Ron had wandered about South Fairview for half the afternoon, for Cradwick had roused himself suddenly. He had declared it to be a Market Day, though it actually was not. So in a half-drunken haze, Cradwick had sent Ron to the Market so that he might gather materials that, of course, they actually did not need. But on days when Cradwick took it upon himself to take up his trade, Ron stayed out of his way. Some days, he forgot he had an apprentice altogether. He wondered just how strong the sleeping potion they mixed in his wine truly was.
However, the afternoon off gave Ron a chance to wander into the neighborhoods he normally didn’t get to see during the daytime, for he usually only snuck out at night. He trudged along through the mud of Miller Street, keeping a sharp eye out for some of his informants. Miller Street ran up into the north border of South Fairview, where sturdier homes stood and a more well-to-do sort of folk inhabited the area, or at least, well-to-do for the southern end of Fairview. Miller Street became Chandler Blvd., and here Ron stood with the cowl of his grey cloak up around his face.
While Chandler Street boasted far fewer criminals in residency, it still attracted them, for pockets to pick had more coin and homes had a more lucrative treasure to be lifted. However, due to just such this criminal activity, Chandler Street and its local neighborhood had its own constabulary, however minor in number, and they also depended upon each other to watch out for suspicious occurrences.
Just as Ron was about to step off the corner of Chandler Street, he spied a familiar figure leaning on the house across the street. Was it… Nick? Nick, of The Brew House and Tavern, who worked for Luvian?
Ron immediately stepped backward again and quietly slipped unseen behind the greengrocer so as to observe Nick.
Nick was leaning against a stone home with a practiced nonchalance that Ron recognized as one of his own postures. What was Luvian’s Nick doing so far north of South Fairview, and of The Brew House and Tavern? Was that what Luvian meant when he told Nick, “I have a job for you?” No. Luvian was too forthright to be involved in such dealings. And yet, there Nick stood. Perhaps Luvian was unaware. Ron considered and decided that Luvian was unaware of very little in his brewery.
Ron had respected Luvian previous to the night he’d nearly killed those soldiers, but now Ron’s level of respect had grown far beyond his original assessment. A veteran of the Twenty Years War with highly specialized combat training, right under his nose, working as an innkeeper, and Ron had missed him completely. Ron still was unsure whether to include Luvian in a report or not.
Across the street, Nick stood up, casually, slowly, calling no attention to himself. Ron admitted to being impressed. Nick suddenly turned his head a little, as if he knew he was being observed. Ron shrank immediately behind the unsuspecting greengrocer, hoping the wagon would hide him. After a few moments, Ron chanced a glance around.
Nick had slid up the street-facing window of the residence and was just sliding in! Ron’s mouth dropped open. Nick – a thief! His observation skills were no longer serving him, of that he was certain – he would need to sharpen them immediately. What else was The Brew House and Tavern hiding that Ron was unaware of?
Ron knocked a few pieces of fruit to the ground from his stance behind the greengrocer. As soon as the vendor bent over to pick them up, one by one, Ron stepped across the street with a casual pace. He glanced about, saw that the vendor was polishing his fallen wares with the sleeve of his tunic, muttering to himself.
No one else watching – excellent. Ron hopped up on the half-open window sill and slid in silently. He knew how to enter buildings unnoticed, of course, he just rarely used the ability.
Once inside, Ron immediately smelled the last bit of candle smoke, snuffed out, Ron presumed, by Nick. Ron let his eyes adjust to the darkness of the home and stepped quietly against the walls so as to avoid the creaks of wooden planks in high traffic areas that would give his presence away.
He didn’t have far to go, for he found Nick in the next room. A small study of sorts, where shelves held a number of bound books and a desk that was covered with a shuffled mess of unrolled parchments. And Nick stood above them, holding a candle.
Ron cleared his throat.
“So it’s you, is it. I knew someone had come in, but Ronnie boy, you continue to surprise me. Almost as bad as me, now,” said Nick in an indifferent tone as he continued to scan the document he was reading.
“No, no I am not. I’m nothing like you,” Ron whispered. “I’m not a thief.”
“Ohh,” Nick clucked. “Thief, that’s such a strong word. I prefer to say that I ‘acquire items by unconventional means.’” He stood up straight. “And you needn’t worry about whispering, there ain’t no one here. Obvious. If there was, I wouldn’t be here, now would I?” And he cocked his head to look at Ron as if he had shared something that was a common piece of knowledge amongst all people.
“I’m not letting you leave here with anything that wasn’t already yours to start with.” Ron crossed his arms firmly. Nick could be a smartass if he chose, but that did not change the fact that he had broken into a family’s home.
Nick scoffed. “Well, good, good, Ronnie boy, because I didn’t come here to take anything. Honest, I wasn’t here for thievin’. And a fair amount a’ time, I’m not.” Nick winked at Ronnie, taking pleasure in explaining his actions.
Ron’s eyes narrowed. “Then… why?” He waved an arm around them.
Nick took in a deep sigh of something close to exasperation. “Information, Ronnie,” and he tapped the side of his temple. “Information.”
“I think you’ll find, Ronnie, although,” and Nick’s eyes narrowed here with speculation as he gazed at Ronnie, “I think you already know, that information is more valuable than any trinkets or baubles. Not to say I’d turn down a good deal of gold, but information sells for gold these days, if you get it from the right source. What do you think, Ronnie, Would you agree?”
