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Authors: Hilari Bell

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BOOK: Rogue's Home
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“How'd he die, Dib?” asked Nettie's Ma. “You never said.”

I should have thought to ask that myself.

“Knifed,” Dibby replied. “And it looked like he put up a fight, poor fool. That's one of the things that made me think he was a sailor. They go that way, sometimes, and not many captains'll hold a ship to look for 'em.”

My pity for the dead man grew, whoever he was, but Fisk went on doggedly, “If he had two things with Clogger's mark, it's even more likely he was Clogger. Why did you think him a sailor, Master Dibby? They don't carry this kind of pack.”

“No, nor wear boots like this 'un had. I told you the clothes were wrong. It was the spread of his money that made me think sailor.”

“The spread of his money? You mean he wasn't robbed?”

“Oh, he was robbed. Least his purse was gone. But he'd sewed a couple dozen gold roundels into the hem of his jacket, and whoever killed him missed them.”

“The jacket hem is the third place a thief would look,” said Fisk. “Right after the boots.”

Dibby shrugged. “I didn't find 'em till his jacket was dry and I started wondering why it was so heavy. He had coin from all over the realm, and sailors often have
purses like that. Though not usually so full. I'd have said merchant, but they don't end up knifed in the river. Here, I'll show you.”

Fisk's eyes widened. “You still have the money? After five months?”

Dibby smiled. “Where would I spend it? You say he had kin? I'd appreciate it if you'd see it back to 'em.”

He went to the back of the room and dug into a battered chest. “It's most all here.” He poured a small sack of coins onto the table.

The rest of us bent over the glittering heap. “I see what you mean,” murmured Nettie's Ma. “Here's one from Horncastle. That's to the south, isn't it?”

The coin's design was worn, but the name and crest of the city where it was minted were clear enough on the “town” side, as was the face of the liege whose fiefdom held that city on the “heads” side.

“Horncastle's south,” said Fisk. “But Bawden is north.”

“He went far afield, whoever he was.” Dibby stood back from our gathering since he'd already examined them. “There's several coins from Tallowsport. Nothing from Crown City, though. Not much from any inland city, which was another reason I thought him a sailor.”

“Where's Kemit?” Nettie's Ma asked curiously.

“Very far south indeed,” said Fisk slowly. “At the tip of
the great desert. But even Kemit isn't as far away as this.”

The coin glittered on his palm, but the anger in his eyes was brighter.

“D'vorin? 'Tis a long way indeed, but I don't see…” Then I did see, and my mouth went dry. “That's preposterous! He's a rich man. Powerful. He's a friend, for pity's sake! There's no motive!”

“D'vorin? I've never heard of it.” Nettie's Ma looked from one of us to the other.

“D'vorin, Mistress, is a very small port, to the very far north, on the other side of the realm. Most ships never get that far. Most never pass Tallowsport. But we know of one merchant who trades there, oh yes, we do. I think we've found our connection.”


“It couldn't be Worthington,” I said. “He has no motive.”

Nettie's Ma was taking us by raft to a place from which Fisk could find his way back to town, for he was afire to investigate his absurd theory.

“How could a local tanner get D'vorin coins, except from a man who trades there?”

“He could have won them from a sailor who's been there.”

The truth of it silenced Fisk for five full seconds.

“All right. But if it's Worthington, that solves the
timing problem.
learned we were going to try to clear Max the night we arrived. The first fire was set the very next night. And Worthington has enough money to pay someone to take that kind of risk.”

“Yes, but he didn't know I planned to visit Mistress Skinner day before yesterday, so he can't be the one who set the mob on me.”

Fisk scowled. “No one outside the household knew about that. So unless it really is Jud—”

His jaw dropped. His eyes widened. And curse him, he said nothing about the revelation that had so obviously occurred.

“Fisk? Speak to me. Fisk!” The blow I launched at his shoulder was harder than it need have been, but he made no complaint. And instead of communicating, he closed his eyes and began pounding his palm against his forehead.

“We're stupid. We're so stupid. Even being amateurs doesn't excuse this. We're

“I should probably warn you that if you don't tell me what you're talking about, I'm going to throw you overboard.”

“Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

“You can't swim.”

“There's no excuse for idiocy like—No, all right, take it easy, you're rocking the raft. Michael, think! We
knew a servant had to have planted those forged ledgers, right?”

