22 June 1666
London. Capital of England. Center of the known world. She was regarded across the powerful island nation as its crown jewel, a beacon of prosperity and refinement unmatched by any other so-called great city upon the mainland. Here it was said that the streets were littered with opportunity, and all one needed to do was reach down and pick up the life he or she wanted.
Only those who had never set their eyes upon the city said such things.
The truth was that London was a filthy, ramshackle city where the poor outnumbered the wealthy, and the new was built upon the old.
A majority of her streets were narrow, cramped tunnels linking the city’s major arteries like Pall Mall and the Strand in a confusing spider web of homes and businesses. While some streets like Hatton Garden were paved with stones, most were poorly and unevenly cobbled with a drainage ditch running down the center. They were subject to frequent traffic jams of people, hackneys, and the all-too-often herds of stinking livestock on their way to market.
Carts piled with the rotting, bloating corpses of plague victims sat idle every few blocks, a nauseating consequence of the to the unpaid wages of the city’s body collectors. Starving feral street dogs pulled and gnawed at the blackened flesh of an arm or a leg in order to fill their empty bellies. It would be the matter of only a week before those dogs lay dead in the streets for the rats to feast on. And so went the cycle of the disease.
To further the wretched experience of street travel, buckets of household garbage mixed with human feces were regularly tossed from windows to create a noxious sludge that sat stagnant in pools in the center of sloped streets.
If only that was all of London’s miseries. The city was also in the midst of the worst summer to fall upon her that any of her citizens could recall. If one had kept records of such things, they would have found that the lack of rain and unrelenting heat had not been felt since London was nothing more than a Roman settlement some fifteen hundred years earlier.
Not a drop of rain had fallen upon the city for months. Not a cloud had been seen in the sky for almost as long. Private water supplies, like the one from Duckling Pond reservoir, had run dangerously low. The only source of clean water available was found in beer. Even children drank low-alcohol-content brews as their sole means of hydration. Sometimes children were among the drunks littering the streets.
The mighty River Thames sat low along its banks. Scores of dead trout-perch and quillbacks lay up and down the river line. Their stench carried far beyond the waterfront streets. The once lifeblood of the city had become polluted.
London. Magnificent and grand to be sure.
The unrelenting heat chased the public into to the barely cooler shadows of buildings instead of venturing out into the sweltering summer sun. Jostling the wall was a daily affair that sometimes led to violent and bloody arguments. The heat was driving everyone mad.
But unlike everyone else, neither the heat, nor the cold, bothered Richard Yorke, London’s finest thief taker.
With his head held high, Richard walked confidently in the street. The burning midday sun reflected off the silver buttons of his handsome short cobalt blue doublet. It had been fitted perfectly, just below the ribs and wide like his shoulders. The seams of the sleeves were slashed under his defined arms, allowing for ease of movement. Under it all he wore a crisp white linen shirt wrapped up and around his thick neck.
Around his legs were slouched, unfastened white linen boothose, petticoat breeches and well-crafted black boots. His strides were twice the length of other men’s.
His long, chestnut brown hair fell past his shoulders. Richard did not care for the long white-powdered periwigs that were the height of fashion at the moment among the city’s wealthy.
From the shadows and doorways people pointed and whispered his name. All of London knew who he was and that if he was hired to locate stolen goods or return a sum of money borrowed, then you best return it before he inevitably tracked you down. Half of King’s Bench Prison owed their stay to him.
Richard turned the corner onto Perry Street where his next case lay.
His partner, Thomas, had gone ahead to the home of their latest client, Mr. Peniworth, to gather the standard but necessary information that all their investigations began upon. Such preparatory work allowed Richard to focus on the meat of the case.
Navigating London was done by landmark and by signboard. The sheer number of them on some streets made it difficult to find the building you were looking for. It also made it dangerous for taller heads passing by.
Richard studied the homes flanking him. They were typical London townhomes of the wealthy. Exposed timber beams, whitewashed masonry, with each successive story jutting out farther then the last in an effort to save on property taxes. Their thatch roofs were bone dry from the scorching summer sun. One home in particular stood out.
