Authors: Hilari Bell
“He came to the back,” said Trimmer, edging into a position where he could read over Michael's shoulder. He did it so casually that I might not have noticed if I hadn't been trying to do the same thing. He beat me to the best place, curse him.
Michael cast us an amused glance and read the note. His brows lifted and he read it again. I hadn't decided whether to pull Trimmer away and take his place or simply snatch the note from Michael when he looked up and gave it to me.
I know who started those fires. Come to the Old Ropers' Home tonight, at the second hour after midnight. Alone, or I won't be there. I got to talk to someone. I'm afraid.
Needless to say, it wasn't signed. I read it a second time, though there was hardly any need. My thoughts raced.
“A trap?” Michael asked softly.
“Of course it's a trap. The question is, what do we do about it?”
“Excuse me, Sir, but why are you so certain it's not genuine?”
I'd forgotten Trimmer was there. It was Michael who replied, “Think about it, Master Trimmer. If the man who wrote this truly fears for himself, why would he go to a disgraced stranger instead of Sheriff Potter? No, I've received an invitation. And I believe I'll accept. You and Fisk can watch the house, can't you Trimmer?”
He was absolutely out of his mind, which was nothing new. But I had to admit I wanted a chance to get ahead of our enemy.
“Trimmer can watch the house. If there's any trouble, he can go to the party down the block and get all the help he needs.”
“'Tis foolish for you to come with me.” But Michael sounded more resigned than anything else, and I smiled.
“It's foolish to go at all. But we don't have to be completely stupid about it.”
“I thought you didn't trust the law! Besides, they won't help an unredeemed man. And besidesâ”
“You just don't like Sheriff Potter,” I replied. “Keep your voice down.”
I'd chosen to take side streets to the Council Hall, for the markets were so crowded with revelers, it would have taken longer to cross them than to go around. Not that the side streets were empty; groups of laughing, chattering folk went from house to house, the acrid smoke of their torches stinging the eyes. But at least these folk were going somewhere, and not as likely as the market crowd to mischievously pull down a hood. If we'd had a mask Michael could have worn that as well, but if Max owned one, Trimmer didn't know where he kept it. We carried torchesâwith so much light around they weren't necessary, but not to have them might have made people wonder. Michael had quietly switched his from his right hand to his left soon after we set out, so I knew his wrist still bothered him. He didn't complain about it, thoughâhe was too
busy complaining about my plan. I didn't care what he said; if I was going to walk into a trap, I wanted Sheriff Potter along to quell the riot, and maybe even arrest someone if we got lucky.
“But I keep telling you, he won't help an unredeemedâ¦Horn and hoof, what's that?”
No torches illuminated the ragged black gap between the two houses, but I knew where we were. “That's Potter's house. Or at least it was. No relation to the sheriff. He used some magica boards to lay down a floor even though an herbalist who had the sensing Gift told him what they were, and the weeds grew up and tore the house apart. It wasâ¦Michael, what's wrong?”
“Nothing.” He drew a shuddering breath, his eyes on the empty lot. I saw only shadows. “Nothing. Come on.”
Not for the first time, I cursed Ceciel Mallory, but he'd tell me when he was ready. Or not. If I started pushing Michael to answer personal questions, he might return the favor, an idea I didn't much care for. The destruction of Potter's house had fascinated my father.
Michael was so distracted he stopped complaining, and we soon reached the Council Hall. There, however, my plan went to pieces.
“I told you, Sheriff Potter's not here tonight.”
The deputy was in his early thirties and balding. I wondered if the man who'd roused the mob in Yareside would have answered his description.
“So where can we find him? Is he out with the street patrols?”
“I don't think the sheriff's whereabouts are any of your business, Master Fisk.” He said my name, but his eyes slid to Michael. His cohorts, who were watching with interest, grinned. Michael sneered at them. I sighed.
“Look, I told you about the note, right?”
“Aye, and I told you the sheriff wasn't here and that I'd no men to spare for chasing greased pigs.”
“But it's a trap!”
“So don't go.”