“It seemed like a logical possibility, but I talked to all of them and—”

“Who knew you were going to talk to Lenna Skinner? List them.”

“You,” I said pointedly. Fisk grinned. “Me. The rest of the household: Maxwell, Anna, Mistress Judith, Mistress Lissy, the children, the Trim—No.”

“Trimmer. Right there, listening to all our plans as we made them. No wonder Worthington knew everything we did!”

“But he stayed! He was loyal!”

“Stayed, without pay, for four months. That should have made me suspicious from the start. No servant can afford that kind of loyalty—especially not a man whose wife's dresses are in better repair than my sisters'.” He fell silent, awaiting my next argument, but now 'twas my turn to remember.

“The note.”


“The note that led us to the Old Ropers' Home. He said a boy delivered it, and when I said I hadn't heard the knocker, he said the boy had come to the back. But Trimmer came into the kitchen from the dining room.
From the front hall. There was no boy. He had the note in his possession all the time. You're right, Fisk—we're fools.”

There was a moment of silence while we contemplated this unfortunate fact. I broke it. “If Trimmer was bribed, by whoever it might be, what do you mean to do about it?”

“Lie,” said Fisk. “I'm tempted to strangle the truth out of the him, but that might warn Worthington—oh, all right, whoever it is—that we're on to him. They already know you're alive; the girls were worried, so I told them this afternoon, and that means that Worthington knows it too. Hmm. I'll tell everyone I'm working on a plan to smuggle you out. Maybe it'll give me a chance to check a few things out without every building I enter going up in flames.”

“And if 'tis not Master Worthington? Then what?”

“Then I'll strangle the truth out of Trimmer. Why are you so convinced it isn't Worthington?”

“Because—” The raft grated on the bottom near the bank. I started and looked at Nettie's Ma, who gestured for me to continue. “Because I can't imagine what his motive might be. And I think his liking for Maxwell is genuine. Worthington kept him from being prosecuted. Lent him money and support.”

Fisk rose to his feet. “I'd feel guilty enough to do those things if I'd set up a friend. Mistress, you already have my deepest gratitude, but I'm afraid I'll have to impose on you further. How can I let you know to pick me up?”

“You can't,” said Nettie's Ma. “I'll meet you here tomorrow night at dusk, and you can tell us what you've learned.”

Fisk frowned. “I probably won't be finished by tomorrow. Maybe the next night would—”

“Tomorrow!” Nettie's Ma and I spoke together, though my voice was sharper. I suddenly realized that Fisk had found a way to keep me from fleeing without him—there was no way I could leave now! “Tomorrow, Fisk,” I repeated firmly. “Or I'll think something has happened and come in search of you.”

“Don't do that! You're not safe in this town. I'll come tomorrow night.” He stepped off the raft and splashed through the shallows to the bank.

“Fisk, be careful. Whoever this man is, he's dangerous. If he suspects—”

“Why should he? I told you, I'm going to lie.”

“Then lie well,” I commanded, and wondered at the strange smile that lit his face.

“I always do,” he said. “But in a way, I hope it isn't Worthington.”

“'Twould be hard for Max,” I agreed, “to know his friend betrayed him.”

“Friendship be hanged.” Fisk grinned. “I still want it to be Judith.” He strode off before I could caution him further, which was mayhap as well, for my nagging sprang more from my own worry than from any likelihood that Fisk would fail to take care.

I talked Nettie's Ma into letting me take the pole for a time—sore wrist or no, I could no longer endure sitting idle. I pushed off into the shallows, and Nettie's Ma sat crosslegged where her weight balanced mine and neither laughed nor complained as I steered us in circles.

The sun was setting, its mellow light flashing on the ripples produced by my clumsiness. The chill of the winter day was giving way to real cold, and the birds had retired. The loudest sound was the splash of my pole, and the peace of the place settled into my heart and eased it. When Nettie's Ma spoke, her voice was so soft, it didn't even make a ripple in the stillness.

“You like the marish, don't you? Most find it muddy and drab, but it touches you.”

“Yes. 'Tis a subtle beauty, but I think it as lovely as any place I've seen.”

She nodded, and the silence returned as I steered
us around a bend, overcorrected, and spun us lazily until I got the raft straightened and moving forward again.

“Have you thought what you'll do when you and your friend are finished here? When this Worthington, or whoever it is, is discovered?”

