The Thief’s Wager: Tarnished Silver

Chapter Six

Mister Harbisher left the house at a precisely quarter after eight. The morning was, as expected, warm with a promise of good fortune. This time, he walked with his daughter, Eve, on his arm. He listened to the swishing of her skirts, finding the rhythmic sound pleasant to his ears. But the sight of the tattered dressed boy selling ribbon spools on the corner ruined his mood. The pauper had claimed the intersection for the last three days. Thin, but not sickly, the boy shifted his weight from foot to foot; both restless and hopeful as the morning began. Every day the boy tried, pitifully if he may add, to sell him the pathetic merchandize. It was a shame, when Mister Harbisher took the time to dwell on it, the boy failed to know his place in life. One day he would conclude his kind didn’t belong there with the rest of them.

Eve’s eyes lingered on the penniless indigent. Despite tugging on her sleeve, she guided him towards the boy and his mangey dog. He didn’t agree with the eagerness in her eyes. And the longer she examined the ribbon and made idle chit chat with him, the worse his temper boiled.

“I know you, do I not?” she smiled, “I have watched you from the window, you and the spotted hound have been here all week.”

“It’s a pretty street corner Miss,” he answered, “lots of pretty flowers and the largest trees I’ve ever seen.”

“Eve, my darling,”

“You sold Agnus Bennet the red velvet ribbon she wore to Mrs. Armstrong’s ball.” She rolled each spool in her delicate fingers, examining every colour. “The very handsome and eligible Mr. Norris asked her to dance that very night. Mrs. Bennet suspects an engagement before the summer season ends.”

“Beg your pardon Miss but I don’t know who any of those folks are. But I remember selling the ribbon to a girl with a pretty smile. I’m glad she’s pleased with the purchase.”

“Oh father, look at this colour” she smiled holding a vibrant emerald ribbon in the air. “Do you think a boy would ask me to dance if I wore this in my hair?”

“Eve, my pet, I have better ribbon in my shop, do not waste your allowance on such shambles.” He was regretting his decision to bring her along. She’s wasted enough time with the boy already.

“But this colour matches my dress. I know every item in your shop and you do not have this shade.” She insisted pulling out her purse from the layers of her skirts. “How much?”

“We must hurry” he insisted, tapping his pointed foot on the sidewalk.

“Alright father,” she sighed, placing two silver coins in his hand. “I hope this covers it” he nodded, staring at the wealth in his hand.

“My dear, we are late,” Ezra chided pulling her to his side.

He pressed onwards, careful of her wardrobe’s limitations. She enjoyed the morning sun, walking in the delicate manner ladies of her station often did. They arrived at his shop, although, he noted twenty minutes later than his usual time. Oliver, the shop boy managed to open on time. However, without his expert guidance he feared what steps he omitted. As he considered the additional work left unfinished, the boy greeting them with a smile.

“Good morning Mister Harbisher. Lovely to see you Miss Eve.”

“Morning Oliver,” he nodded heading to the register. His chubby finger hits the metallic button; forcing the cash drawer open with a ding. As he counted the money, he watched his daughter follow Oliver around the shop.

Their mundane pleasantries drifted from one ear and out the other. Instead, he ensured the boy’s hands folded each sample exactly as he instructed. The tall front widows held samples of the latest fashionable patterns. A wired manikin was always poised and draped with the materials he was certain would catch a woman’s eye. Oliver tucked the bundles, ensuring to cloak the wooden blocks underneath. Pulling the concealed drawer open, he swapped the sun-bleached samples with fresh fabric. Eve giggled, as she realized her father’s secret. But it was a better business practice; it reduced the amount of expensive fabric ruined by sunlight.

He accumulated the wired window sculptors when an artist sold his studio. Practically giving away everything because of a family hardship of some kind. Ezra didn’t remember the details, but he recalled the haggled discount the artist accepted. Either way the displays still caught the shopper’s eyes. Oliver moved to the shelves stretching the length of the walls, inspecting the ribbon spools. ‘Every color, pattern, and size to make your dreams come true,’ he boasted. When Eve was a knee-high toddler, she stared at the rainbow of colors while her mother shopped. Even now, she smiled inspecting each spool, imagining the possibilities they provided.

