How had Pryce known that he would come here? Heap had tried to hire her, and she had refused. Had this been her intention all along: To lure Ethan to the Crow’s Nest?

“They took everything?” Ethan asked.

Randle nodded. “Even the damn wine.”

Ethan exhaled and started to leave the room, wondering what Sephira Pryce could want with him.

“It used to be easier,” Randle said, before he could go. “Nowadays, Boston’s lousy with thieftakers. When did that happen?”

It would have been rude to laugh at the man, even though he was a thief. “I don’t know,” Ethan said, without looking back. “Stay out of trouble, Ned.”

 

The Crow’s Nest was a rundown tavern located in the North End on Paddy’s Alley, almost directly across Ann Street from Wentworth’s Wharf. Ethan had spent little time within its shabby walls, but he knew of its reputation as a place frequented by thieves, whores and other low types, including those looking to buy stolen and smuggled goods.

Upon entering the tavern he was assaulted by the din of a dozen conversations and the smells of pipe smoke and stale beer. He paused by the doorway, scanning the crowded great room for Sephira Pryce. He needn’t have bothered.

He hadn’t been inside half a minute when he was approached by two men who made Ned Randle look like a mere pup. Ethan guessed that they were also skilled with either blade or pistol. Sephira Pryce would have demanded no less of anyone working for her. One of the men had pale yellow hair that he wore in a plait, and a long horse-like face; the other was dark-haired, with crooked yellow teeth, and small, widely spaced eyes.

“You Kaille?” the yellow-haired man asked, drawling the words.

“Aye. Who are you?”

“Miss Pryce is waiting for you.”

“All right,” Ethan said.

Neither of the brutes moved.

“I’ll need your knife,” the yellow-haired man said. “And any other weapons you’re carrying.”

Ethan shook his head. “I’m not in the habit of walking into a bar like this one unarmed.”

“And Miss Pryce ain’t in the habit of negotiating with the likes of you. Now give me the knife, or me and Gordon here will take it from you.”

It seemed he didn’t have much choice in the matter, at least not if he wanted to speak with Miss Pryce. The truth was, even without his knife he could conjure, and even with it he wouldn’t have much chance in a physical fight against these two. He pulled the blade from its sheath and handed it hilt-first to Yellow-hair.

“That all?” the man asked.

“Aye.”

“This way.”

The two brutes led him through the tavern to a table near the back of the room, the crowd parting before them.

Ethan had seen Sephira Pryce before, although only from a distance on a street in the South End. He had heard others speak of her beauty, but even so, he wasn’t prepared for what awaited him at the back of the tavern.

He noticed her eyes first: Large and sapphire blue, they found his eyes immediately and then raked over him head to toe, appraising him in the span of a heartbeat, and finally meeting his gaze once more. Shining black curls cascaded down over her shoulders and back, framing a face that was at once feminine and shrewd and hard. She had high cheekbones and a sharp chin, but otherwise her features were delicate, womanly. She wore a white silk blouse, open at the neck, black breeches, and a matching waistcoat that fit her snugly, accentuating the curves of her body. Even in the dim candlelight of the tavern, he couldn’t help but notice several small white scars on her cheek, temple, and brow, and one long one that traced her jawline. But somehow these only served to add to her allure. She hadn’t yet said a word to him, and already Ethan thought her the most fascinating woman he had ever seen.

“Mister Kaille,” she said, her voice low, gravelly, like the purring of some jungle cat. “I’ve heard a good deal about you. I’m glad we finally get to meet.” She indicated the chair opposite her own with a slender hand, also scarred. “Please sit.” Glancing at the two brutes, she nodded once. They melted into the crowd, though Ethan was sure that they wouldn’t go far.

He lowered himself into the chair. Pryce had barely moved, but he felt as if there was a gun aimed at his heart.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Miss Pryce,” he said. “I’m sure that whatever you’ve heard about me is nothing compared to the legend of Sephira Pryce.”

Her smile was thin and fleeting. “Yes, well we know what legends are worth, don’t we? And I think you understate your own reputation.” She leaned forward, her fingers laced, her forearms resting on the table. “After all,” she said softly, “it’s not every day that one meets a thieftaker who’s also a witch.”