Large fissures ran through its dingy whitewashed masonry. Its windows were cracked and covered in grime. Homes of this state were a common sight: when its owner died the home was taken over by squatters.
Searching the signboards hanging above the front doors, Richard found the one he was looking for, three wooden crates stacked in a triangle with a sea bird perched upon the top.
The exterior of the home was well maintained, unlike its neighbor on the corner. Its door was sturdy, its windows clean and unbroken. Richard raised the heavy brass knocker and was able to knock only once before the door swung open. He was greeted by an impossibly gaunt woman of a very advanced age. Her face was crisscrossed with dozens of long lines that met at a scowl of annoyance. By her simple dress Richard knew she was not the woman of the house.
“What do you need help with?” she barked.
“Good afternoon, madam. I am Richard Yorke, master thief taker of London. Your master sent for my services,” replied Richard.
The elderly maid muttered some sort of unintelligible response, leaving Richard unsure if he should enter or not. Luckily, Thomas appeared next to the old crank.
Thomas Mann stood well under six feet and barely above five. His round, bald head was hidden under an elaborate white periwig. He had a penchant for dressing in vibrant colors others dare not wear. This day he had on an outfit of yellow that made him resemble the sun.
“Richard. Stand aside, woman.”
Reluctantly, the old maid obliged but made sure to give Richard a good eyeballing as he passed.
The home was much larger than Richard had expected. The interior walls to the adjoining homes had been removed to fashion a much larger dwelling, a common practice in the city among the wealthy. Entering into the drawing room, Richard found his latest client, Mr. Peniworth, sunk in a large red fabric chair. The furniture was well kept but not a style in fashion since the early part of the century. Shelves lined the four walls, each with a rich collection of objects of various size, color and origin. Several paintings of merchant ships with grand masts at full sails decorated the walls.
“Mr. Peniworth, allow me to present London’s finest thief taker, Richard Yorke,” announced Thomas. The maid grumbled once more. It was her position to announce visitors.
Rising from his chair, Mr. Peniworth stood not much taller than when he was seated. He was aged, not as old as his maid, but close. His face was sunken, with a thin hooked nose running down its center. His eyes were sharp and clear like a calm harbor. Richard noticed that the strength of his upper body did not match the meagerness of his legs. It was as if God had accidentally stuck the wrong two halves of men together.
Mr. Peniworth checked the clock that sat on the mantle over the stone fireplace.
“Punctuality is a good virtue.”
Richard offered his hand in greeting. As his fingers enveloped his client’s bony hand, Richard was surprised at the strength in his client’s grip.
“Thank you, Mr. Peniworth. I think you will find I have many other virtues that will be of value to this investigation. I trust that my associate, Thomas, has been most efficient with his questions.”
“Yes, yes. He was quite thorough.”
“Excellent. Thomas, the case folio if you please.”
Thomas handed Richard the thick leather folio. Upon the top of the page was Mr. Peniworth’s name and the answers to the questions Thomas had asked before Richard’s arrival. The case folio was the root for all their investigations.
When a new case arrived at their office door, Richard and Thomas would document all findings and information in a volume like the one Richard now held. Each case was given a sequential number that was documented in a ledger for easy reference. All pertinent information was written down on the following pages as well as detailed descriptions of the missing items or sums of money owed. If receipts or other proofs of ownership were available, then they were collected as evidence to present to the magistrate once the guilty party was detained and brought forth.
Richard read over Thomas’s strangely uniform handwriting.
“According to your statement, you returned home from your morning affairs and found several items of value missing.”
“Is that what it says in your log?” asked Mr. Peniworth.
“Then that is what I said.”
Richard smiled. “What may seem redundant to you is quite necessary, and any objections you have should be held until the end.” The old shipper did not bring a retort to his lips.
“Now, when you returned home, did you find any locks undone or any windows ajar?”
“The house was locked up as tight as a ship’s hold when I left her.”
“And your maid. She heard no disturbances, no feet sneaking about, objects crashing to the floor?”