“Move on,” I said, trying to fight the chill that touched my heart. Once the crime was solved, it should be possible to persuade Fisk to stay. He loved his family, and having cleared Max, he'd have earned his place. If he failed, and they had to leave, they'd need him even more. Even more than I would. The raft started to spin again and I swore.

“You could stay here.”

“In the marish?” I stared at Nettie's Ma in amazement.

“Aye. It's not as harsh a life as you might think. And those marks on your wrists would matter no more to the human folk here than they do to the birds and the otters.”

“I always wanted to travel,” I said slowly. “To see the sun rise over a different hill each morning. But you're right. Out there, 'twill be hard to be…I don't know how to say it. Unchanged?”

She nodded. “It's almost impossible not to become what folks think you are. In all my life, this is the only
place I've been able to be who
am. You already know the shape they'll be pushing you into. Think on it, that's all.”

I did. And I shivered.

t was dinnertime when I reached Max's house, even though I went straight there. I didn't bother to elude the deputy, disguised as a ratcatcher, who picked me up shortly after I emerged from the marish. Potter was no fool—he knew where Michael would wash up, and when I didn't resume my search first thing tomorrow, he'd know he was alive. Potter was no problem, for Nettie's Ma was right about the marish. It was Worthington who worried me.

Michael still had his doubts, but I was certain the moment I saw
embossed in the soft gold. He'd been too close, too kind, too cursed
—why I hadn't suspected him before?

But the law wouldn't act without proof, and I had no proof. I wouldn't be getting any tonight, either. In
the last twenty-four hours I'd fought a fire, tramped through a swamp, uncovered a murderer, gotten no sleep, and worried a lot. But I wasn't too tired to enjoy the expression on the face of the street sweeper in front of Max's house when I strolled past him. He fell into a spirited argument with the ratcatcher who'd followed me from the marish, and I was so amused by the two of them that I forgot Trimmer would be opening the door. I barely had time to conceal my expression with a yawn.

Over dinner I assured the others once more of Michael's safety. With Trimmer hovering unobtrusively in the background (the urge to throttle him was amazingly strong), I mentioned Michael's reluctance to leave the horses, and that it would take some time to come up with a plan to smuggle them out. I added that it would also be wise to let the search die down and went to bed without so much as glancing at Trimmer, congratulating myself on having won several days to investigate.

After breakfast I noted the positions of the beggar in the back alley and the chimney sweep, whose hand-cart had broken down within sight of Max's front gate, and then went through the orchard, over the outer wall, and down the road into town.

Tradition held that the worst of the winter storms
waited till after Calling Night. It didn't always work that way, but this year it looked like tradition was right on target. Gray clouds marched in from the sea, and the wind that carried them was cold enough to make me clutch my cloak tighter and wish I'd brought a scarf.

No one seemed to be following me as I made my way over Drybridge to Master Clogger's wheelwright shop, though with everyone bundled up against the chill, it was hard to be certain. The poor fools watching Max's house were going to freeze.

I had to go round to the yard to find Clogger, but he let me without hesitation, announcing that he didn't hold with mobs no matter what anyone said. He glared at a neighbor's windows as he spoke, but I already knew what the townsfolk thought. As long as Michael was safe, it didn't matter—though if a mob came after me, that would change in a hurry. I wondered why Worthington had chosen to frame Michael alone and not both of us. It might be because Michael wouldn't be granted a hearing, where our suspicions could be publicly aired, but still…

When Michael had turned up on Max's doorstep, with his self-esteem battered almost beyond recognition, I'd been forced to desperate measures to shake him back into himself. Now I was trying to balance
that against the need to keep him alive, and it wasn't easy—but at least I was no longer worried that he'd abandon me for my own good. With Michael, curiosity was a stronger bond than chains.

Clogger wasn't as indifferent to the neighbors as he pretended, or maybe he just wanted to get out of the cold, for he led me into his shop. I told him, as gently as I could, about discovering the pack, and anguish twisted his blunt face. I hardly needed to ask, “You'd recognize that pack, wouldn't you?”

“Yes. I watched him load it. It was a good piece of work. One of his best. He was a good tanner, a good man. If he'd just…” He stopped to take a deep, shaking breath. “How did it happen?”

“He was knifed. Very quick, very clean. He'd barely have had time to realize what was happening,” I lied.

