CHAPTER ONE: 9:59 PM
(Listen to the audio version of this chapter here!)
If there was one thing Kieran Quick had learned to appreciate these last few months working the late shift at Djedi Oldtime’s Goodtime Tavern, it was silence. Patrons slowly shuffled out onto cobbled streets and into cold night air, the stalwart jukebox rattled down its last few tasks, and even the griddle’s pops and sizzles diminished to a contemplative hum of cooling steel. Kieran listened through it all and waited for the beautiful stillness that followed. She cherished that stillness, and it was in that stillness that Kieran found herself that autumn night; inverting chairs onto tables, dumping half-empty glasses into the industrial sink behind the bar, and sweeping up the day’s detritus from underfoot.
Kieran sighed, idly twirling a fork in her fingers as she regarded the wasteland of table six. It was always tough when new folks stopped in at the Goodtime Tavern during her shifts. You could clock them immediately; they were the ones who squirmed under the intensity of Kieran’s gaze, who thought she was challenging them in some way. Regulars, of course, knew that this was the only way that Kieran ever looked at anything. Kieran dipped a couple fingers into the untouched, long-melted ice water on table six and smoothed back her unruly mop of thick black hair as it threatened to obscure her vision.
In the aftermath of the altercation, she could admit that perhaps there had been a bit better way to deal with a belligerent townie than tossing him out on his ass. She couldn’t really think of one, per se, but she could believe that one existed. At least his wife apologized on the way out, but the way she’d touched Kieran’s arm as she did so had confused her. Kieran shrugged and swept the remaining dishes and silverware on table six into a plastic tub and hefted it easily onto a shoulder. She noticed the flexing of her wiry biceps as she did so, tightly-packed sinews rolling with every movement, and wondered if that was what the townie’s wife had been paying attention to. Hell of a reason to start a ruckus over, Kieran mused as she whisked the tub back to soak in the sink while she checked the glassware.
Kieran slotted the last glass of the night onto its pin in the plastic washing rack, but as she prepared to load it into the tavern’s dishwasher, she paused. She tilted her head. She turned to the tavern’s front door, and a scant moment later, it opened.
The woman who walked into Djedi Oldtime’s Goodtime Tavern was unfamiliar to Kieran, but she recognized her type immediately. Skittish, looking over her shoulder at pursuers real or imagined, and wringing her hands together as if they’d never be clean again. She was a woman with a problem, and the fact that she’d brought it here meant that she intended to make it Kieran’s as well. Kieran sighed and slid the glass rack into the dishwasher, watching her out of the corner of her eye.
She looked a few years older than Kieran, perhaps somewhere in her mid-twenties. Pretty, too, Kieran noted with professional detachment. Big brown eyes, blonde hair done up in tasteful curls that were losing a bit of their bounce at this late hour. She was dressed for staying at home, not going out. From what little Kieran understood of makeup beyond the basics, she was wearing the bare minimum that a girl as classy as she looked could get away with, and even then only as an afterthought. She was holding her hands close to her heart, as if afraid they were going to fall off. She was a woman on the run, and fear lived in her eyes.
“The grill’s closed for the evening,” called Kieran, on the off chance that this wasn’t about to become a very long night. The woman blinked as if shaken from a reverie and scuttled a little further inside, shutting the tavern door firmly behind her.
“Oh, no, sorry. I’m not here to eat,” she said. Kieran sighed, and she continued. “I’m here for you. You’re Kieran Quick, right? You help people, sometimes?”
Kieran’s eyes narrowed.
“Who told you that?”
“My cousin,” replied the woman, nearly cutting Kieran off. “Alan Planter. He says you’ve helped him in the past.”
“Huh. Well shit, I didn’t know ol’ Pickpocket had a cousin. He’s never mentioned any family, come to think of it.”
‘Pickpocket’ Alan Planter, also called ‘Picky’ Planter or just ‘Ol’ Pick,’ was a fixture of the Kingston criminal community. His sticky fingers and eyes the size of dinner plates had gotten him, if not acclaim, then at least notoriety amongst thieves and legerdemain artists up and down the Hook. It was true that Kieran had once done him a good turn, but when she’d seen Ol’ Pick trussed up like that on the paddy wagon bumper, what else was she to do? It was just a little bump to get the guard close enough for Pick to lift the keys to his shackles and get out of there. Kieran was hardly the fixer that his cousin seemed to believe her to be. The woman gave a pained smile and nodded.
