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Authors: Hilari Bell

Rogue's Home (26 page)

BOOK: Rogue's Home
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“One, it would have been hard to deliver a note to Worthington after he'd gone to bed. Two, he'd be a lot less likely to go haring off to the marish in the middle of the night than at dusk, even if it is dark by now. Three—”

“All right, all right. I just—”

Fisk's knife slid through a window frame, and he hissed in satisfaction as the latch twisted free. The window swung out without a sound, warm air breathing over us.

Fisk knocked his boots together to shake the snow off before climbing over the sill. I followed his example and then stood still, for the room was darker than the night outside.

“Wait a second for your eyes to adapt,” Fisk whispered.

I've sometimes wondered if my squire is part cat because of his love of comfort and sleep, and when he ghosted forward after only a few seconds, I was certain of it.

Candlelight from the hall spilled in as Fisk opened the door. I joined him without knocking anything over, though my boots sounded louder than I liked when I stepped off the carpet.

Fisk stood in the open doorway for a long time, and I realized he was listening, though for what I couldn't say.

I heard only a soft clatter from the back of the house—it sounded as though someone was washing the dinner dishes—and an occasional creak of settling wood.

Finally he was satisfied and we crept down the hall, making little noise, for there was carpet here too. Even the stairs were carpeted, and we stole up them like…well, like burglars.

Fisk counted doors on the left, and Lissy's floor
plan must have been accurate; when he finally opened a door the light from the hall sconces revealed a large, paper-piled desk.

A small fire still flickered on the hearth, and the first thing Fisk did was to hurry across the room and draw the draperies over the tall windows. Then he dragged the rug that lay before the desk over to the door and folded one corner under so the roll of carpet blocked any light that might seep into the hall. Only then did he deal with the desk lamp, a chore that consisted of clipping up its side panels. Worthington was rich enough to light his study with magica phosphor moss. Its clear, white light made me glad for the thick curtains.

The furniture was made of richly grained wood with padded leather seats, and the big chair behind the desk had a padded back too. But even the elaborately patterned rug that covered the elaborately parqueted floor (or had before Fisk folded it against the door) was less expensive than the shelves of books that covered the entire wall opposite the fireplace.

“Hoof and horn! I've never seen a private library this large. And Master Worthington doesn't strike me as a scholar, either. What do you think they cost him?”

Fisk glanced at the books without much interest—strange, since books usually draw him like a magnet
draws iron. “About six thousand, seven hundred gold roundels, give or take a few hundred.”

His voice was soft but not a whisper. I assumed he knew what he was doing and replied at the same volume. “How do you know? You haven't even counted them.”

“I don't have to. My father had about that many books.”

“Your father had a library like this? But I thought…” The remote expression on his face silenced me.

“Oh, he made enough money,” said Fisk. “And every fract of it went into books. He had the best history collection on the coast—even better than a university's.”

“What became of it?” I asked.

“He willed it to the university. Sort of a ‘see, I really was a scholar after all' gesture. It gave him a lot of satisfaction, in the end.” Fisk's gaze roved over the shelves with a kind of hungry hatred. Then his eyes narrowed. One set of books had the tall, lean look of ledgers. They filled most of two shelves.

“I suppose we have to check,” said Fisk slowly. “Though I'll bet the ledgers we want are tucked in a secret compartment somewhere. Rich people love secret compartments.”

“Mayhap he disguised it to look like an older ledger—then he could hide it in plain sight.”

By now we both stood before the bookshelves. “He might have done that, but it'd be risky. Why don't you check them out. Forget the dates, he could put down any date. Check the ending balance of each book and make sure it matches the beginning of the next.” Fisk took the last ledger to the desk and spread it in the lamplight.

“What are you doing?” I asked, obediently opening the first ledger. The date on its first page was over twenty years ago.