Clogger sighed. “I wish…He was so angry with those bastards. What they'd done to that girl. Angry and sad. I can't believe he'd lie about it, even to pay his debts. But if someone killed him to keep him silent…”

“He could have been killed to keep him silent even if he didn't lie—to keep him from denying it when the scandal about Maxwell broke.”

“And that old woman too? You think they killed her?” He went to his cluttered workbench and sank
down on a stool, as if standing was suddenly too much effort. He picked up a wheel spoke from a pile on the bench, turned it, and put it back.

“Two people could have sworn that Max didn't bribe them to lie. Both are dead, one murdered and one ‘committed suicide.' What do you think?”

“But if that's true, where did Ren get the money? I thought about what you said the other day. I talked to some of his friends. The ones he paid off. All of them told me that Ren wouldn't say where the money came from. A few said he told 'em that ‘a very generous man' was helping him out. That was all they knew.” He picked up a plane, caressed the smooth grip, and replaced it. He picked up a chisel.

A very generous man.
A philanthropist perhaps?

“Did anyone mention a name? Or anything else Ren said about the man?”

“No. One of them had the impression somebody had hired Ren to act as his agent—broker some kind of deal. But Ren was being discreet, for once in his life.” He abandoned the chisel and picked up a hatchet, thumping the blunt end into his palm. “You think that's what he did? Promised Ren a good job in another town, so his departure wouldn't raise suspicion, and then killed him.”

“Yes,” I said quietly. “That's what I think. I'm sorry.”

Thump, thump, thump.
The hatchet seemed to satisfy him, for he kept it.

“You're sure no one mentioned anything that would give me a clue to the man's identity?” I asked.

“Nothing. ‘A very generous man' was the only thing Ren told 'em. Who do you think it is?”

Thump. Thump.

I didn't dare mention Worthington's name. “I don't know. But when I do, your brother will have justice.”

I left him gazing into space, pounding the hatchet softly against his palm.


Having no desire to repeat Michael's mistakes, I went round to the tannery's back gate to see Mistress Skinner. I succeeded in avoiding the mob but not the husband, who flatly refused to let me in. But there's more than one way to lift a purse.

I walked down the street Mistress Skinner would take to the nearest market, found a sheltered nook beside some high steps, and settled in to wait…and wait…and wait….

My buttocks became numb, and I rose to pace. I was so cold, I started to feel sorry for the deputies watching Max's house. I waited some more. Mid-meal came and went. I got hungry. I paced again. I waited.

I was questioning the wisdom of this strategy for
about the hundredth time when Mistress Skinner came down the street carrying an empty basket. She wore a man's coat and a long scarf, which was a lot more practical than a cloak in this wind.

I rose from my shadowy corner as she passed. “Mistress Skinner? May I speak with you a moment?”

She spun, her eyes widening. “You! Den said he ran you off.”

“He did.” I smiled. When I want to, I can look
harmless. Actually, I look harmless even when I don't want to. “But I really need to speak to you. We can stay here on the street if you wish. Or there's an inn over there—we could have tea. Whatever you'd like.”

She settled at this reassuring speech, but her eyes were thoughtful. I wondered if she'd noticed that not talking to me wasn't among the options I listed.

“I don't know which would be safer,” she said. “I'm sorry about what happened to your friend. The mob, I mean. I'd have let him in if I'd realized they'd chase him like that. I'm glad he escaped. Both times.”

I forgot my reassuring act and frowned. “How do you know he escaped the second time? That he's still alive, I mean?”

She smiled. “Because if he wasn't, you'd have a very different expression on your face today. If you want folk to think he's dead, you'll have to—”

“I don't,” I said. I might have if I'd thought of it. The search would die quicker. And I could have circled back from the marish and done my investigating while the deputies thought I was looking for Michael's body in the swamp. Why hadn't I thought of it?

My irritation must have shown, for she laughed softly. “The inn, Master Fisk. Den's less likely to find us indoors.”

A brisk fire blazed on the hearth, but the mid-meal crowd had gone and we had the place almost to ourselves. I took the opportunity to order a sandwich with my tea.

“So why is it so important for you to talk to me, Master Fisk? I told you all I knew that first day. If Ma didn't kill herself, I don't know it. Or at least, I can't prove it.” Irony tainted her bleak voice, and her eyes were dry. I began to hope a rational conversation was possible. I also thought I might be able to trust her. Her husband, on the other hand…Maybe a roundabout approach would be wiser.