A cocky half smile slid across Nick’s face, with a knowing expression that told Ron that his actions in South Fairview had not gone unnoticed. Now Ron was truly concerned. Nick was usually a likable enough fellow, placid, occasionally a bit of a jokester. The girls and Mags at The Brew House and Tavern often called him PicNick, which Ron had always assumed was simply an affectionate food-related nickname, as Tank was short for Tankard, though no one knew Tank’s real name, except perhaps Luvian.
This, this skinny street lad was threatening Ron with what sounded like extortion, and he didn’t like it one bit.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Ron replied evenly.
“Really? That’s a right interesting sigil you got on your tunic, Ronnie, my friend. Bein’ a blacksmith’s apprentice as you are….”
But Nick never finished his sentence. Ron had grabbed Nick by the neck of his tunic and pulled him close until he was staring him the eyes. “Yes. Yes it is. I work for Master Cradwick. And you?”
“I – I work for Luvian. Of course.”
“And the name ‘PicNick?’” Ron insisted. “Does Luvian know?”
“PicNick – was my street name for Picking Nicks, pickpocketing. And later, Picking Knicks, as in Picking Knick Knacks out of the Market Place. Then, I gots good enough to pick locks, so they called me NickPics, as in NickPicksLocks. And NickKnacks, though I didn’t stay with that gang long – they was nearly all cleared out by the Guard.
So then I started workin’ for meself and,” Nick sighed, “not doin’ so well at it, when Mister Luvian found me in the Market. He saw right through me.
“He said, ’You was about to pick that old woman’s basket clean of bread she saved up a week to eat, boy, and she hasn’t got any more coin and no family to help her. Do you and your kind ever think that maybe you hurt the people you steal from?’
“And he had picked me clean up offa’ me boots, and slammed me up against the bricks, and I was petrified, nearly pissed me trousers.
“I actually never knew a person who had thought about them folks we’d taken from. And Mister Luvian, he said, ‘Where are your parents, boy?’
“And I told him as how I’d never known them, I’d been in an orphanage ‘til it burnt down in a fire when the soldiers came through. I told him I was just hungry and needed somethin’ to eat was all.
“Mister Luvian says, ’What’s your name?” I told him the orphanage headmaster had called me Nick, for Nickolas. So Mister Luvian brought me back to the brewery and gives me some bread and some stew and says I can earn an honest wage working for him doing odd jobs about the place and that I can stays there. But that the instant as any single thing, a copper chip, a goblet, a fork, anything goes missing, or his patrons suddenly can’t find something they walked in with, he will deliver me into the Guard’s hands by the back of the neck personally.
“Me, I figure, I got me a warm place to sleep, three squares a day if I wants them, easy work, it don’t get much better. And them girls is sweet lasses, I keeps an eye out for ’em when they leaves the brewery just to make sure they’re safe. But I also have an arrangement with Mister Luvian too. He ain’t stupid, he told me once. He says he knows I’m probably up to things he don’t want to know anything about. But that that might work for him, because if I know the bad sort of folks in Fairview, and they comes into the brewery, I can just lets him know, and they’ll be escorted out. That way, ain’t no villains and scum in his place of business and the brewery would be known as a reputable and safe place to go.
“And that’s what I do for Luvian. But you – I sees you about, Mister Ronnie. Not as innocent as I thought at first. Couldn’t believe mine eyes, I thought when I saw ya down by the docks one night.
“And Mister Ronnie, I give you credit, you’re good – but what I ain’t never figured out, is what you’re doin’ hittin’ that bloody anvil. I watched ya for a while, tryin’ to figure ya out, an’ you was all respectable, nice, all-around apprentice from down the block, but I never did get a take on ya. So, I gave up. Imagine my surprise to see you in here tonight. Thievin’, Mister Ronnie? I wouldn’t a’ taken ya for a thief. Or was you just followin’ me?”
Ron had listened with some interest to Nick’s story, but kept in mind that the story was nevertheless a deflection from the original question. To keep from giving information away, you can do a number of things, he thought, anger, enamor, flatter, frighten, tell a story – as Nick had just done – deflect with another question, even change the subject if possible. Some people are even able to feign illness – coughing, sneezing, fainting, fits.
“Nickolas, I do believe you and I may be of use to each other. You know I am more than I seem. You’ve been quite straightforward about your many uses and talents. I suggest we trade information.” Ron let his suggestion trail off to see Nick’s reaction.
“Hmmm.” Nick stroked his chin thoughtfully. “The idea has possibilities, it does. You tell me your contact.”
Ron snorted. “After you.”
“Hmmm. It seems, then, Mister Ronnie, that we are at an impasse. It was a good idea, though.” Nick started walking toward the window they’d both entered in.
Not only could Ron not afford to let Nick tell his contacts about his identity, and even break his cover, but Ron could not risk his own identity being discovered.
“I suggest you reconsider.” He stood in front of the window.
Nick stared at him. “And why is that, Mister Ronnie?”
“For starters, I can go through all of the entirety of South Fairview, up right into Chandler Street. Any lock I find that has been ‘picked,’ will be replaced by the very best locks for free by Master Cradwick himself. In the interest, of course, of neighborhood safety and community.” He watched Nick’s face change. “That’s an awful lot of locks, Nick. What say you now?”
Nick’s eyes narrowed. “Fine.” He scowled.
Ron smiled. “To the future exchange of information.”