by Nina Greenhill
She didn’t want to look at the notice board, with all the ugly mugs plastered on it.
She sighed. They weren’t ugly. That was her trying to hate the people she was going to try and capture. She figured if she hated them, it might make the job easier. Awell and Scut had said it was harder to cross someone you liked with all those morals and feelings getting in the way.
They told her that if she had to dislike something about a person in order to pick a job, pick something that the person had done to themselves, like a bad haircut, or choice of scarf, because that showed bad judgement and bad judgement gets you killed.
Not that Del would ever kill anyone. She didn’t have the stomach for that. Besides, killers were made, and she missed the cutoff. Apparently, you had to start young when moulding a mind.
The police noticeboard had a variety of felons on it, all with bounties. Most said ‘DEAD OR ALIVE’ but this was a kind of town where either was fine in pursuit of justice. Of course, Scut said that it took more skill to keep someone alive than to carry them dead.
Del picked a poster of a person with a straight hair part. She had always hated the hairstyle. The reward was on the modest end, which was to her advantage. Not as many people looked for the cheaper bounties – less competition.
At least, that’s what Awell had said. Awell had also said most skilled crims, like her and Scut, never got on the Wanted Wall. They also reasoned that they never stayed anywhere long enough for anyone to positively identify them. Contract jobs were plentiful anywhere they went, and the variety kept them interested. They had told Del they could do most anything from arson to zoology fraud. Del had learnt a lot from them. At first she was a bit discouraged, with them being a little bit older than her, but Scut and Awell sorted that out real quick. Age didn’t matter much in this line of work. It’s just that they had a bit more experience.
Aglat popped his head out of Del’s pocket, looking at the poster and nodded approvingly.
Awell and Scut stood next to Del, ‘supervising’ as they said.
“You don’t think…” Scut whispered to Awell.
Awell’s eyes widened. “Couldn’t possibly…”
They had seen her talking to herself during their few weeks together, but regarded it as an eccentricity, certainly not insanity. When she had said that she had an imp travelling with her, they disregarded it. Imps didn’t associate with humans. Humans had too much of a moral compass for them to get along. But here Del was, with an imp in her pocket. And not just any imp.
They looked at Aglat – the toppler of governments. No one had seen him for seven years, since he had reshuffled the Kalmeni government and re-established the economy, creating the financial conditions in which the Kalmeni Bandits now thrived. The public was confident in the currency again and were once again carrying around money to steal. The finery that followed was celebrated by everyone. Aglat had bounties on his head in six states across three countries. He was a legend.
How did he end up in the pocket of a rookie crim?
‘Stay cool, stay cool, stay cool!’ Scut thought. ‘DON’T embarrass yourself!’
“So, we’re going after Jemima Rasp?” Awell confirmed, trying not to overdo the enthusiasm. They were going to work with Aglat! How could she introduce herself to him? ‘Hi, I’m Awell, and you’re my hero’?
“That’s what the poster says,” Aglat grumbled. He wanted this job over and done with.
Scut had no qualms with social niceties. “Hey there, I’m Scut,” she held out her hand to the imp.
“I know.” He sunk back into his warm pocket. At first, he had been happy with Del learning how to defend herself from Scut and Awell, but once she had learnt, she had stuck around, picking up all sorts of criminal tricks. This was bad. She needed to focus on learning magic. He stared at the pair through the thin fabric.
Scut and Awell took a breath, reassuring themselves that Aglat was probably just in a bad mood or hungry. Scut knew she was a regular basilisk before she had breakfast. They would try again later, maybe at lunch, when they could ask him about the Shipping Scandal of 756.
Del was still looking at the poster, running through every possible way she could look for Jemima.
Awell turned her attention to Del. “Usually it’s not a problem finding them. Most town-based crims won’t turn each other in.”
“So, I’m gonna have more of an issue capturing her?” Del asked.
“That’s certainly one way of doing it,” Scut confirmed. “It is my favourite, cause I’m a fan of the confrontation. Awell is a fan of a plan.”
“Hey, I like fighting too. I’ve got a degree in Kickassery,” Awell crossed her arms.
“Yeah? Why didn’t you use it last year on the Latobian job? I suppose those thugs knocked themselves out?” Scut ribbed.
Del choked down a laugh. “How about we go tavern hopping? Pose as relatives or something, ask the barkeeps?”
“Would you like to try that? This is your operation,” Awell said.
Del looked at the noticeboard. “I think getting noticed in front of the Wanted Wall isn’t going to win us any friends.”
The next day was constructive. Del had run through Awell’s favourite game of ‘What could go wrong?’ and decided against asking barkeeps. They tended to be loyal to the people who paid money and Del didn’t have any.
Scut went with her to the docks where the Thieves’ Guild of the town rested. Awell was persona non grata there due to an incident a few years back regarding a captain and his hat.
The warehouse was remarkably ordered, but Scut explained that was due to the prevalence of crims who were quite good at logistics. Logistics lended itself nicely to fencing goods that had ‘unfortunately fallen off cargo ships’.
Jemima Rasp turned out to be one of the fences on duty that day. Scut had told Del not to believe in luck, but Del couldn’t help it. At dusk they followed Jemima to a nondescript town house a few blocks away from the slums.
They walked to a neighbouring alley to decide the next step. “We’ve been all around the building. What are your exits once inside?”
Aglat popped up. “Doesn’t matter if Jemima’s set a trap,” he said, and immediately dropped down again.
“What are your exits?” Scut repeated. It had been a day since she had met Aglat. A whole day of him disagreeing and making her look dumb because she refused to explain every little decision he fought against. It was almost as though he didn’t want Del on this job.
Del took a breath. “Going through walls, obviously, and windows. Doors maybe, but it’s hard to tell what’s on the other side.”