Ethan felt his entire body tense. Conjurers had long been called witches, not only in England, but here in the New World as well. And the Province of Massachusetts Bay had seen many so-called witches hanged or burned at the stake in the past century.

Clearly, Sephira saw the effect her words had on him. She smiled again, exposing perfect teeth. “You’ve nothing to fear from me, Mister Kaille. At least not right now. I believe we can reach an understanding, you and I, one that will make me happy and keep you alive.”

“Why did you refuse to work for Aubrey Heap?” Ethan asked, struggling to regain his composure.

She straightened, lifted her hand perhaps six inches off the table. In mere seconds, Yellow-hair was at her side once more. “Madeira for me,” she said. “Ethan? May I call you Ethan?”

“An ale,” Ethan said.

She nodded her approval. Yellow-hair pushed through the crowd to the bar.

“I refused to work for Heap because he wasn’t worth my time,” she said. “What is he paying you? Seven pounds? Eight?”

Ethan stared back at her, embarrassed to reveal that he had asked for less than that. “Your point?”

“I don’t work for men like Heap,” she said. “I don’t need to. And that’s the first thing you should remember about me, about us. Heap and men like him: They’re yours. The Beacon Hill types belong to me, and I don’t like to share.”

“If Heap wasn’t worth your time, why did you send your men to Randle’s place?”

This time her smile was radiant. “I wanted to meet you, of course. This seemed the best way to get your attention. And also because I want you to understand a second thing about me: I can always find you. I can always retrieve property more quickly than you can. I always know what you’re doing and who you’re doing it for.”

“Boasts don’t become you.”

He held her gaze, watching as her smile faded.

“You doubt me?” she asked. Her eyes glittered in the candlelight. “Before Heap you worked for a man named Arthur Crane, retrieving a set of crystal goblets that had been stolen from his home. Before Crane, you searched for a set of tools stolen from a smith in Cornhill—I believe his name was Grayson.” She quirked an eyebrow. “Need I go on?”

Ethan gaped at her. Yellow-hair returned with the wine and ale, but even after he had placed them on the table and walked away again, Ethan still didn’t know what to say.

“Did you honestly think that I would ignore another thieftaker?” she asked. “I know everything about you, Ethan. You’re from Bristol. You sailed in His Majesty’s fleet during King George’s War and were at Toulon aboard the Stirling Castle. You were second mate aboard the Ruby Blade and took part in a mutiny that led to your imprisonment and forced labor in Barbados. That’s where you lost three toes on your left foot and acquired that limp.” She sipped her wine. “How am I doing so far?”

He lifted the tankard to his lips with a steady hand and took a long pull of ale.

“You said something about an understanding,” he said, setting the tankard back on the table. “What did you mean?”

“I’ve already told you. You can have the small jobs, but you’re to leave the more lucrative ones to me. And on those occasions when witchery is involved, I’ll send clients your way. I have no desire to take on inquiries that are bound to end in failure. That would be bad for business.”

“And what if such an inquiry comes from Beacon Hill?” Ethan asked. “What if Thomas Hancock himself has need of a thieftaker who also happens to be a conjurer?”

“Then so be it,” she said, her expression souring.

Ethan weighed her offer. He had no desire to make an enemy of Sephira Pryce, but neither did he wish to cede to her every wealthy client in Boston. “If I refuse?”

She studied him, ice in her gaze. “I find it convenient having you around to take on those jobs that are more suited to your . . . talents. But that won’t stop me from having you killed should you become a nuisance.”

So much for not making an enemy.

“What did you do with Heap’s property?” Ethan asked.

“I returned it to him, of course. And I collected your three pounds ten.” She smirked.

Ethan felt his cheeks redden. She had already known how little Heap was paying him. She had been toying with him.

“You have some skill as a thieftaker, Ethan. You can make a fine wage working for the Heaps of the world, better even than you know, apparently. Don’t make the mistake of challenging me. You’ll lose.”

He took another sip of ale and pushed back from the table.

“Is there anything else?” he asked.

She eyed him, looking lovely and dangerous. “I’d like an answer to my proposal.”