“Um? Oh, I'm curious about the state of our charitable friend's finances about eight months ago.” Fisk was already half lost in the columns of figures, so I started going through the older ledgers, though my mind wasn't on them. What kind of father leaves his one valuable asset to others, for vanity's sake, and his family impoverished? But at the same time, he'd given them so much love that they still grieved. And couldn't forgive. I wished I could give Fisk's father back to him, but childhood scars go deepest. And judging by my own relations with my father, I was in no position to give anyone advice on that score.

I wouldn't have recognized evidence of tampering if it had bitten me, but the sums matched and each was larger than the last. I traced the rise of Worthington's fortune, slow at first, then swifter. It didn't take long
and I learned nothing but what I already knew—Worthington was a very wealthy man.

“Nothing.” I crossed to the desk, where Fisk had appropriated the master's chair. “What have you found?”

“It's not what I found, it's what I haven't. He was telling the truth, that he didn't have much to invest eight months ago—two ships out on long voyages. One's due back soon, the other in three months. Several large loans, mostly to the new mining towns that have the smiths and metalworkers so upset. Those notes aren't due for over a year, though the towns are making small payments now.”

“That's just what he told us.”

“Ah, but what I don't see is any record of him investing in the cargo that burned—not even a fract. According to this, he hardly had a fract to spare.”

“But he said he'd invested. Just not much.”

“It was probably known that he invested something, so he couldn't deny it entirely. I'll show you something else that's not here.” He turned a few pages and opened the ledger wide. I had to peer closely to see the edge of the neatly cut page.

“Clerks do cut pages out of ledgers sometimes,” I said. “When they've spilled ink on them, or some such thing.”

“So do merchants,” said Fisk. “When that page
records a large loan from an out-of-town bank that they have no legitimate means to repay. This”—he ran a finger down the cleft where the page had been—“is where his hidden ledger starts. All we have to do is find it.”

'Twas easier said than done. First Fisk took a ball of string from his pocket and we measured the width of the interior walls by running the string first from door frame to door frame, and then from the door frames to the interior wall on either side. This showed us the wall's thickness—about five inches. The wall that held the bookshelves was the same width.

“At least 'twas a clever idea,” I commented.

“I wish I could take credit for it,” Fisk replied. “But I once bribed a carpenter who built secret compartments. He taught me a lot.”

“So where do we look next? Floors and ceilings?”

“Fireplace and furniture. Old Scroggin said you could hide a chest full of stuff in a fireplace, if you knew what you were about.”

Given the amount of heat the glowing coals generated, I was glad to leave it to him. As Fisk rapped and prodded amid the carved wood and marble, I searched the desk. I found the usual quills, inkwells, penknives, paper of assorted weights, string, glue, ribbons, wax, seals—the list went on and included
seashells, a cache of nuts and a silver nutcracker, a broken jumping jack, used pen wipers, tacks, keys…

What I didn't find were ledgers, or any compartment in which they might have been concealed. The hardest part was replacing everything so my search wouldn't be apparent.

“This is taking too long,” I told Fisk, feeling the padding of the chair for concealed objects. I found nothing but padding.

“Relax. We were inside before he even reached the marish. Even if he came straight back, we'd have another hour, and Nettie's Ma promised to keep him talking.”

“If he doesn't kill her.” I had been searching the bottom of the chair; now I leaned against one side of the desk and gazed at the floor, fighting the worry that had lurked beneath my thoughts ever since this silly plan was first proposed.

“That'd delay him too,” said Fisk calmly.

I'd have been furious if I hadn't known he didn't mean it. “Could you hide a compartment in the floor?”

“You can, but Scroggin said most people don't because of the possibility that someone will step on the trip lever. The bookshelves are a better bet.”

I ignored him and started crawling about the floor, pressing the squares and rectangles of the pattern.
After a few minutes I decided to be methodical, starting at one side of the room and working from left to right and back again.

Fisk gave up on the fireplace and went to the bookshelves.

I had covered over two-thirds of the room before I found it, beside one wall and set a little lower than the rest of the floor, so that even if someone stood on it, it wouldn't trip the lever. But the small square yielded to my tired fingers with a click, and a section of flooring beside it lifted half an inch.