“Make sure to keep in mind which wall you intend to go out of. The back of the house has a ladder you can make use of, but the front only has the timber framing and a good drop if she’s not on the ground floor.”
“We could use the element of surprise, if you’ll be my second?” Del asked Scut.
“I’d be delighted.” Scut smiled.
“Great. You and Aglat can knock on the door and I’ll enter around back. She’s less likely to expect two humans if she only sees one.”
Aglat climbed onto Del’s shoulder.
Scut looked at the imp, not showing how much she despised the idea. She was a professional after all. She could deal with him for a short period of time, she supposed. He could ride in her hood. She didn’t think he’d be comfortable in her knife pockets. But then again, it might make her more comfortable if he were in her knife pockets.
Scut peeked around the corner, happy to see Awell buying pasties at a street cart, swiping a few into her bag as well. Her pointy purple hat stood tall, entirely too proud of how pretty it looked with its newly stolen sash.
“Awell’s on the street. She’ll be lookout.” Scut extended her arm to Aglat. “Time to go.”
He climbed up her arm and into the hood. Del disappeared without a sound. Scut beamed with pride. “I taught her how to do that.”
“I know. I was there.”
“What’s got your knickers in a twist?” Scut demanded as she walked the long way to the front door of the building. She wanted to give Del as much time as possible to be ready.
“I’d’ve been happy if you just taught her how to defend herself, but no. You had to teach her all that other stuff.”
“And what’s wrong with that? She’s a natural!”
Aglat sighed. “Of course she’s a natural. She’s the Un-King daughter of Freyden.”
Scut stopped in her tracks. “Oh no.”
“She was taken from Courtville when she was young. Her aunt wanted her to have choices. I owed her aunt so I made a promise to keep her alive, which is difficult when you teach her that the best way to incapacitate someone is at knifepoint!”
“Yeah, Nah, I get it. I wouldn’t want to grow up under that Un-King either.”
“It’s like how you owe me one for the Flower job.”
“I don’t owe you one for the Flower job.”
“Oh yeah, and the mayor bought that shipment off you out of the goodness of his heart?”
Scut went quiet. She had purposefully ignored questioning that job, afraid of what she would find.
“Overthrowing kings is easier than this,” Aglat muttered. “But no, I just had to be considerate for the toddler’s sake and make a pact outside of my wheelhouse.”
“How about we focus?” Scut walked up to the front door and let herself in. The lock was easy to pick. It wasn’t there to stop the crims, it was there to stop the do-gooders from poking around. She wouldn’t knock. Knocking wasn’t sneaky.
The house was silent. That was the first indication that something was wrong. No one was quiet in their own home, least of all thieves. There was usually a fire crackling, a pet, or something cooking.
Aglat squinted. “Upstairs. Hurry!”
Scut hated that she couldn’t be quiet, couldn’t take Jemima by surprise but when she saw Del passed out on the ground, she didn’t think. She threw a punch at Jemima and ducked, missing the returning swing. She gripped her waist in a tackle, shoving her against the second story window.
The windowpanes shattered, and Jemima’s head dangled off the roof.
“Do it, I dare you. I’ve already killed Del. My brothers will avenge me.”
Scut looked down, wooziness overcoming her. She wasn’t good with heights.
She didn’t like Jemima either. Maybe the ‘dead’ on her wanted poster was placed first because the police didn’t like her first. And ‘my brothers will avenge me’? Who used that language anymore?
She looked around the room, seeing the maps pinned to the walls, the rock samples from mines.
Scut didn’t usually have trouble putting two and two together, and this was certainly one of the easier problems she’d faced.
Brothers plus coal plus maps of Orleigh equals Jemima Rasp being Jim from Orleigh’s fence. And his sister. And a member of the Berry Burglars.
Scut shoved Jemima out the window. Now she would be square with Aglat over the Flower job.
Del murmured on the floor. Scut breathed deeply. Jemima didn’t even know how to kill someone properly.
She hoisted Del up, supporting her arm as they made their way down to Awell. Jemima was getting back up from the fall, two people helping her. Scut couldn’t place them, but she knew she had seen them before.
“Give me Del’s cloak,” Awell demanded. After years of working together, Scut didn’t question it. She knew the strategy. Switch and run. She grabbed Awell’s pointy hat and slammed it onto Del’s head.
Awell grabbed the cloak, tying it together as she sprinted. It was so much easier to tie while running than her other cloak. It didn’t billow too much behind her, creating drag. It was a snug fit, just what she needed as she hit a corner and used a lamp post to swing to the right. She could hear her pursuers hot on her heels. She had a vague memory of this town before the Captain’s hat incident had forced them to leave. She turned the next left, running straight into a dead-end alley. It used to go all the way to the docks, and now a wooden wall stood in her way.
She kept running, and made an almighty jump up the wall, her fingers barely gripping the top.
She felt a foothold and pushed herself up and over the wall, looking back down to see it as flat as before. She felt the hem of her cloak hit against her boot, suspiciously solid.
“We might just get on,” she said to the patchwork fabric. She could’ve sworn it gave her a hug.
Scut got Del into a nearby alleyway and hid her between two large storage sheds. Del’s head hurt more than she had ever known it could.
“But I haven’t learnt enough magic yet. I can’t die before I learn magic.”
“If you wanna learn magic, I can find something that’ll teach you. But you gotta stay awake till Awell comes back.”
“What’ll teach me?”
“I heard of a book that’s essentially a backdoor to every spellbook and grimoire in existence.”
“That’s not real.”
“You won’t find out if it is or isn’t unless you stay awake.”
Aglat shushed them, seeing through the sheds. Their eavesdropper ran off, footsteps echoing between the walls.
“Looks like you’ve got a time limit on it now.” Scut sighed.