“Are you here about your dress Miss Eve?”

“Yes, father said the material arrived, I begged to see it. Is it everything I dreamed of?”

“Oh, it’s very pretty Miss Eve. You will be the belle of the ball for sure.”

“It’s not a ball Oliver,” she giggled. “But Lady’s Spencer’s annual party is the social event of the year. Everyone who is anyone will be there. Last year Meredith caught a case of the pox and declined the invitation. It was no surprise she was not invited this year.”

“Lady Spencer’s a cutthroat old bird, ain’t she?”

“I never!” she laughed, “but the gossip is, you do not offend Lady Spencer.”

“Why is this party such a big deal? Is the food good?”

“Food? Girls do not attend parties for the food.”

“Then it’s the music, right?”

“Oliver,” she giggled watching him shuffle his feet. “You silly boy, people go to find a partner. Do not look at me like that, it is a perfectly acceptable place to meet a future husband.” She winked, wrapping a sample of lace over her fingers. “Everyone knows Lady Spencer is the best matchmaker around. But if she finds you unpleasant then…” 

“Snakebitten, as my Ma says. Don’t worry Miss Eve, you’ll be the prettiest most agreeable girl there. Hey, I know what’ll cheer you up, how about we take a gander at the dress?”

“Oh yes! Father please?” She mastered the wide-eyed expression with pouted lip at a young age. His wife teased that Eve had him wrapped around her finger, and in some cases she was correct. He nodded to Oliver to bring the fabric from the back. Within moments he had heaved the heavy roll over the table in the center of the room and unrolled the viridian silk.

From his writing desk in the corner, he surveyed them as they chatted over the fabric. Oliver was, of course, from humble origins. He was about the age when girls were a new adventure, unfortunately they usually lacked the compass required to navigate the uncharted waters. Ezra blushed, recalling his wild ways, but was adamant to keep Eve from such thoughts until she married. Once appeased with the innocent exchange he continued reviewing the ledger. He assessed every column; double checking the numbers. A new item from the shipment inventory was scrawled in Oliver’s clumsy hand at the bottom. The words were simple: one silver box; locked.

“Oliver?” he stepped from behind the counter holding the inventory ledger. “What is this addition you made?”

“Oh that, it came in after you left. It wasn’t from the usual supplier and I didn’t know what to do with the paperwork. I know you like everything written in that there ledger so I wrote it in. Hope it’s okay Mister Harbisher.”

“This ledger is for business items.” He clenched his teeth, how many times did he have to tell the boy…  “There is a separate ledger for my personal items I get shipped to the store.”

“Father please, he did not know…”

“Did not know? My child, we sell fabric; how can a silver box be part of our sell items?” He took a deep breath, feeling foolish enough to trust the boy to do anything right.

“I’m sorry sir, honest, I’ll get it right next time, promise.”

“Oliver…where is the box?”

The boy dropped the ribbon in his hand and scurried to the back room. The clatter of boxes resounded through the swinging doors and into the shop. Ezra, careful as he was, locked the shop door and pulled the dusty blinds over the window. He finished lighting the oil lamps as Oliver emerged from the back carrying a tarnished silver box.

“Here you go, I didn’t mean any harm, honest.”

“Put it here,” placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder, “try to keep clear of the books from now on.”

“Father, this is gorgeous, this is unlike anything I have ever seen.”

A silver box, fit to hold jewelry for a queen, glares at him from the table. Patches of rust seeped from the hinges but other than that the metal is intact. The soft glow of the lamplight dances over the metallic surfaces; igniting it in heaven’s fire. A surreal piece of craftsmanship unseen for centuries. Intricate lace patterns the loop over the corners and frame the figures etched in the silver. The authenticator said it told a story, one as old as time. One he didn’t care to know, all that mattered was if it was the item he sought. After all, his wife always said it was what was inside that counted most.

“I have searched for eleven months. It has come a long way, but finally it is mine.”

“But it’s locked” Oliver added, looking over his employer’s shoulder.

