D: Are we there, yet?
D: Are we there, yet?
A: Where is there?
D: You know where, A.
A: Um. . . Why do I have the feeling this could quickly devolve into a Who’s on First debacle?
D: Who’s on First?
D: . . . . Are we there yet?
A:Fair play. No, we aren’t there, yet. We’re at Part 3.
D: (Sigh). And how many parts are there going to be?
A: Don’t know yet – might spoil it if you knew.
D: Spoil it? Whatever, woman, just so long as Jan gets to be in more of it – Jan is in more of it, isn’t she?
A: Well, I was rather thinking of having her eaten by wild dogs–
D: You wouldn’t!
A: (Snickering). Behave yourself, and we’ll see.
D: You are a very bad woman, A.
A: Yep. So is Jan, to a certain extent.
D: (Grin) I know.
A: And before that smile gets even more lewd, for your reading pleasure is Part 3 of Spirit Keeper, a Heresy of Before mystery.
Nearly twenty people had raised their hands or nodded in commiseration at the last Debate – a silent acknowledgement that their tokens of the old world too were missing. Trading that silence for words was a delicate dance … If ever anyone wanted information, all they had to do was trade Jan some handiwork or a bit of jewelry for her sheep’s wool and cheese, and they’d have all the information they wanted… And it brought me to wondering: What if she was the thief?
“Jan? Jan, are you in?”
“Ellie, what in heaven’s name – it’s barely sunup!”
The sun had been up for several hours, but considering Jan’s shop didn’t open until after midday, I supposed early was relative. Except—
“Did the sheep have a lie-in, then?”
“The boys take care of the sheep, Ellie.” Jan’s voice managed to be petulant and arch at the same time. She only ever used that tone on us that were born in Protection, and only in private.
I opened my mouth to ask just which boys were those when the lady of the house appeared in the curtained entryway to her private quarters. Her hair was brushed to a golden shine and her green eyes outlined with the faintest hint of kohl, but it was the carefully arranged wrapper, which revealed nearly as much as it concealed, that told me my knock on Jan’s door was not what had roused her this day.
I leaned against the wattle-and-daub wall that made up the quaint outer room of her storefront and cocked an eyebrow at Jannat Rappaport, sheep farmer, handcraft businesswoman and all-around gossip-monger. She grinned at me and pulled the silk wrapper tighter across her chest. She had been expecting someone – and not a female someone who pried into other people’s lives and went by the name Ellie. It was none of my business who it was, but since she was out of bed, perhaps some of my business could intrude on hers.
“And what boys would those be, Jan?”
“Good morning to you, too, Ellie Macfie. Can I get you anything? Tea, perhaps? I haven’t any of that horrible chicory you insist on swallowing every morning.” She paused in her tirade and gave me a slight curtsey. “And the boys are my hired hands. I’d have to split myself in threes if I wanted to take care of the sheep, the cheese-making and the handcrafts. So, how about some tea?”
Ah, those boys. I forced my face to relax into a smile.
“No need, Jan – I don’t mean to intrude on your morning routine.”
An unladylike snort was Jan’s only answer to that particular half-truth. Without further word, she turned on her heel and sauntered back into her private quarters. If I hadn’t known the woman, I would have stood in her storefront, awkwardness crippling my tongue and my legs. As it was, I knew I was free to enter Jan’s home.
Of course, she would have barred the door with a shotgun in hand if it had been otherwise.
“So you’re here about the thefts, then?”
My relief at her directness – straight-talk was not one of Jan’s strengths, especially when dealing in information and other people’s business – was shaded with a thread of apprehension. Those words were said to the wall in front of her, not to me.
“Papa Henry sent me – said you might be able to help.”
Even as her voice flattened, I was entertaining images of a thief ring, run by Madame Jan and carried out by her hooligans – sophisticated despite their perhaps grubby or mean appearance.
“You know, help me loosen the town’s collective tongue.” I tried to keep my tone light. Everyone knew I wasn’t exactly loquacious – I watched, and listened. Usually, that sufficed.
Jan took her time in turning to face me, and I tried to appreciate my surroundings instead of giving in to my more natural inclination: annoyance. Her private quarters were surprisingly bright and airy. The mid-morning sun glittered off her trinkets and ornaments – even gave her red silk robe a cheery, rather than opulent, appearance.
My gaze lingered too long and Jan caught me admiring her wrapper. She stroked a sleeve – where had she gotten that, I wondered – and pursed lips that never needed rouge.
“You know, if you attempted to wear prettier things,” the look she gave my undyed linen tunic was eloquent, “you might go about settling the eye of Mathias instead of just catching it.”
Blood rushed to my face and I bit back the first thing that came to mind – that at least I could settle on just one, if I needed to. It was neither fair, nor relevant. At the same time, I was no longer the least bit sorry l let my imagination run wild with the idea that Jan, and her boys, were responsible for the thefts.
I blame the pulp novels Ethel loaned me. ‘Dime store atrocities’ Papa Henry called them. Regardless, his wife had a trunk full of the little books, and their torrid adventures were a welcome respite some days. Where she picked them up, no one knows. The way Ethel told it, she had found them, somewhere out in the desert. Whenever anyone pressed – usually just newcomers – she would just wave a distracted hand to some place ‘else’ far off in the distance. Her eyes would follow and get this lost look to them. At that point, Papa Henry would always take her hand and bring her back. Invariably, that that was also the last time a newcomer ever said anything stressful, or even remotely inquiring, to Ethel.