“You’ve made no proposal. Threats, yes, but that’s all. You want me to promise that I won’t work for any of the city’s richest families, and in return you say that you’ll allow me to have those clients who were going to be mine anyway. I’d be a fool to accept those terms. So here’s my proposal: You see to your business, I’ll see to mine, and we can allow the families of Boston to decide who they want to hire.”

He stood.

“Don’t cross me, Kaille,” she said. “You won’t survive the night.”

Ethan grinned. He had fought in a war, endured prison and years of back-breaking labor in conditions that would have destroyed most men. He had lost his youth, his only love, his dreams, not to mention part of his foot. He knew better than to group Pryce with common men of the street, and he was not so foolish as to dismiss her threats as idle; but there was little that he feared anymore.

“I’ll take my chances,” he said. “Please tell your man that I’d like my knife back.”

It was her turn to grin. “Tell him yourself.”

Ethan shrugged and left the tavern.

He wasn’t foolish enough to think that Pryce would allow him to end their encounter like this, unscathed and unbowed. Even as he walked away from the Crow’s Nest, his boot heels clicking on the cobblestone street, he heard the tavern door open and the scuffle of footsteps. He halted, turned.

Three men stalked toward him: the two brutes who met him at the door, and a smaller, dark-haired man—about Ethan’s height and build—who despite his size looked every bit as dangerous as the other two.

“Have you come to return my knife?” Ethan asked.

The men stopped a few paces short of where he stood. Yellow-hair shook his head slowly. “You’re not very smart, are you, Kaille?”

“I suppose that depends,” Ethan said. “In comparison to whom?”

He hated having to bite his cheek to draw blood—he carried a knife just so that it would be easy for him to conjure. And his mouth was still sore from the spell he had cast earlier in the day, when Randle had his pistol trained on him. But he bit his cheek again and said in his mind Dormite omnes, ex cruore evocatum. Slumber, all of them, conjured from blood.

Power pulsed in the stone beneath his feet. Uncle Reg appeared once more, glowing like the newly risen moon. Yellow-hair staggered, braced himself against the nearest wall. An instant later, the small man slumped to his knees and toppled to his side.

“Hey . . .” Yellow-hair said, the word thick in his mouth. Before he could say more, he and the other brute dropped to the ground. In moments, all three of them were snoring.

Ethan stepped forward, bent over Yellow-hair, and searched the man’s pockets for his blade.

Just as he found it, he heard another footfall, light and surprisingly close. He looked up in time to see Pryce standing over him, a blade already in hand.

Silver flashed, a blur in the moonlight. Ethan flinched, felt a sudden sharp pain in his shoulder. He stumbled backward, righted himself.

Pryce advanced on him, as graceful and lithe as a dancer. “What did you do to my men?”

“I put them to sleep.” Ethan said, dropping into a fighter’s crouch, his knife held ready. “Shall I do the same to you?”

His shoulder burned.

“Or perhaps I should do this,” he said. “Discuti ex cruore evocatum.” Shatter, conjured from blood.

Power hummed again; the blood vanished from his shoulder. Pryce’s blade fractured with a sound like the chiming of a small bell, and the shards fell to the cobbles at her feet. She gaped, first at the useless hilt in her hand and then at Ethan.

“You shouldn’t have done that, Kaille,” she said, her voice shaking. “If you think you can humiliate me and—”

“I haven’t humiliated you. Look around. Aside from your men, there’s no one here to see. And I give you my word that I won’t speak of this to anyone. I have no quarrel with you, Miss Pryce. All I wish to do is ply my trade. You’re Boston’s leading thieftaker, the Empress of the South End. I’m just an ex-convict trying to earn a bit of coin.”

Pryce straightened. After a moment she let the knife hilt drop from her hand. It clattered on the cobblestones.

“You might want to consider whether it’s wise to use your witchery so brazenly. They still hang witches in Boston, you know. Or at least they would if given the chance.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ethan said, looking her in the eye. “Your men simply fell into a slumber; I wonder if you’re not working them too hard. And as for your knife . . .” He shrugged. “I’d say it was shoddy workmanship.”

Sephira actually laughed. It was a good laugh, throaty, sensuous. But she quickly grew serious again. “If ever I hear anyone breathe a word of what’s happened here tonight, even you—especially you—you’re a dead man. Do you understand me?”