“Something as beautiful as this always have their secrets.” He winked, tracing the lace pattern over the four legs of the box. He smiled, wondering if the item inside was as beautiful as they said. He paused over the delicate clasp; the tiny key lost long ago. The mechanism required an expert hand to pick, but he knew of another way.

A monk, or so he claimed, had told him the secret.  According to legend a thief tried to steal the chest, but Alona caught him. She ripped the key from the chain around her neck and swallowed it in defiance. He escaped through the window without the prize while she fell to the ground crying. Her new husband, inquired to her sorrow, for which she lamented swallowing the key.  She had no way to open the box and will never gaze upon the treasure again. Ezra slid his hand under the box. According to the monk, her husband built a secret mechanism which unlocks the clasp. His hand grazes the etched underside until a nub reacted to the pressure. Pressing the button, a gear rumbled inside and the clasp popped open with a click. 

“Way to go Mr. Harbisher,” Oliver grinned as Eve mirrored the praise.

“Oh, what is it, what is it?”

The anticipation pumped through his veins; months of work, all came to a head. His heart raced, a wolf about to pounce, his prize glimmered from under the lid. With surgeon’s hands, he opened it revealing a sparkling diadem tucked into a bed of vibrant navy silk. Smooth untarnished silver, wrapped around a bounty of sapphires and opals. Their radiance reflected in his glasses as his fingers trembled at their magnificence. Hidden for centuries, in an obscure monastery by a tumultuous ocean, it was now his. A prize among treasures, a regal crown fit for the Gods. The cold metal made his skin tingle, the awe rolling over his skin as he plucked the diadem from its bed. His, all his; it was worth every gold piece he spent.

“Father, it’s beautiful,” her eyes widened as it glistened, “where did it come from?”

“Well, my dear if you lay any belief in myth, this originated in the heavens. But in truth, I found it on the southern western coast, locked away in a basement of a monastery, of all places. According to the Mage monks, the Mother Goddess once wore it in her maidenhood. When Zander took her for his wife, she discarded it for the new celestial crown she adorns now.” He ran his hands over the smooth surface. “Although it is only a story. I paid a small fortune for it, and I must say I am happy with the outcome.”

“I didn’t know you liked Mages, Mister Harbisher?”

“I will never throw my money in with that lot. But they do have the most beautiful things.”

“What will you do with it, father?”

“Ah, well, it will have a proper place among the others in my collection. I guarantee no one in the kingdom has anything like this. I unique treasure indeed.”

~~*~~

Bayliss’s wine was strong, leaving Chris with a throbbing headache as he reached the wooded path. The largest park in Lollardum was often frequented by the wealthy but remained open to everyone. It was a quaint place where birds sang and squirrels leaped from branch to branch. The towering oaks conceal the smog, creating a hidden sanctuary amidst the chaos. But the walk among nature was enough to soothe the soul.

Ahead of him, a man who tried too hard to avoid his gaze, waited at the turn in the path. The flowers were nice, but he seemed too well dressed to spend his day staring at the weeds between the roots. Chris pulled the crumpled letter from his pocket, rereading Julie’s handwriting. A stranger left a message for him at the Horse. A business card with a date and place. She didn’t know what it was about but he was all too familiar with the song and dance.

It was three months prior that a man missing a piece of his ear left a similar note with his alcoholic landlady. He didn’t talk much but gave him an assignment and promised payment once he found the bell. Midday, at the same park; but this time he brought friends. A shuffling behind him, told him not to tarry. Shoving the paper into his pocket he forges ahead with the satchel over his shoulder.

He took their cue, following the only path not blocked by the men in black. All paths led to the middle of the park, where the sun shined over the gravel. Rows of benches circled a gushing fountain while neat flower beds added a rainbow of color. The usual busy resting place was empty, save for a man sitting on the bench facing the fountain. Chris didn’t need to see the rest of the entourage to know they were flanking the nearby exits. Squeezing the strap of the bag, he inhaled the fragrant pollen, before claiming the bench behind the stranger.

“I heard many things about you Master O’Connell.”

“I’m not surprise, I’m known far and wide.”

“I never specified whether they were complimentary.” A smirk creased his lips; precisely vague, this’ll be fun.

“So, where’s the other guy?”

“Boris is otherwise occupied at the moment.”