“I’ll take that into consideration, Jan – and as much as your fashion sense intrigues me, I’d rather talk about the thefts, if you don’t mind.”
“And what if I do mind?”
“Good grief, woman! Is this how you plan on interrogating the town?”
“I hadn’t planned on interrogating the town. I—“
“Oh, so it’s just me, then.”
The face Jan turned on me was neither closed nor amused. There was something off about the woman – had been for days, if I was honest. Likely, she was no more the head of a crew of career criminals than I was. Even if she was responsible, she was also right; my ‘interrogation’ style needed work. I needed her – and her way with people.
“Look Jan, I’m sorry. I just. . . “
She frowned as I trailed off. It struck me then, why I had been searching her face, her person, studying the way she moved and the way she adorned herself. Something was missing.
“You just, what, Ellie?” Jan asked, her hard voice quavering a bit as I kept my silence.
“I just thought you might have insight.” The words came slowly – slow, even for me.
“Well, for starters, don’t walk up to people asking them point-blank what they know about these bloody thefts. They’ve been going on for months and no one has said a word.”
“Months – but—“
“You watch, and you listen, but you don’t like people enough to unearth the deeper issues. You keep the riff-raff out, those that would bring Big City down on us, but it’s always been Papa Henry taking care of the town, and the people in it.”
No, that couldn’t be right – well, she was right about the peace-keeping dynamic between Papa Henry and I, but that wasn’t it. Of the thefts I knew about, Mathias’ was the oldest. His father’s sextant had gone missing nearly five weeks ago. At first, he thought it was just something he’d misplaced after the last Shake tossed his things about, but even after everything was sorted, it was still missing. And then Ruth had spoken up at the last Debate. . .
“Months, you say?”
A quiet gasp was all it took. Something of Jan’s had been stolen. My eyes scoured her again. Her wrist. Elegant for all its bony strength, it was bare. Gone was the watch that had belonged to her great-grandmother. It was missing an onyx stone, right near the face that did not tell the time. The hands had stopped at twenty past ten – the time Jan said her Great-Gran had passed.
“The watch – how long has it been gone?”
Almost absently, Jan stroked the spot where the watch had always been.
“Nearly two months.”
“And you never said anything.”
“At first, I thought one of the boys took it, but they so rarely leave the hills, it hardly seemed likely.”
“They still could have, Jan.”
Green eyes flashed and she smirked at me. “I know. I checked their pallets and I asked around, just in case some unsavories had been scoping them out while they’re afield with the sheep – trying to undercut my trade.”
She was talking about a black market. So far, Papa Henry and I had kept that kind of thing out of Protection, and I hated to think of it threatening the peace we had here.
“And you didn’t find anything?”
There was a small shake of her head. Well, that was a small mercy, at least.
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
I didn’t remind her that it could have stopped more thefts, or that it could have helped other people open up about their own stories – she knew that better than I.
“I haven’t said anything about it because I don’t want people thinking . . .”
“Just thinking, that’s all. Thinking I was a victim of whoever this is, running around, and stealing our memories.”
“What? That’s—no one thinks you’re a victim. Hells woman, we’re all nearly scared of you.”
I caught the groan before it managed to make it out of my throat. The rivalry between the two women had been dormant for nearly a year. The fact that there were nearly forty years between them made their spat almost laughable, if it had not been a dividing factor in the town for as long as Lottie had called Protection home.
“Lottie fought her way out of one of the Before burnings in Big City. She knew Caroline’s mother before she was taken by the Dreadnaughts. Lottie isn’t afraid of anyone.”
“She thinks she’s better than us.”
I rolled my eyes. There weren’t enough words I could say to fill Jan’s insecurities this morning, so I said the only thing that might convince her to help me.
“I’ll talk to Lottie, Jan – thank you for pointing her out.”
She didn’t say anything to this and with a small sigh, I turned to leave. Her baby-smooth hands – softened by years of handling sheep’s wool – reached to pluck at the linen of my sleeve.
“I’ll let people know you want to talk, Ellie. And I’ll have some cookies – and maybe a sweet-cake or two at your place around 4. That should give you – and everyone else – time to get used to the idea of talking.”
I thought I caught a glimpse of a smile before the faintly mocking coquette hardened the lines of Jan’s face. It was the only help she was going to give me, and considering I had nearly cast her in the role of grand master thief, it was almost more than I deserved.
“Cheers, Jan. I’d appreciate that.”
I waved farewell to Protection’s secret-keeper and let my feet take me where they willed. I had six—no, five–hours until Jan, and the rest of Protection, descended on my little hole in the wall. There were a few people I needed to talk to before that happened.
Lottie’s prized book had been taken, right from her bedside. I liked the woman, and it gave me little pleasure to think she might have claimed it stolen to deflect suspicion from herself. Yet, it was something I had been more than willing to think Jan capable of as well.
And if Lottie was a suspect, then so too could Ruth be, and Mathais. Hells, everyone in town was a suspect, now.
Five hours. It was going to be a hell of a day.
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