“Of course I do.”

“You’re right, you know,” she said. “I am the leading thieftaker in Boston. You may flatter yourself to think that you’re in competition with me, but you’re not. You’re nothing.”

Ethan didn’t respond.

After glaring at him for a few seconds more, Pryce glanced back at her men.

“How long will they be like that?” she asked.

“Not long,” he said. He allowed himself a faint smile. “And I don’t want to be here when they wake.”

“No, I imagine not.”

Ethan started to back away, his knife still in hand. “Good evening, Miss Pryce,”

“You’d best have a care, Kaille. This isn’t over between us.”

“Then I’ll look forward to our next meeting.”

He continued to back away from her until at last he reached the nearest corner. With one last glance Pryce’s way, he turned onto the next street and hurried toward his home on Cooper’s Alley. Her men would be easy to rouse, and he didn’t doubt for an instant that she would send them after him at the first opportunity.

Upon reaching his room, he locked the door and retrieved from his night stand a small pouch of mullein, a powerful herb for conjuring. Taking out several leaves, he whispered, “Tegimen ex verbasco evocatum.” Warding, conjured from mullein.

Uncle Reg appeared by the door, an amused expression on his lined face.

“That will keep them out, right?” Ethan asked.

The old ghost nodded before starting to fade from view.

“Not so fast.” Ethan began to unbutton his shirt. “My shoulder needs healing.”

 

Ethan slept poorly, his slumber haunted by Pryce and her men, who seemed to chase him from one dream to the next.

Upon waking he made his way to Verin’s Wharf and Aubrey Heap’s small warehouse. He found the merchant standing at his desk in a cramped office at the back of the building, reading through some papers.

Ethan knocked on the open door.

Heap turned, removing his reading glasses. “Mister Kaille,” he said, clearly surprised to see Ethan there.

“Good morning, sir.”

“What can I do for you? Surely you’ve heard by now that Miss Pryce managed to find my property after all. I’m afraid she claimed the balance of your fee.”

“Yes, sir, I understand. I came to return your retainer.”

The merchant frowned. “Whatever for?”

“Well, as you say, Miss Pryce found your wife’s jewels and the watch. I didn’t. I don’t deserve the money.”

“Nonsense, Mister Kaille. I’m sure you did your best. As far as I’m concerned, I paid five pounds and got back all that I had lost. I couldn’t have asked for more than that. The pound and ten is yours to keep.” He started to raise his glasses to his face once more. “Was there anything else?”

“No, sir,” Ethan said. “Thank you.”

“Of course.”

Heap reached for the papers, but before Ethan could leave, the merchant faced him again.

“You know, Mister Kaille, you and Miss Pryce might consider if you wouldn’t both be better off as partners rather than rivals. She’s obviously quite good at what she does, and I have no doubt that you have skills she would find useful.” He nodded, seeming to ponder the idea himself. “Yes, a partnership might be just the thing.”

It was all Ethan could do not to laugh out loud. “Thank you, sir. I’ll give that some thought. Good day.”

“Good day, Mister Kaille.”

Ethan left the warehouse and after a moment’s indecision started toward a tavern on Sudbury Street—the Dowsing Rod—where he had of late been spending some time.

As he walked, he couldn’t keep from glancing back over his shoulder, expecting at any moment to see Pryce’s toughs bearing down on him.

A partnership with Sephira Pryce.

Alone on the street, he did laugh, though with little mirth. He walked with his hands buried in his pockets, casting a wary eye at every alley, every doorway.

He had made an enemy last night, though he hadn’t meant to. Intentionally or not, by choosing to become a thieftaker, he had declared himself her rival. Here now was the cost of that choice, the price of doing business.

For as long as he worked these streets, he would be watching for her, anticipating the bite of her blade. He felt a twinge in his shoulder at the thought, the remembered pain of the previous night’s encounter. This isn’t over, she had told him. Ethan didn’t need to hear her words echoing in his head to know it was true.

 

“The Price of Doing Business” copyright © 2014 by D.B. Jackson

Art copyright © 2014 by Chris McGrath

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