“We don’t usually get along. Nobody in the family does, honestly. It was only good luck that I’d caught up with him lately and he mentioned you, and good luck that I was able to remember.” She sucked in a deep breath, as if to steady herself, and fixed her gaze on Kieran’s. Despite her bearing, the gaze was tempered steel.
“My name is Betsy Planter. Up until yesterday, I worked as a maid for a wizard. I stole something from him, and now I think he’s paid someone to kill me.”
Kieran turned away from Betsy and pinched the bridge of her nose, cursing Pickpocket Planter under her breath for dropping this into her lap, however circuitously it may have been. Last time she’d do another crook a good turn, she lied to herself. Kieran took a deep breath and faced Betsy once again, all business.
“Alright, I’m going to need a few more details,” she said, arms crossed. “Who is this wizard, what did you steal, and why do you think he’s willing to resort to murder?”
A broad, dazzling smile lit up across the tired lines of Betsy’s face, and Kieran stomped down the warmth rising in her chest in response. The blonde nodded fervently, perching herself atop a barstool and lightly leaning onto the lacquered counter, like a spring showing the very barest hints of unwinding.
“It all started a few months ago, when I answered a want ad for a housemaid in Harcourt. The client was a man named Orlando Fortun– he’s the wizard. As far as I could tell, he’s a spellwright who works in city planning; most of the parks in Highcourt have his mark on them, and he’s got a lot of friends on the council. He seemed alright during the interview, a bit imposing and exacting but mostly normal, but once I took the job, it was like he was a completely different person.” Betsy shuddered.
“It started innocently enough: just nitpicking my work here and there, wanting me to redo certain rooms or getting upset if anything was moved from its place. That’s kind of annoying and micromanaging, but it’s the sort of thing you tend to expect from a high-powered client or somebody with a lot of knick-knacks.”
“But it got worse?” asked Kieran. Betsy nodded.
“Much worse. By the time I quit, it seemed like it wasn’t possible to go a day without him exploding into a screaming rage– telling me I was trying to undermine his work or keep him from performing his duties, but he was the one locking me out of rooms at random and giving strange guests the run of the place. Sometimes, I’d be forbidden from entire wings of the estate, and he had the gall to complain to me that I wasn’t cleaning properly! No shit, you ass!” Betsy’s nostrils flared as she glared at her memory, but the fire left her quickly.
“I always tried to sort it out as quickly as I could, but it was never enough. There was always some new mess that needed fixing right then, no matter what I was trying to finish from before. I was drowning in work, and he just kept getting angrier and angrier.” The blonde sighed, shrinking in on herself even as her shoulders rose like a wall against the world. “Eventually, he started getting angry enough that his rages included threats, Lady save me. He’d threaten my safety, my family. Even threatened my soul once. It was…” Betsy curled over entirely, forehead resting on the bar.
“It was terrifying,” she finished. Kieran found herself uncrossing her arms and leaning in.
“Did he ever hurt you?” she asked, voice softening. Betsy shook her head without lifting it.
“No. He came close a few times, though. Bolts of magic that would destroy things I was holding, or things I’d been standing next to moments before.”
“Cat’s eyes,” said Kieran. She hadn’t noticed how much closer she’d gotten until Betsy raised her head to meet Kieran’s gaze and the two were nearly nose-to-nose. Kieran straightened up quickly and stuffed her hands in her pockets as the blonde blinked a few times to get back onto her train of thought.
“It’s just… There’s only so much a person can take! After his last fit yesterday I decided I wasn’t going to come back.” Betsy huffed a sigh, face a mask of embarrassment. “But, um… before I left…”
She unclasped her hands, slowly, like disarming a bomb, and flexed the fingers on her left hand as she slid it across the bar at Kieran. Kieran leaned over, and saw a ring glittering on her middle finger; a simple, thick brass band. It was crowned by three red gems: a rectangular centerpiece and a pair of square studs on each side of it.
“I suppose congratulating you on your nuptials would be a misreading of the situation,” said Kieran. Betsy, even in her state, raised an eyebrow.
“Wrong finger,” she replied. Kieran’s cheeks went from brown to reddish-brown, but Betsy didn’t seem to notice as she continued. “He has so many trinkets and baubles all over that big house! It was just in a dish on a hallway table with a half-dozen other little curios. I grabbed it without thinking and hid it with the outgoing rubbish; I figured I could pawn it for a bit of gold to make up for all the emotional abuse.”
“Why didn’t you?” aked Kieran. Betsy let out a mirthless, barking laugh.