“I have some new questions today. Have you ever heard of a man named Yorick Thrope?”

“Your friend asked me that. I told him the truth—I never heard that name before his office burned down.”

“How about your mother? Did she know him?”

Lenna Skinner shrugged. “Not that I know of, but
it's possible. 'Specially if he bought fish.”

“Everybody buys fish,” I said. “How about Benjamin Worthington?”

“Oh!” She smiled. “Of course I know Master Worthington. Ma did too. He's a fine man, and he's been a good friend to us.”

I schooled my well-trained face to hide my sudden surge of interest. “How do you know him? In what capacity, I mean?”

She smiled again, a little sadly. “You mean how could we be friends since he's so rich.” It wasn't a question. “I suppose it is a bit one-sided, but if he ever needs our help, he's got it. My pa was a rope maker. When Ma got sick, the Fishmongers' Guild paid out, of course, but only magica medicine eased the pain when it took her bad. As a roper's widow Ma was entitled to their guild's aid as well, and they did help. But Master Worthington was more generous than the guild, and not just with money. He'd come by from time to time, to be sure she didn't lack for anything. Bring her a bit of fruit or a warm shawl and talk awhile. Ma used to flirt with him. I hear he visits most on the ropers' sick list. He's on the charity board, you see. But most charity board members just meet once a month to have a good dinner and glance at the ledgers. They don't really care about the people they're helping. Not like
Master Worthington. Why do you ask?”

“His name came up and I wanted your opinion of him, that's all.” This wasn't the first time a con had taken a dangerous turn, but that didn't quench the fear leaping along my nerves. If she went to Worthington…. I smiled easily. “What do you think of Sheriff Potter?”

“We've had no dealings with him, except when he looked into Ma's death. The writing on the note was hers, and enough medicine to kill her was gone from the bottle. There was no sign of a struggle. He asked a lot of questions, but those were the things that mattered. That, and the money in her chest.”

“Her chest? I thought she had a bank account.”

Lenna snorted. “She was a fishmonger, not a rich merchant. She kept her money in the chest at the foot of her bed, in a lockbox. Except the money for…the money they say she got from Maxwell. That was just there, in the chest under her clothes. Bags and bags, and her box with only a few fracts in it. More money than Den and I had ever seen in one place.” Her mouth flattened unhappily. “She was dead. Den says that you don't scuttle the ship that carries your own cargo.” She drew a shaking breath. “But that's blood money, Master Fisk, and it's my ma's blood. She felt so bad about that poor girl being murdered. She'd never lie about a thing like that—I don't care what the writing
on that note looked like. I know she was dying, but it shouldn't have happened so sudden. No time to…to say things.” She wiped her cheeks angrily. “Anything else you want to ask me? I'll tell you whatever you want to know if it helps catch the man who did that to Ma. I don't care what Den says.”

“All right. Have you heard of a man called Josiah Marcher?”

I made up more names, and asked her about two members of the Tanners' Guild Council, so when I left Worthington was only one of several upright, honorable men that I'd inquired about.

When I thought about Ginny Weaver chatting with the good friend who carried her suicide note in his pocket, and that incriminating money in his saddlebags, I regretted having eaten the sandwich. But Worthington hadn't had the key to her lockbox, and I was surprised that hadn't caught Potter's attention. Even if it had, there wasn't much he could do about it. The evidence that her suicide was genuine was overwhelming, and I still had no proof. But speaking of keys…


“Good afternoon, good Sir. Can you tell me where I might find Yorick Thrope?”

The tailor, who sat crosslegged on the floor, blinked
up sympathetically through gold-rimmed spectacles. “Client of his, were you, Sir?” He rose from his place beside the half-clad dummy as he spoke. “I'm afraid I don't know where he's staying—the judicary could tell you. But if you're hoping your papers survived, I have to warn you they didn't get anything out. Not that Master Thrope…Ah, that's to say, the fire was too fierce.”

“Not that Thrope concerned himself with his clients' papers,” I said dryly.

“Well, it'd be hard to think of work with all you owned going up in flames.” He didn't sound convinced, and I suppressed a smile. It was no surprise to learn that Thrope's neighbors didn't like him either. Still…

BOOK: Rogue's Home
3.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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