The Thief’s Wager: Maiden in the Moonlight

Chapter Five

A stagnate river separated the factories and the brick-and-mortar homes of the privileged. Along the churning olive water, stood the taverns used by the coal caked workmen. In the hierarchy of classes, they sat in the middle. Not as destitute but one fatal slip from losing it all. Despite their tremulous fortune, the community felt like a family. Chris walked the familiar path to the Crown and Cock, a seedy tavern on the riverbank. The drinks were more alcohol than water, and it was always primed for information.

The factory whistle trumpet over the smokestacks, signally the change of shift. The streets flood with soot coated men, exhausted from the foreman’s demands, with an inkling for a wet drink. Raspy laughter poured through the doorway, but it’s the summer heat mixed with sweat that smacks him like a wall. Splotches of pink skin splatter like paint across their charcoal skin. But their vigor increased as the waitress placed sloppy mugs in their hands. At the end of the bar, scribbling numbers on a sheet of parchment is the brunette of his dreams.

“Renee, beloved,” her flowing curls cascade over her shoulder as her eyes meet his.

“Well, isn’t it the man who owes me money,” she smiled.

“I thought my companionship was enough?” The scent of roses drift over her skin. She was a summer day in a valley of flowers. He kissed both her cheeks and reluctantly pulled away. “What’s wrong turtle dove, am I not enough anymore?”

“You almost drank me out of house and home last time you were here. Your companionship isn’t going to refill the barrels out back.”

“What about this, what will this get me?” He placed the mystery coin on the counter between them.

“Where did you get that?” Her thin fingers cover the coin as her copper eyes survey the room. “How did you get this?”

“What is it?”

“If you stole this from someone then you’re messing with the wrong man.”

“Hold on there my sweet, this came into my possession by chance. I’ll be happy to return it to its rightful owner. And it seems like you have a name that might help my endeavor.”

“Mister Bayliss.”

“Is he from around here?”

“Not even close.”

“Blue blood then?”

“He doesn’t come near these parts, but his men have infested ever nook and cranny of the district.”

“So, what’s with the coin?”

“Bayliss has an ‘agreement’ round these parts. This coin gets his men what ever they want.”

“And in return?”

“He doesn’t burn our places down. First, he’ll buy you out for a pittance. If you refuse, he’ll use force. Have you noticed the boarded-up stores down the street?”

“I didn’t get down that way yet.”

“Well, that’s his doing. He gets what he wants and so does his men.”

“I usually know the kingpins around here, how come I never heard of him?”

“He’s new ‘round these parts. Arrived like a summer storm. Sunshine and picnics one minute then the downpour dumped on us.

“What about the gangs, didn’t they make a stand?” She raised a brow, pursing her glossy lips. “He took over the Bosses?” He stared at the coin, as if staring at the man himself. He seemed like a nightmare told by the blazing fire. The Gangs ruled Lollardum before the kings of old forged their crown. Knowing an upstart Blue Blood usurped their ancient throne was awe inspiring. If not terrifying. Without the ebony metal in his hand the man would be nothing more than a specter.

“Don’t…I know that look, and I’m telling you to stay out of this.”

“There you go darling, saying the one thing you shouldn’t. I’m the great Chris O’Connell, I don’t stay in or stay out of anything.” He winked, “I’m a vagabond, sent to roam these lowly dirt streets, it’s my nature my tiger lily.”

“And I’m telling you, you’ll regret it.”

“You gotta feel shame to understand regret. And I have neither.” He kissed her neck, lingering to breathe in her scent. “Until next time my desert rose.”

“Just don’t die until you settle your tab,”

“You don’t happen to know an address?”

“I hear the boys talking about a place on Primrose.” She scribbles the address and squeezes his hand as she places the folded paper in his palm.

Fifteen hundred Primrose Avenue; it wasn’t as simple as it sounded. The street stretched for miles and private guards patrolled the blocks. He decided to frequent the shops before trying his luck with the footguards. Barney, the shopkeeper with a gambling problem proved a valued friend. According to old Barney, Bayliss was an upstart aristocrat with higher ambitions. His servant girls always complained he was too particular. One, apparently Barney’s favorite, got up and quit one day.

The corners of Chris’s lips curled as he considered his next step. He jammed his fists in his pockets, ensured he kept his head down, and walked to the house marked fifteen hundred. The lavish homes were prettier than the slums. The little flower beds in the small window baskets seemed to promote a cultured lie. Even the spike iron fences snarled as he passed. He touched the brim of his hat avoiding the patrolman’s glare. This place bred suspicion; the bigger the fence the less trust for their neighbor.