We glared at each other, but I had to try. “Look, if Potter's out with the patrols, just tell us where, and he can make up his own mind about whether he wants to come.”
The deputy rubbed his chin. “I suppose there's no harm in telling you. He's off duty tonight.”
“Off? The whole town's parading around with torches, he's got two cases of arson, and he's going to
“It's Calling Night. He's got a right to some time off.
But he set up the street patrols, and left me here with just two men to hold any troublemakers the patrols bring in. And I can't spare either of them, soâ¦Wait a minute. I might give you Jimmy.”
The deputies who were too busy holding up the wall to come with us grinned again. I didn't even want to ask. “Who's Jimmy?”
“He's the lad whoâ¦Here, I'll fetch him.” He took several steps and called down the hallway. “Jimmy!”
Light footsteps hurried toward us. “Yes, Sir?”
The boy who skittered into the room couldn't have been more than thirteen and maybe younger. His joints seemed too big for his lanky form, and a cowlick twisted the crown of his thick, fair hair. His first job, no doubtâprobably his first week.
“No.” It was the first time Michael had spoken. “This could be dangerous.”
“You wanted the law.” The deputy gestured to the astonished boy. “He works for the law. He takes prisoners their meals and cleans the cells, makes up the cots, things like that. Real reliable. He's got a good head on his shoulders.”
For a kid. But I didn't say it aloud.
Jimmy, who had no idea what was going on, stood up straight and tried to look older than he was. I stifled another sigh. “You say he's smart and reliable. Would
you accept his word as a witness to our whereabouts and activities tonight?”
It was the deputy's turn to look Jimmy over thoughtfully. He couldn't stand straighter, so he puffed out his chest.
“Yes,” said the deputy slowly. “I'd take his word. He's smarter than he looks.”
Jimmy turned crimson and the other deputies snickered. Sometimes, you have to settle for what you can get. “We'll take him. Come on, Michaelâit's almost the second hour now.”
Michael explained the situation to Jimmy as we wove through the crowds. The burning of the rivers usually takes place around the third hour, and Trullsgate Bridge was already so full of spectators that we had to shove our way across.
“Will I have to arrest anyone?” Jimmy's eyes were round with excitement. “I don'tâ¦I better tell you, I don't know how to do anything like that. I've seen the deputies do it, butâ”
“No,” said Michael. “You're here as a witness to Fisk's and my actions. So if a fire is started, or some such thing, you can swear we didn't do it. Whatever happens, 'tis very important that you keep yourself safe. You understand?”
Jimmy nodded, as well he mightâit was probably the sixth time Michael had repeated that particular instruction. He'd objected to bringing Jimmy at all, and I admit I'd have preferred Potter. But the boy was an independent witness whose word the law would accept. And if the villain had been sincere when he'd told Michael to come alone, Jimmy probably wouldn't frighten him into changing his plan. On thinking it over, I didn't find that entirely consoling, but we arrived at the Old Ropers' Home before I could come up with a better idea.
It was a rambling structure built in the old styleâmore wood, less stoneâand it had added so many wings, rooms, and levels that it was hard to tell its original dimensions.
At the open houses in the poorer parts of town, the hosts set out barrels of sand to hold their guests' torches. The Old Ropers' Home wasn't open, and we had to go back half a block to find a barrel to abandon our torches in. Not that we needed themâeven in this nonresidential district, half the windows blazed with light.
The ropers had hung garlands over their front door, but the ribbons were faded and frayed. Some windows held candles, but there were no torches in the wall brackets.
“Someone didn't feel like celebrating,” Michael murmured.
“More likely someone's economizing.” I stepped up to the door and rapped the knocker briskly. “Torches cost money.”
“Only a few copper roundels,” said the rich man's son. “Surely the Ropers' Guild could afford it. Are we late?”
“A bit. Second hour rang when we were crossing the bridge. But if it's a trap, he can hardly spring it without us.”
“Then why isn't anyone opening the door? Knock again.”
“Here, I'll do it.” Jimmy stepped forward and banged the knocker. The door snapped open.