“So, he sent the boss to do his dirty work eh? Or is it you don’t trust him to get the goods.”

“Quite observant Master O’Connell. But on the contrary Boris is quite affective in his tasks. I simply desired to meet you face to face as it were.”

“I’m sure the pleasure is all mine.” He gripped the bag on his lap, “so, what are you, some kind of collector?”

“You could say that. Do you have what I requested?”

He pushed a black leather satchel through the gap in the benches. Soft leather; well used and favored. Not something he expected from a man who threw money at treasure hunting. Chris obeyed, removing the wrapped bell from his bag, placed it in the satchel, and slid it back. 

“If I say I’ll get it, I’ll get it. What I don’t appreciate is having your goons set fire to the cathedral while I’m inside.”

“Hmm, I thought the fire was your doing.  It honored me that you would go to such extremes for the cause. No matter, I have my prize.”

“Here I thought my ego was big. Now, this is the second relic you had me fetch for you. Are you going to tell me what you want with them?”

“As you say, I am a collector. It is only natural for me to wish to grow my collection.”

“There’s lots of folks who claim to be collectors, but most don’t use these cloak and dagger methods. You have enough to pay my outrageous prices, can’t you just buy them.”

 “I pay your exorbitant prices for the anonymity and for results. Not for you to ask questions.”

“Fine, then I want my money.”

“A deal is a deal.” His hand shuffled inside the bag; the clinking of coins is music to his ears. From the same gap as before, an open book with a coin purse bumped his elbow. His fingers clutch the fabric but the beautiful etching on the page caught his eye. An elegant woman with flowing inky locks kneels among the rumble of a temple. Her tears spill over the stone. She resembled the woman from the Cathedral; the Mother Goddess. The text across the bottom was written in a language he never saw before.

“Gee a book, you shouldn’t have. But, sadly, I’m not the book type.”

“It is not a gift, there is something else I desire.”

“If you want a woman, you’re gonna have to find another kinda guy for that.”

“It’s not the woman, Master O’Connell. This is an illustration of the Mother Goddess Alona. What I want is her crown. There is someone in Lollardum who has it. And I require you to steal it from him.”

“I take it your money isn’t enough incentive for the guy to give it to you.”

“Not exactly. I need it, leave it at that.”

He held the pouch in his hand, weighing the gold inside against his conscience. Assessing the picture, he wondered what this man wanted with a crown, on top of what he already acquired. The question was, when is enough, enough. Chris heard the same lines from other associates. An addiction and a bottomless purse were a dangerous thing. Then again if he got his cut was it his place to judge?

“Alright Lord of the gold, I’ll do it.”

A man from the path approached him, sauntering across the gravel as if he didn’t carry a blade inside his coat. His polished boots shimmered in the spots of sunlight. An unshaven face grins as he pulls folder parchment from the inside of his black wool jacket.

“The Diadem resides at that address. We will meet again once you collect it.”

“I look forward to your next letter. Maybe put in my sock drawer next time, you know, just to spice things up a bit.” He made a show of standing, stretching his back and dusting off his pants. The henchmen watched; their eyes glued to every movement. They saw the dagger at his side, but he wasn’t unhinged enough to take on them at once. They didn’t know that, but their boss seemed to understand. He sat, eyes on the fountain, back straight and hands folded on his lap. His pin straight chestnut hair hung lifeless over his head. Chris was three steps away, when the stranger’s voice floated over the gushing water.

“If you must, do not hesitate to exterminate anyone who stands in your way. Failure is not an option.”

“I don’t operate like that, Milord. I’ll get you the crown, but I won’t kill for it.”  

“Do you not believe in killing criminals?” 

“I never said that.” His tone cautious; “but I shouldn’t be the one who makes that decision.”

“If not you, then who? The king? The Gods?”

“I’m an unlearned street rat.” His sarcasm oozed, “why not educated men like you; surely your kind can weigh the power over life and death?”

“Perhaps.” Then, “we will talk again once you collect my prize. Enjoy the rest of your day Master O’Connell.”

Continue on to Chapter Seven: Terror in the Basement

Revisit Chapter Five: Maiden in the Moonlight

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