He turned a corner as the night set in, hoping to get out of the gaze of the patrol before he moved on to his mark. Warm candlelight glowed into the empty street. He glanced into the windows depicting scenes of how they lived. He saw men reading books next to fires, women played music to entertain guests. He thought of what Julie said earlier; perhaps his life could be different. He imagined owning a small home and a wife with a few kids. Hell, he’ll even throw a dog in while he was at it. But he avoided anything with any resemblance of dependence and unconditional love. He dismissed the fictional family; knowing if he was to live as a disappointment, it was better to live alone.

His feet stopped in front of a small manor surrounded by a high stone wall with an iron gate. The way the Ivy clung to the wall screamed ‘old money’. Bayliss paid a handsome price for the appearance of being among Lollardum’s rich. According to Barney, he hosted weekly dances and parlor gatherings. Nothing but a room of shallow scholars who sip whisky and try not to talk about beautiful women. It was also noted that the manor had been quiet as of late. Why did the good times suddenly end?

The suspicious eye of the soldier watched him from the opposite side of the street. He hadn’t done anything illegal—yet. But his presence might call attention to the wrong sort. Or the right sort—it all depended on which side of the iron a person lived on. He strolled around the wall looking for the servant’s entrance. One thing he discovered over the years, was be warry of the unhappy servant. Miserable servants tended to be less keen on keeping up repairs or protocol when the boss wasn’t around. He pulled at the latched door which remained locked; apparently keeners still existed.

Never opposed to climbing an occasional wall or tree (being partial to the tree than the wall) Chris went to work. The old chestnut provided cover as his nimble hands crawled from branch to branch. Heaving himself on top of the wall before anyone was the wiser. As he caught his breath on the cool stone the glass door of the ornate balcony swung open. Two men with cigars and glasses in their hands walked out into the night air. Their smoke tickled his nose. The ice popped in the glass. But he remained still concealed behind the leaves, it only took one sound to draw their attention to him. His heart raced as they surveyed the darken street.  

“John, what you propose is an intriguing matter,” said the old man with the raspy voice. He blew smoke rings into the darkness. “But I am not sure the outcome will be as favorable as you predict. How do you know your benefactor will succeed?”

“I have a lot of faith in his influence over this kingdom,” John responded. “If he desires a thing then he gets it, simple as that.”

“I am uncomfortable with my fortune tied up in this endeavor of yours. Not that I do not sympathize with your cause, but I must think of my name and my family.”

“There are risks in every investment, Martin. However, the benefits will make you a household name.” John argued taking a drink from his glass.

“I am already a household name,” Martin laughed.

“Locally yes, but what about in Alexanderia? Bellavere? Martin, will you throw away international fame because you are too scared to take the chance?”

“When you get to my age you learn to recognize a bad idea when you hear it. Pride will get the best of you, mark me.” Chris smiled, appreciating the old man more and more. A coughing fit overtook Martin, who continued once it subsided. “However, because of our friendship I will put in a word for you with my partners. I may not fund you but someone else may be willing to accept your radical ideas.”

“Thank you, Martin, I appreciate it.”

“It’s the least I can do, my boy. Not to mention this fine whiskey has put me in a giving mood!” He patted the young man on the back as they headed inside.

The weathered hinges of the doors shut with a mild effort. A click followed; telling him they locked the balcony entrance behind them. Above him dingy clouds allow silver moonshine to grace the leaves surrounding him. He pulled himself from the branches to conceal himself the shadows against the manor’s exterior. Bayliss sounded like any other power-hungry social elite. But what of whispers about him taking over the crime lords? And now a secret benefactor? He followed them from window to window, catching sparse tidbits of conversation. Martin confessed his wife was too homely for his taste. John bragged about an expensive piece of art on the wall. With business concluded the exchange devolved into a drunken debate over women’s corsets.   

A decorative ledge, wide enough for him to climb, ran around the exterior. His fingers clutched the jagged bricks as he pulled himself from one dark window to the next. Hands against the cool glass he peered into one room and was met with a tower of leaning chairs standing guard. Piles of old curtains covered two parlor pianos shoved in the corner. The impromptu storage room held the mixed matched remnants of previous parties. Judging by the dust the parties stopped a while ago.

The curved door handle glistened from the streetlamp, it twisted, allowing a slim maid to pushed herself through the gap. She fumbled with two tangled candelabras while maneuvering through the maze of furniture.  He reached for the rickety lattice beside him and climbed out of view. Dried twisted vines clung to the rotting wood which shuddered under his weight. Leaving one foot balancing on the ledge he held his breath as someone pulled a window below him open. Aged hands heave an old rug over the window ledge then vanish into the darkness. No time like the present, he muttered placing the second foot in the square beside the other. A crack under his boot halts his racing heart. The flimsy wood gave way, his hands gripped the edge as he rode the crumbling structure to the ground. Brick after brick whirled past as he fell faster to the bottom. His feet hit first, slamming against the dirt, before landing on his back.