“I wanted to! I was planning on finding a buyer today, but this morning I woke up with it on my finger, and it won’t come off, see?” She waggled her fingers in Kieran’s face and tugged on the band, which stayed resolute in place. She gestured for Kieran to do the same, and after a cursory pull, Kieran had to admit it.
“That’s stuck on there, all right,” Kieran nodded. “But what’s all this got to do with somebody trying to kill you?”
“That also happened this morning. Fortun knew where I lived, at least the apartment building, but I’d never told him which unit. When I woke up and realized the ring was stuck on my finger, I heard someone knocking on doors on my floor and asking for me. It wasn’t a voice I’d ever heard before, but hearing it felt like a stone in my gut.”
“Did you get a good look at him?” asked Kieran. Betsy shook her head, and Kieran ignored the way the waves of her hair rippled around her face.
“No, I grabbed what I could and climbed out the window, down the fire escape. As I made my way, I heard him breaking my door open and I just ran. Still, every time I stopped somewhere to rest today I heard his voice asking after me. I got glimpses here and there, but I never stuck around long enough to really see him.”
Betsy fixed her gaze somewhere over Kieran’s shoulder, staring into forever.
“He’s coming to kill me. I can feel it in my bones.”
As quickly as she began, Betsy stopped, the sudden deluge of confession seemingly run dry as she cradled her hand again, shoulders hunched. Kieran watched her like she’d watch a time-bomb; honestly, the danger seemed about the same. A high-ranking city spellwright, angry enough to hire muscle to track down one little bauble? If this is how Fortun responded to theft, Kieran’s active and morbid imagination wheeled to consider what he’d do to a crook in Kingston who dared to actively oppose him. If what Betsy was telling her was true, this was a death sentence waiting to happen.
Getting involved in this would be suicide. Kieran looked into Betsy’s eyes, plaintive and exhausted, and sighed. It didn’t matter what her heart said about damsels in danger; her head knew that this was the smarter choice, and she needed to listen to it for once.
“Miss Planter…” she began. Unfortunately, before she could let the girl down as gently as possible, a great reverberant thump shook the tavern door. Betsy’s head snapped around so fast Kieran thought she heard her neck click and her big, brown eyes filled with terror.
“It’s him,” she hissed, shrinking against the hard wood of the bar. Kieran cursed under her breath and made the stupid choice.
“Get behind the bar and stay quiet,” she said, vaulting the counter in a single fluid movement and cautiously approaching the door. Betsy did as told, scrambling over the bar with significantly more effort and falling to the ground beneath with an audible thud. Kieran winced, gave it a moment, and cracked open the door.
“Can I help you?”
The man outside froze, fist raised, clearly in the process of knocking once more. Instead, he smiled, but the expression barely left his teeth. They glittered in the glow of the streetlamps outside, and the image of veins of ore and precious gems glinting deep within the earth leapt unbidden into the forefront of Kieran’s mind. He was tall and broad, in a well-tailored suit and a wide-brimmed hat that cast stark shadows onto his face. What little she could make out above his mouth was pale and rough-looking, like unfinished stone. All this Kieran’s eyes absorbed in a flash, as his cold smile curled and he responded in a deep, rumbling voice.
“I’d hope so. You may call me Mister Brick. I represent a recently wronged party, the culprit of which happens to be sheltering within your establishment. She’s stolen something from my employer, and he would very much like to have it returned.”
He paused, perhaps watching for Kieran’s reaction. She peered up at him, looming over her in the gloom. She considered bluffing, but considering the circumstances…
“Alright,” she said. “How about you come in, take the ring, and we all go our separate ways?”
Mister Brick’s smile grew wider. Kieran suppressed a shudder and stared right back at where she figured his eyes must be.
“Unfortunately, that won’t be possible,” he replied, rictus grin shimmering. “Due to some mystical failsafes my employer put in place against theft and fraud, the item will remain fused to her body until such a time as he can remove it personally. Thus, I will simply have to take her back with me to my employer’s home so that the proper steps can be taken regarding her crime.”
“That’s not an option,” snapped Kieran. “How about she stays here and your boss can come get his own property and leave.”
Kieran made to shut the door, and one of Mister Brick’s hands flashed out and caught it. Long, square fingers with blunt nails curled into view, clutching the door with a force that caused the wood to let out a low groan of tension. His grin gleamed, and Kieran’s mind suddenly provided her with the information that each of Mister Brick’s teeth was the same uniform shape and size, an endless row of rectangular bones with zero variation between them. She was shocked she hadn’t noticed it sooner.
“I’m sorry, young lady,” said Mister Brick. “This isn’t a negotiation.”
And then Mister Brick tore the tavern door off its hinges.