“Agnes was upstairs at the time. Her hearing is not her strongest sense.”
Richard looked at Agnes and found her glaring at him with squinted eyes like a buzzard. He had a good guess at what Agnes’s best sense was.
“And you do not owe anyone money for late invoices or orders of some kind?”
“My books and accounts are in order, I can assure you.”
Scanning over the list of missing items, Richard found it to be a small number. By their descriptions, their origins were varied and exotic, their values equally so. A blue and white vase from the Orient. A bowl made from the horn of a rhino from the Dark Continent. A gold drinking cup from the Ottomans.
“I presume you were a shipper of goods,” said Richard.
“It is how I made my living. A successful one at that.”
“No doubt, by the scale and quality of your home,” commented Richard.
There was also no doubt that Mr. Peniworth would be able to afford their fee. Being the best thief taker in all of London meant that it was also the highest.
“May I have a look about the room?”
“Get on with it now. It is what I called upon your services for.”
“It is a lucky thing that you did not happen upon the thief. If your fists are half as quick as your wits, then he would have suffered greatly.”
With measured and weighted steps Richard moved around the drawing room inspecting the various shelves where the missing items once sat. The shelves that ran along the whole exterior of the room were packed tight with all manner of brick-a-brack collected over a lifetime of importing and exporting throughout the known world. There was even a hatchet that was said to be carried by the savages of the New World.
In the course of his inspection Richard noticed sharp outlines in the layer of dust that sat across each shelf and on each item. Richard ran his finger through the dust. Over his shoulder he heard Agnes emit another grumble.
An odd black smudge was streaked through the filth.
“Thomas, the kit. Would you bring it here?”
From near his feet Thomas lifted a wooden case by its hinged brass handle. The kit was of Richard’s own design and construction. It was a foot and a half long by a foot in width and height. The top was split down the center with hinges on both sides so it would open outward. Below sat two levels of removable trays broken into various-sized compartments. It was an impressive piece of carpentry.
Inside, the shelves and compartments held an array of tools and instruments. Richard had collected and devised each to aid him in their investigations. They ranged from simple items like small wooden boxes to store evidence to modern scientific equipment like the magnifying glass he had just removed.
Richard leaned in close to one of the odd black smudges. Through the magnifying glass’s convex lens the smudge appeared six times larger. It was not fine like the dust surrounding it. It was coarse. It also clearly sat upon the layer of dust, meaning it was recently applied, and its smell was familiar.
“Is this an inspection into the cleanliness of my home?” quipped Mr. Peniworth. Agnes took particular exception with Richard’s observation.
“Of course not, but it is aiding us in our investigation.” Richard had made sure he was facing Agnes when he had spoken. “I presume you have not used your fireplace for some months now.”
“Not since before this damn heat started.”
“And I presume you have not had it swept even before that.”
“Yes, yes. You do a great deal of presuming for a man who charges a fee such as yours. My items vanished into thin air from my home.”
Richard found Mr. Peniworth’s declaration amusing.
“Nothing simply vanishes, sir. It is not as if they were carried off by ghosts.”
Reaching down to pull another instrument from his kit, Richard noticed a faint discoloration in the drawing room’s rug. The rug was a deep burgundy, but the spots he noticed were a darker hue, leaning toward black. Tracing them led Richard to the large stone fireplace.
“From the list of missing items, your thief was very deliberate in his choices. There were many more expensive items left behind. What was taken could be easily carried off.”
Richard knelt down and reached his hand up inside the hearth. He groped around the void until he felt something coarse smack against the back of his hand. He grabbed hold of it and gave it a tug. It held firm.
Removing his jacket, he folded it neatly before handing it to Thomas. He ducked his head under the finely carved stone mantle and crawled into the fireplace.
“If you gentlemen and lady will excuse me for a moment,” said Richard before he stood up. The upper half of him disappeared into the chimney.
Mr. Peniworth and Agnes looked at Thomas with obvious puzzlement. He gave them a nod and a smile as if to say trust me, even though he wasn’t entirely sure what Richard was doing.