“No need to break it! We're not all deaf, you know. Well, Lenny is, and Davis and Hardy and Stam, but I'm not.”
White hair bristled around the old man's crumpled face. His skinny form was covered with a nightshirt and boots, topped by a short cape of deep crimson that he clutched around his shoulders like a shawl. “If you're out partying, it's no useâwe don't have a party here. Least, not now. Mistress Mapple shut it down at midnight and sent us off to bed. Like kids or something.” A sparkle lit the aged eyes, and he glanced over
his shoulder and dropped his voice. “But we fooled her. We got diceâ¦” He stopped, eyes narrowing in sudden suspicion. “What are you doing here? We got no party, like I said. You take yourselves off.” He started to shut the door. I pushed my way in and then caught him as he tottered, holding him up till he regained his balance.
“I told you to be off! You can't come bargin'â”
“Be easy, good Sir.” Michael smiled, an innocent smile that could have lulled the most suspicious mark. “We've no desire to betray your dice game. Earlier this evening I received a note from someone asking me to meet them here, and I've come to do so.”
“Meet someone here?” The old man was astonished. “Who?”
“The note was unsigned.”
“Unsigned? Then why'd you come?”
A very good question. I wished I had an answer. “Look, could we talk to Mistress Mapple? Is she the one in charge?”
“She's in charge, all right. A bossier wench never donned cap and apron. I suppose I can fetch her, but you don't go telling her about our dice game, now, orâ¦”
He led us upstairs to an office full of ledgers and wobbled off to fetch Mistress Mapple.
“Why do I think this isn't going to work?”
It was a rhetorical question, but Michael replied, “'Tis too ordinary. You expected assassins hiding in the shadows, not old men playing dice. But
must have known what we'd find.”
“Yes. So this is part of his plan. Do you think he just wanted us out of the way so he could burn down Max's house?”
The possibility was so alarming, I started to pace. Michael perched on a clerk's high stool, and Jimmy tucked himself into a corner, the better to witness things.
“Why should he?” Michael didn't even look worried. “It's not like we have evidence against him stored there. 'Twould be a foolish risk for no benefit.”
“That's just what he's been doing, taking foolish risks for no benefit. At least, none that we know about.” I scowled at the shelves of ledgers. “I've seen moneylenders with fewer books. How could one old men's homeâ”
“It's not just one old men's home, young man. This is the office for all the Ropers' Guild's charities. They're good and responsible men, as these accounts attest.”
They paid her salary too, but I wouldn't have dared say it aloud. The elderly doorman's comments had led
me to expect a massive matriarch, but the woman who confronted us was shorter than I and pleasingly plump. Or she would have been pleasing if she hadn't been so stiff. Apron, cap, spine, and expression were all so starchy, they looked as if they'd crack if she bent. I doubted Mistress Mapple ever cracked anything, and my sympathy for the old ropers increased.
“My name is Fisk, Mistress, and this is Michael Sevenson, a knight errant and associate of mine.”
Mistress Mapple blinked, unsure how to take that mad statement. Michael looked resigned. Jimmy suppressed a grin.
“Master Sevenson received a note earlier this evening, asking him to meet someone here at the second hour.”
“A note? From whom?”
“'Twas unsigned, Mistress.” Michael handed it to her, and her eyes widened as she read.
“Those fires? Someone knows who set them?”
“So they say,” said Michael. “Do you recognize the writing?”
She frowned over it. “It looks a bit like Joe Spinner's. I'll go wake him. This is a serious matterâit must be resolved.” She sailed off to do so, and I hoped Joe Spinner wasn't at the dice game.
“If this Spinner wrote the note, then we've something
new to deal with,” said Michael. “We've not come across his name before.”
“No, but every sixth name in those books is probably Spinner. Or Weaver. Lots of rope makers go by one or the other.”
A distant eruption of shouting made me winceâthe dice game had been discovered.
Sure enough, when Spinner finally appeared in Mistress Mapple's stern wake, smelling of rum and clad in a bed robe and worn boots, he was surly and obviously blamed us for spoiling his sport. But he answered our questions readily.