The clouds swirled across his eyes as he soothed his throbbing head. Above him, the open window beckoned, and he pulled himself from the mud to obey its call. Thankful for solid wood under his feet, he took a deep breath. Tired whispers float over the stairs to his left. His feet sprung into action, carrying him to the nearest room. Unlike the rest of the house, the kitchen was lit with candles and a burning hearth. Pots boiled from the fireplace; their rattling lids dribbling of water over the stone. Stacks of clean dishes rested on the wide wooden table stretching the length of the room. The voice, no longer whispers, grew into angry muttering as it approached the kitchen door. Noticing the entrance to the basement, he took his chance. Unlocking the latch, he slipped into the shadows, as the disgruntled maid tossed a tray into the sink.

She remained in the kitchen, sitting at the table mending garments by candlelight. As boredom took hold he swiped a match against his boot, using the flickering flame to explore the basement. Chipped flagstones covered the central hallway that stretched into eternity. Curious still, rows of doors lined either side. The first, made of scratched wood, revealed a cellar of dried food and an ice box. Passing over the room he moved on to the second. Pushing against the jammed door, a grin grew across his face as he entered the lavish wine cellar. After running his hands over the glass bottles, he removed one from its wooden bed. Don’t fret my lovely, I’ll give you a nice home. He smiled, placing the bottle (and one more) in his bag.

A drip splashed against the stone; the steady dribble led him to a heavy iron door with a rusty metal latch. Water fell from above, streaking over the rusty surface pooling at his feet. The latch slammed with a heavy echo. His heart racing in the precious silence, waiting for the maid to raise an alarm. But the kitchen door never opened. He pushed against the cold iron, using his shoulders until a sliver of light danced over the stones. His victorious smile dissipated as a stench of rotting meat flooded his nostrils. The bile rose in his throat as his stomach lurched, but he fought it as he stepped through the gap.

The radiant moon illuminated a covered table in the center of the room. Shadows from the metal bars crisscrossed over the greying mildew sheet. Regret welled in his stomach, noticing the blood-stained edges grazing the damp floor. A mix of brown, yellow and red smears coated the painted white stonewalls. On the far side was a set of crooked shelves with body parts preserved in jars. The trough like sink with the dripping spout made the hairs on his arms stand straight. Because under it was a trickle of water, forming a trail until it reached the drain in the center of the floor. It made a gruesome gurgling sound as liquid trickled down the grate. He felt his skin pale as he pushed his feet towards the table. Cursing his curiosity, he realized the rancid smell originated from under the sheet. His usual steady hand trembled as it gripped the corner. One. Two. Three. The sheet flung upwards, floating like a ghost to the floor.

The slumbering woman didn’t stir, but her wounds were a dismal clue to her last waking moments. Her short blond ringlets hung over the table’s edge; soiled by blood and clay. Layers of green and purplish bruises paint her once beautiful face. White and crimson scars scrawl across her limbs as a tattered dress covered her swollen legs. The acidic vomit burned his throat as he fought the urge to spew it over the floor.

From the corner of his eye, he noticed the glittering items laying over the workbench. He recognized some from the physician’s surgical kits but the others he couldn’t place. The way they twisted, sliced, and coiled made his stomach lurch. Thundering footsteps overhead knocked loose dirt from the wooden beams. His hands trembled, replacing the sheet; his mind racing with images of what horrors the other rooms held. But tonight, wasn’t the night to press his luck. Something hard crashed to the floor above followed by irate shouting. He reached the kitchen door, hand on the handle, but the sound of shattering glass interrupted his escape.

“What the fuck were you thinking?” An enraged Bayliss yelled at the sniffling maid. “You brought the whiskey from my personal collection. Do you have any idea how much that cost?” Another glass slammed against the wall, littering the floor. “Martin is a means to an end, and I wasted my best bottle on that moron. He rejected the proposal and still left to return to his bore of a wife with his gut full of my finest whiskey? Bitch!” The slap across her face echoed, he listened to her form crumble to the floor sobbing.

The footsteps came heavy and fast reaching the door before he could react. Bayliss yanked it open, and for the first time, they met face to face. Alcohol wafted from his lips and his redden face fumed with disbelief. Gripping his slender shoulders, Chris pushed past him, tossing the man behind him as he raced through the kitchen. The drunken shouting continued as Bayliss toppled over the stairs. It followed Chris until he reached the street curb but he didn’t stop running until he arrived at the river.

Revisit Chapter Four

Want more, continue to Chapter Six: Tarnished Silver  

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