As I noted in a post on the first of this year, I recently came across a day journal belonging to Ethan Kaille, thieftaker and conjurer, whose many adventures in Colonial Boston are the subject matter for the upcoming Thieftaker books (beginning with Thieftaker, book I of the Thieftaker Chronicles). As I expected, the journal has made for fascinating reading. It has told me much about Ethan’s explorations of the dark underside of Boston in the 1760s, and has even provided some insights into Kaille’s strange magical powers. In the last few days I have come across a series of entries from this very week in 1765, when Ethan looked into a minor mystery in his neighborhood in the South End. I offer the first of his entries today, as it was dated 30 January 1765. I will share with you the other two entries as this week progresses.
Wednesday, 30 January 1765
Today, while enjoying a bowl of chowder at the Dowsing Rod, I was approached by a older man, a baker, who owns a shop back here in the South End on Tanner’s Street not far from my own residence on Cooper’s Alley. He gave his name as Roger Bell, and indicated that he wished to hire me to investigate a series of thefts that have plagued him and his wife for a number of weeks now. He seemed to know a good deal about me — he knew enough to find me at Kannice’s establishment, and he made a point of mentioning straight off that his shop was near my home. I suspected that perhaps Sephira Pryce had sent him to me, perhaps as a ruse.
It quickly became apparent to me, though, that if Sephira did send the man my way, it was not out of malice or conniving, but rather out of her own lack of interest in this particular client.
As Bell himself made clear, this was not an inquiry that promised to make me a wealthy man.
“My wife and I have little, Mister Kaille,” he said, his voice trembling, his rheumy eyes shining with the inconstant light of the fire in the tavern hearth. “I can’t pay you more than a few shillings.”
I told myself that a few shillings were worth more than nothing at all, but I have to admit that I was swayed as well by the man’s obvious concern for his own livelihood, which he indicated was under threat. I bade him tell me more.
“We have been robbed,” he said. “Not once, or twice, but at least a dozen times. Bread has been taken from us, as has raw dough. We have lost filled pastries, pies, cakes. All that you can think of, these rascals have taken, and more.”
“You say this has happened often?”
He nodded. “They never take all that we have, but they take enough that we are losing money hand over hand. It cannot go on much longer.”
With no fixed pattern as to what was taken, and with the thefts recurring at irregular intervals, I suggested that perhaps some creature was stealing into their shop at night — one of the feral dogs or cats that live in the city streets, or perhaps even rats. But Bell assured me this was not the case.
“My wife and I have considered that,” he said. “We have a lock on the door, and have made sure that the windows and walls are all sound.” He scowled, glaring at the fire. “No this is being done by someone, a demon perhaps, a servant of the devil walking among us. But it is no beast. Unless there are beasts abroad in the streets that can overmaster tumblers in a locked door.”
I suppressed a smile at this harangue, knowing that it didn’t take a demon to steal food in times like these, when coin was hard to come by and winter’s hard gales rattled doors and windows, but knowing as well that it wouldn’t do to make the man feel that he was mocked.
“I’m a thieftaker,” I told him instead. “I return stolen items for a fee. Clearly in this case there will be nothing to return, even if I can catch your thief.”
“I know that, Mister Kaille. If you can find the rascal and turn him over to Sheriff Greenleaf, that will be enough for me. Or failing that, deal with him yourself. Anything, just so long as these filchings end.”
“I could tell you I’ve done that, get you to pay me, and then a week from now, when the rook comes back, you’ll be worse off than you are now.”
He shook his head at that. “I’ve heard about you,” he said, earnest and grave. “You’re an honest man. When you tell me you’ve helped us, it’ll be the truth.”
Moved by this, I told him that I would take on his inquiry for two shillings six as a retainer, and three and six more when I finished.
Bell agreed, paid me in coin and left the Dowser.
And now here I sit, wondering how I might be able to find his thief without involving the good sheriff. It’s not that I don’t trust Greenleaf. Well, yes it is. But I also know the man too well. He’d be just as happy to hang a hungry cove as he would be to hang me for a witch. I’d rather not give him the opportunity to do either. The question is, can I earn Bell’s three and six and justify the baker’s trust in me, without giving the sheriff the chance to use his trusty noose?