Inside the chimney Richard hoisted himself up thanks to a rope that had been lowered down from above. His broad shoulders scraped against the walls as he slowly pulled himself upward toward the daylight above. Soot rained down causing him to cough and hack out the black powder. His fine white shirt ripped and tore beyond the point of repair with each pull. More worrisome was that the chimney was growing narrower and crooked.
Shoddy masons. My father would never have stood for such workmanship.
More than once Richard thought he was going to be entombed inside. It took all of his strength to free himself each time.
Richard emerged and took a deep breath of air as he climbed out onto the thatch roof. His face was covered in a black ashen mask so only his icy blue eyes and white teeth shone through. He looked like a demon who had just crawled out from the depths of hell.
The sun’s rays were even stronger up on the roof. The thatch was as dry as tinder, and the smallest shift in his weight caused it to crackle. Richard moved with extreme care. The rope inside the chimney had been tied around the chimney itself. Richard inspected the knot and found it to be a bowline, a typical nautical knot.
He then noticed a set of narrow, dark boot prints running to and from the chimney he had just come from to one several roofs down. Following them, Richard stepped lightly. On a few occasions he felt a section start to give. Luckily, he was deft of foot and avoided a disaster.
Arriving at the other chimney, Richard found himself standing on the roof of the dilapidated home on the corner.
The same gauge of rope with the same bowline knot was tied around the chimney of the home. Richard peered down the shaft. It was of the same size and shape of the one he had just ascended, but from what he could see from the top, it was in much worse shape.
Inside the home, sitting at a long, rough wood table was a small, impish man. His back was to the fireplace, and his clothes were barely marked with soot thanks to his slight frame having helped him avoid greater contact with the walls of the chimneys. He hovered like a gargoyle over the stolen objects from Mr. Peniworth’s home. His long bony fingers caressed a small ivory figurine of a naked woman like it was made of flesh and blood.
The room surrounding him was an unkempt mess. Not a single piece of mismatched furniture was not broken or held together by twine or nail. The rug looked as if it had been rescued from a fire. The home was clearly not that of a man of wealth.
The little thief was so obsessed with his booty that he didn’t hear the peculiar sound in the fireplace behind him.
“I do not believe those goods are yours,” said Richard.
The impish thief spun quickly. He leaped from his chair when he saw the giant, black-faced demon with haunting blue eyes and grinning white teeth standing in his own living room. The journey down the second fireplace had made Richard even filthier. He looked at the small man cowering behind the wobbly broken chair. The thief’s face looked familiar, but Richard could not place it. Perhaps he had arrested him on a prior investigation. It would not be the first time such a thing had occurred.
“From the deep bowels of hell, who are you?” squeaked the thief. “And what are you doing in my home? I will call for a constable if you do not leave at once!”
“That is a splendid idea. It would save me the trouble of doing so,” replied Richard.
With a flash of surprising quickness, the thief grabbed a nicked pewter candlestick and flung it at Richard. The knickknack flew at Richard’s head, but he was quicker. A chunk of the dirty wall behind him broke away as he moved aside with ease.
“Did I say something to offend you?” asked Richard.
The thief reached for a second projectile. Richard bounded across the living room in only a few long steps. The impish man abandoned the projectile and made a break for the doorway. Richard hurdled a small, beaten sofa and cut off his target’s escape.
“Must you make this such a difficult situation?”
Like a cornered alley cat, the sneak thief began to thrash at Richard with his fists. Each of the weak blows were met with an easy parry or block.
“Come now, we are both gentlemen. Certainly we can settle this without fisticuffs,” advised Richard. The thief’s reply came with a boot aimed at his privates. Richard seized the impish thief by the ankle before the moment of impact. Frightened and teetering on one leg, the thief asked for mercy from his demon captor.
“Mercy is not for me to grant.”
The puckish thief tried to break from Richard’s grasp several times on their short journey but was unsuccessful each time. Thomas met them at the door. Richard informed his partner that all of Mr. Peniworth’s stolen possessions were accounted for and located several doors down at the dilapidated corner home. Thomas’s short legs bounded down the stairs and into the street.