Fisk had a cat's hearing, too. He was at my side instantly, though he waited for me to raise the clever lid. My heart was pounding. I almost feared to look—but inside the shallow box in the floor lay a tall thin ledger.

“Prettier than gold, isn't it?” said Fisk.

I lifted it out with a care close to reverence. “It is pretty—'tis bound just like the others.”

“Of course. That way if someone catches him working at it, they won't think anything of it. He could leave it on his desk in plain sight and no one would look at it twice.”

“But he doesn't. He conceals it.”

“And we're going to find out why. Bring it over to the lamp.”

Fisk pressed the compartment lid closed, and we went to the desk together. His face glowed with triumph—this was the evidence that could return his sisters to safety and wealth, and 'twas he who would give it to them. Even I could see that it would be nice to have Maxwell in his debt after what had passed between them.

Fisk took the big chair again, spreading the ledger before him, pushing the false one aside. I pulled a smaller chair around to sit beside him. He opened the book. “Let's—”

The faint click of the opening door silenced him, and my blood ran cold as I looked up and beheld what stood there. Had it been some curious manservant, I could have leapt around the desk and tackled him—indeed, I'd already half risen to do so. Had it been some dreadful monster out of the tackier ballads, I might have fought somehow. But faced with a small girl, mayhap eight years old, with sleep-tangled hair and a rumpled nightgown, I was paralyzed. I couldn't fight her. I couldn't even threaten her.

Her eyes widened. She took a deep breath and opened her mouth to scream.

“Go ahead,” said Fisk cheerfully. “But they're going to be mad when you wake them up.”

The girl's mouth closed. She scowled. “I thought
you were burglars. This is Master Worthington's study, and no one's allowed in without permission.”

“But we have his permission,” said Fisk. “We're accountants from the Ropers' Guild, working with Master Worthington on the charity fund. I'm Master Neals, and this is Master Abercom. And you, Mistress, would be…?”

She liked being called Mistress, but she wasn't so easily seduced. “I'm Bessie Tate, the housekeeper's girl. How do I
you're not burglars?”

“Hmm.” Fisk thought this over. I sat down again and wiped damp palms on my thighs. “You don't, I suppose. But if we're burglars, why are we sitting here going over the ledgers instead of stuffing loot into sacks?”

Bessie looked around—no loot sacks. Her face fell. “Oh. But Master Worthington went out. How come you're in here without him?” She moved one foot to cover the toes of the other, in the manner of children who've forgotten their slippers. For the first time, I noticed the small white pitcher in her hand.

“Because he got a note that called him away for a while, and we decided to go on working while we waited for him. And what are
doing out of bed at this hour, Bessie Tate?”

“I got thirsty.” She held out the small jug. “Are you
sure you have permission to be in here without Master Worthington? He gets mad if people mess with his desk.”

“Positive. Wasn't there enough water in there to give you a drink?”

“I forgot to fill it. And I'm scar…I don't like pumping water by myself. The pump's too tall for me.” She gazed hopefully at my squire.

“I'll wager you manage just fine in the daytime,” said Fisk.

The look she gave him was wonderfully haughty for a lass that age. “I'm not a baby.”

“Of course not.” Fisk stood, the very picture of grown-up resignation. “And if I don't go pump, I suppose you're going to stand there talking all night—or report us as burglars. I think it's very bold to ask a burglar to pump for you….”

She led him off to the kitchen, chatting softly, and I remembered that my squire was not only a skilled burglar but a man with three sisters. It also occurred to me that there might be someone else in the kitchen, even at this late hour, but if there was, Fisk would deal with it. I turned my attention to the ledger, but 'twas some time before I could concentrate.

By the time Fisk returned, I was almost ready to wish for more alarms. I'd gotten into my current
predicament trying to
spending my life bent over cramped columns of numbers.

BOOK: Rogue's Home
10.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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