As Richard pushed the impish prig down the hallway, the thief dug his heels into the rug like a lamb knowing it was going to slaughter. Richard gave him a good shove.
“There is no use in resisting. You will face your victim like a man.”
When they entered the drawing room, it was Agnes’s eyes that Richard first saw go wide. There was disdain mixed with recognition in them. The embarrassed thief purposely held his head down, avoiding Agnes’s piercing stare.
Agnes watched as the scoundrel was marched up to Mr. Peniworth, who stood at his fireplace staring at the last place he saw Richard, like he would reappear via the same manner.
“Mr. Peniworth, I present to you your ghost,” announced Richard.
The old sea merchant turned. His jaw tighten, and his eyes quickly narrowed. They were not filled with simple disdain but with disappointment. His breathing grew agitated as he stepped closer to the thief. And that’s when Richard saw it.
The same hooked noses only an inch apart. The same calm sea-green eyes, one set burning, the other cowering. The fingers on their hands equally as long and bony. The prig’s face was an unworn version of Mr. Peniworth’s. The only noticeable difference between the two was that the elder Peniworth possessed a stronger upper physique earned from years building a business out of nothing while a spoiled son spent his hard-earned money.
“He is your son,” commented Richard.
“Aye, he is my son. And an ungrateful bastard at that. I should have known it was you.”
“Mother wanted me to have those items. So said her will. You wormed me out of them,” the son shot back.
“The only thing your mother wanted was to be rid of you before you were born, and I stayed her hand. I’ve cursed that choice ever since.”
The tension was rising. The words harsh. Richard needed to settle this quickly.
“There was a will?”
“Of course. My mother had it written up a year prior before she died from consumption.”
“She wrote it under the delusions of fever and disease. Her words cannot be taken as truth,” countered Mr. Peniworth.
“Not in the eyes of the court. A will is a binding document. Where is your wife’s will?” asked Richard.
Richard dreaded when a case involved family members. Too often stories and claims were murky, and personal issues and motives played their hands too forcibly for the truth to be revealed.
“It was lost shortly after my dear wife’s passing.”
“You burned it,” countered the son.
“Do not level accusations at me, you little rasp. We gave you money and sent you to France to expand my interests, and you ran off to drink and gallivant about like some cock. And when that money was spent, you begged our forgiveness, only to steal money and disappear to the continent once more. Your mother always held a soft spot in her heart for you, and you played her like a lute.”
The thieving son shrunk in embarrassment at his father’s words just as Thomas bounded into the room with a sack filled with the stolen goods clattering inside. He came to a halt when he saw the standoff. He looked at Richard, who simply mouthed the word “family.”
That was the only explanation Thomas needed.
Richard crossed the room and took the sack from Thomas. He wished to be done with this case immediately.
“Your items have been returned safe and in their proper condition. If you wish, I can still bring your son before a magistrate.”
Mr. Peniworth looked at his son. The younger Peniworth hung his head low and barely managed to look up more than once through sad eyes. His father’s anger toward him began to thaw.
“There is no greater a source of trouble and heartache to me than this boy. His actions over the years have caused what little hair I have left to turn gray. But he is still my blood. And I promised his mother I would look after him after she passed. There is no need to make a magistrate aware of what transpired here.”
Richard was not going to press the issue. He always left it to his client to decide whether or not to follow through with prosecution. His job was just to find the guilty party.
“As you wish.”
Mr. Peniworth motioned for Agnes to take the items. The old maid was disappointed that there would be no arrest made today. She took the sack and checked the contents. When she was satisfied that all were there, she placed the sack at Mr. Peniworth’s feet, who gestured at Richard’s clothing.
“Have your tailor send me a bill for your ruined garments.”
“That is most generous of you.” Richard retrieved his kit. “We will leave you both to this joyous family reunion. Good day, sirs.”
As Richard and Thomas made their way toward the front door followed closely by Agnes, they heard the unmistakable sound of an open hand meeting the soft flesh of a cheek.